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5 November 2014 / NHamilton

Cairo from Below – NYC Event – Thursday Nov 6


Cairo from Below is holding a special event this Thursday November 6th to celebrate the launch of our publication “Our Urban Futures – Ideas Competition” and announce a second ideas competition!  The event is open to all (over 21), please join us and spread the word among those in NYC who have an interest in urban development and Cairo.

New: we are honored to be joined by special guests Janice Perlman and Jacqueline Klopp. Janice Perlman is Founder & President of the Mega-Cities Project, author of the recent publication, Favela  and groundbreaking leader in issues of urban poverty since introduction of The Myth of Marginality: Urban Politics and Poverty in Rio de Janeiro in 1976.  Jacqueline Klopp is the Associate Research Scholar at the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, the author of many publications on urbanization and politics in Kenya and a key collaborator on the Digital Matatus project, a first of a kind initiative to map the informal transportation system for millions of Nairobi residents.

Cairo from Below is thankful to be collaborating and co-hosting Thursday’s event with NYC’s Urban Sustainability Meetup’s Happy Hour event, which aims to bring together urban enthusiasts from all over NYC for a few hours of brainstorming, knowledge sharing and networking. Come connect with people passionate about Egyptian urban development, get a copy of Our Urban Futures publication, and support the upcoming Cairo from Below competition.

Please register on the meetup page and be sure to like us on FB and follow us on twitter.

Donations to Cairo from Below will be accepted but are not required.

When: 6:00 to 8:00 PM Thursday, November 6th, 2014

Where: Three Sheets Saloon  (upstairs now downstairs), 134 W 3rd St, New York, NY 10012

(b/t Avenue Of The Americas & Mac Dougal St), Greenwich Village

Look for event hosts: Nick Hamilton, Heba ElGawish and Liz Marcello.

29 October 2014 / marouhhussein

CFB News: “Our Urban Features- Ideas Competition” Publication Launch Party

CFB and the NYC Urban Sustainability Happy Hour are holding a special event Thursday November 6th!  The event will be held to celebrate the launch of our publication “Our Urban Futures – Ideas Competition” and an announcement of the second ideas competition.

NYC’s Urban Sustainability Happy Hours aim to bring together urban enthusiasts from all over NYC for a few hours of brainstorming, knowledge sharing and networking. Come connect with people passionate about Egyptian urban development, get a copy of Our Urban Futures publication, and support the upcoming competition.

Donations to Cairo from Below will be accepted but are not required.

When: 6:00 to 8:00 PM Thursday, November 6th, 2014
Where: Three Sheets Saloon  (upstairs), 134 W 3rd St, New York, NY 10012

(b/t Avenue Of The Americas & Mac Dougal St), Greenwich Village

Look for event hosts: Nick Hamilton, Heba ElGawish and Liz Marcello.


20 October 2014 / NHamilton

CfB News: A Second Ideas Competition, Cairo from Below Publication, New Co-Director Heba ElGawish

The Cairo from Below team has some exciting news to share with you and a special request!

Our Urban Futures - Ideas Competition Publication

Our Urban Futures – Ideas Competition Publication

Our Urban Futures – Publication

We are publishing the results and discussion of the process from the Cairo from Below “Our Urban Futures” ideas competition.  Very soon you will be able to download a PDF of our publication for free or purchase a hard copy on Amazon for only $10.00 USD.  This volume explores the ideas for urban transformation held by young professionals and urban advocates in Egypt. These pages document the process and ideas generated through Cairo from Below’s 2013 “Our Urban Futures” Ideas Competition. The entries range from pragmatic to fanciful. Some are based upon a close read of site-specific context while others are more conceptual and aimed at challenging convention planning paradigms. Together they are a testament to the creativity, talent and passion of many young Egyptians who dare to imagine a new urban future.  Political developments in Egypt continue to remind us of the critical importance of robust institutions and civic capacity. We hope this competition inspires others to initiate their own projects that encourage debate, develop creative ideas and build capacity.

Our Urban Futures Ideas Competition

Our Urban Futures Ideas Competition

A New ‘Our Urban Futures’ Competition

We are gearing up for a second competition and would like to get your feedback on ideas and themes.  What urban challenges facing Cairo/ Egypt should the competition address?  What did you like about the first competition and what would you prefer be modified?  Please share with us any ideas about how to make this competition most impactful.  You can make suggestions via comment feature below, on our facebook page or send us a suggestion via twitter @CairofromBelow with hashtag #oururbanfutures.


