Urban Planning in Cairo

Cultural Sustainability for Egypt's Capital

Cairo's inhabitants respectfully call their city the "Mother of the World". The megacity, however, is bursting at the seams and about to explode. Now an ifa Gallery exhibition is showcasing five projects that offer ambitious solutions to the city's problems. Abdul-Ahmad Rashid reports

Cairo's inhabitants respectfully call their city the "Mother of the World". The magacity, however, is bursting at the seams and about to explode. Now an ifa Gallery exhibition is showcasing five projects that offer ambitious solutions to the city's problems. Abdul-Ahmad Rashid reports

'New Cairo City' (photo: www.ifa.de)
"New Cairo City" is an attempt to establish a new city, which will have room for 2.5 million people, to the east of Cairo

​​Almost half of the world's population lives in cities; 15 per cent live in so-called megacities, each of which has a population of more than 10 million. Only four of these megacities – London, Paris, New York, and Los Angeles – are situated in affluent industrialised nations; the rest can be found in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

In view of the population trends in these cities, controlled urban planning is no longer possible. As a result, these metropolises continue to grow unchecked.

Cairo: a sprawling metropolis

One such a megacity is the Egyptian capital Cairo – the "Mother of the World" as its inhabitants respectfully call her. With a population of 17 million, it is the biggest city in Africa. Mother of the World she may be, but she is certainly no longer beautiful and imperious. Every day, endless streams of traffic creep and crawl through the city's streets causing noise and pollution.

People here live cheek by jowl. Despite its large population, however, Cairo is not a big city in terms of surface area. The Egyptian capital measures only 214 km² and is surrounded on all sides by barren desert.

Tamer El Khorazaty is Egyptian and a professor of Urban Planning at Ain Shams University in Cairo. The 48-year-old architect, who lived and studied in Germany for ten years, is certain of one thing: the city on the Nile is bursting at the seams and about to explode. Says El Khorazaty: "Cairo has 28,000 inhabitants per square kilometre. The city is completely chock-a-block. We need a completely new strategy to allow the city to breathe again."

For better homes and a better quality of life

The aim of the "Cairo: building and planning for tomorrow" exhibition, which opened its doors in Stuttgart, Germany, in early September, is to show how this can be done. Iris Lenz, the director of the Ifa-Galerie, says that it was very difficult for the organisers to do justice to a megacity like Cairo in such a small exhibition space.

Cairo at nighttime (photo: Randa Shaath/www.ifa.de)
Despite its large population, however, Cairo is not a big city in terms of surface area

​​This is why the curators had to make a selection. Of the many construction projects that are being implemented simultaneously in the metropolis they eventually chose five. "We wanted to try and filter out those projects that demonstrate what can be done in a megacity with a huge amount of historical buildings that has grown and developed enormously in the 20th and 21st centuries," says Lenz.

To this end, the curators selected five different projects, all of which are being supported by non-Egyptian organisations such as the Pakistani Agha Khan Foundation or the GTZ (the German Association for Technical Co-operation). One of these interesting projects is called "New Cairo City". It is an attempt to establish a new city to the east of Cairo, near the airport.

But this is not the first time that such projects have been undertaken in the Egyptian capital. The satellite cities that were built on the outskirts of Cairo in the 1970s and 1980s look like they came straight off the drawing board and are ever so slightly reminiscent of socialist architecture.

Financial incentives needed

But this is all a thing of the past. Today's builders and planners want to improve people's quality of life significantly. America's major cities serve as models in this respect. The intention is that people work in the centre of the city and live in the suburbs, which offer all the comforts and amenities of modern life.

To make sure that the system works, incentives are needed. After all, real estate in Cairo is expensive. Urban planner Tamer El Khorazaty says that to make it work, the city must launch special programmes. But curator Iris Lenz is critical. In her opinion, for such a life/work model to work in a gridlocked city like Cairo, the necessary public transport infrastructure must be created first.

Cairo's Al-Azhar Park (photo: www.ifa.de)
For today's builders and planners working in Cairo, America's major cities serve as models - the intention is that people work in the centre of the city and live in the suburbs

​​Tamer El Khorazaty sees things differently. He says that plans for regulated commuter traffic are an integral part of the project, but points out that the necessary funding for it is not yet available. And time is running out: the first housing estates in "New Cairo City" are already completed. Construction of the city, which will have room for 2.5 million people, will be completed in 2050.

What worries urban planner El Khorazaty more than the transport system is that the old quarter of Cairo with its many shops and bazaars will lose business and be abandoned in favour of the new shops in the suburbs.

To make sure that this doesn't happen, several specific projects have been launched. One of these projects supports the historic district of Darb Al-Ahmar, one of the poorest and most densely populated districts of Cairo, which is home to a particularly large number of small family businesses.

The aim is to upgrade the district in the near future. Says Iris Lenz: "You have to renovate buildings, restore them, make them habitable. To this end, small loans must be available so that people can actually afford to make these changes."

Construction projects like the ones in Cairo are a rarity in the Arab world, where little value is attached to cultural sustainability. If these projects are implemented in the coming decades and solve the city's problems, they could turn out to be a model for other megacities in the Arab world whose centres are similarly overcrowded and ignored.

Abdul-Ahmad Rashid

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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