Welcome to new Cairo from Below Co-Director Heba ElGawish

Welcome to new Cairo from Below Co-Director Heba ElGawish

A Welcome to Heba ElGawish, our new Co-Director

Allow us to introduce our new Co-Director, Heba ElGawish. Heba got involved with Cairo from Below as a competition participant with her “Cair-Vélo” submission, check out a blog post on her entry here.  A Cairo native herself, she has a bachelor degree in Architecture from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Alexandria, and  is now studying in NYC for her Master’s degree in Urban Design at NYIT.

Heba has been actively involved since the first Our Urban Futures competition and has been a core contributor ever since, adding her expertise and ideas in the design of Cairo from Below’s activities notably the editing and formatting of the Our Urban Futures competition publication for publication via Amazon.  Heba is interested in designing healthy communities and believes that the impact the built environment has on our health can be a positive one!

13 July 2014 / dkardo

Why Loiter?

This post was originally published on FAVEL issues, a blog on urban informality and urban development. CairofromBelow thanks FAVEL issues and author Anna Wachtmeister for sharing with us!
Composer1 *

Why Loiter? (1) 

I love to loiter (being in a PUBLIC space without a purpose) but instead I often find myself walking through the city. Loitering is only possible when I am a 100% comfortable. As an independent, determined and curious woman I take my own risks and make a point of walking at will through all cities I encounter. Drifting (walking through public space without a purpose) is usually possible, but not always and it is definitely not for all. Far from every woman has the right to take their own risks, and women more than men seem to need a reason to be in a public place.  Worse still is that women, instead of the perpetrator, are more than often blamed if something happens. “What was she doing there at that hour?” “Didn’t you see what she was wearing, no wonder!” (2)

Why I love to Loiter, Drift and Loose myself to the City

To begin with, I get great enjoyment from wonderingly wander through the streets. My senses peeled to grasp the overall ATMOSPHERE. My seeing, hearing and smell register my surrounding, the built, the invisible and the doings of the people, animals and systems within it. As I let go and I give myself over the city, my bodily levels of awareness rise due to the excitement of the looming adventure.

Secondly, my heartfelt autoethnographical APPROACH to practice means that the raw and unedited experiences I have while meandering through the cities are my largest informants. By drifting I allow the city to get under my skin to enlighten my urban practice. Not only does it allow me to ponder over what I could mean for a city’s development, my bodily and sensory levels of awareness guide my professional decisions.

But in post – earthquake Port au Prince, we were restricted by our employer from walking on the streets as part of a security protocol we had to follow. Ironically the situation made me feel very insecure as I became reliant on other people driving me through the city. This way the city could not host me and we remained unknown to each other. MORE significantly, how could I support the reconstruction efforts of the city when I had no access to it?

Drifting as a Practice in Urbanism

In addition to have been given the right to take my own risk, while studying architecture, I was thoroughly schooled in the theories of the stroll, the dèrive, transient walks, … with the Situationalist International (Guy Debord), Stalker, and Michel de Certeau, etc as our mentors. We were actively encouraged, even required, to map the city through walking for hours and at any hour of the day or night.

CHOOSE to evaluate my presence in the city rather than constructing a professional distance. As someone for whom displacement and travel is the norm, I try to deliberately focus on my presence rather than focus on my temporality as maybe a tourist to the city would. My way to get intimate with the city is to stroll indiscriminately through every part of it without any particular reason except to get close.

The spaces we inhabit are constructed; people make spaces as much as spaces makes people (3) and women are particularly affected in the way they are connected to the bodies we inhabit. Men and women experience places differently, making spaces integrally gendered. (4)

The Required Tools

Even though I might meander more comfortable than other women into ‘male spaces’ and will make a point of not being restricted, I need tools to do so, just like all women have their ways to deal with this inequality.

In Kurdistan where women had little access to the PUBLIC domain, women had crafted an accepted way of loitering on their street. Here women would appear from behind the tall walls and stand just in front of the gate with the hosepipe. They disguised their loitering with the important task of ‘watering the street’ in order to keep the desert dust at bay. Then they watered the street for a long time.

Even with my advantages (able bodied, willing, backed by my culture / theories), I too had to develop tools to be able to (semi) comfortably drift through any city. Different tools are developed to redress the limitations of the various societies that I find my self in.

If I feel unsafe while drifting, I slow down and home in on someone who I feel I can trust who in turn MORE than often would screen the situation for me. Then advice me ‘Don’t walk down that street!’ I rely on the others to look out for me. On the contrary I have also become very good at still engaging with the urban situation while looking straight through the people that I don’t like the look of.

I find that discretion can open many doors and therefore I often CHOOSE to adhere to purdah. These are the religious and social practice of female seclusion, prevalent in the conservative cities of Erbil and Cairo where I have lived. I would hide my female body’s shape with modest clothing, but as ‘a 3rd gender’ (a foreign women), the physical segregation didn’t always comply allowing me to enter both female only and largely male spaces.

Fancy a Walk?

Walking engraves the city over and over again, often in insubordination of established urban order. The Situationalist International’s critiqued the dehumanized capitalist city through the every day act of walking. This act of appropriation leads to change. Just like in the call for re-imaging the city for children in the post of Juan Manuel Restrepo , can you re-imagine your city with women walk down any street in the world for no other reason than pleasure and then relaxingly loiter at any street corner they encounter all by themselves. If it cannot be imagined, it is not realisable: so lets dream a little!


(1)  While drifting through Chennai last week, i read the BOOK ‘Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets’ by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade, Penguin Books India, 2011.  It inspired me to writing about women and being a women.

(2) ‘Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets’ by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade.

(3) Henri Lefebvre, The production of space, 1974

(4) Grosz 1995, Massey 1994, Rose 1993, Spain 1992


2 April 2014 / dkardo

Water Security and Rural Sanitation in Egypt, A Revolution Awaits its Hero: Current Status Part 2




NOTE: This is the second part of a 2-part post. For your reference, here is the author’s first post: Part 1




There are two different approaches to solving the rural sanitation issue in Egypt are that are being introduced.  The first is the traditional service clustered sanitation system. This strategy depends on planning as a basis to specify how to implement the aforementioned seven tasks and hence achieving the goals. This will be done by dividing rural Egypt into sanitation service clusters(SSC), defined from both geographical and institutional prospective as follows:

Geographical Prospective: SSC is a geographical area including a group of villages, which the planner makes sure is the optimum solution from technical, economic, environmental, and institutional points of view.

Institutional Prospective: SSC is an administrative unit of rural wastewater sector, which is a part of the organizational structure of HCWW companies. This approach ensures the provision of integrated services and hence achieving objectives of this strategy, since it realizes both a technical and an environmental dimension. By establishing a system that accommodates wastewater collected from sewered villages, to be treated in a central treatment plant. This plant would be able to receive the four possible types of polluted water that be generated from unserved villages. Since failure in solving the rural solid waste problem may lead to a shortage to achieve or not achieving the main objectives of the rural sanitation strategy; this strategy should accommodate solid wastes.

The second approach is the unclustered, decentralized sanitation approach. It was revealed that isolation of existing initiatives and lack of commitment by government agencies are significant factors preventing wide-scale replication. None of the approaches tested so far have been institutionalized. So far, the sector is in a vicious cycle as isolated initiatives remain prototypes and, as such, are not cost-effective, do not receive the attention required, are considered too expensive and/or prone to failure, and therefore are not replicated. It is clear that HCWW and its Affiliates must play a pivotal role in the development and management of small-scale sanitation.

Experience has showed that fully community-based approaches do not work in the Egyptian context. A clear strategy is needed, including other sector stakeholders (Ministries, communities, NGOs, researchers, private service providers). In particular, the solution implies a closer collaboration with the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation (MWRI), a significant stakeholder of rural sanitation that manages both important surfaces of land and receiving water bodies. The strategy should enable the implementation of financial and management schemes, which guarantee full-cost recovery. Otherwise, small-scale systems risk not to be maintained properly, as the O&M of big centralized schemes is in itself currently a problem. The only way to proceed until water tariffs guarantee cost recovery is to adapt the legal and regulatory framework to allow tailor-made financing schemes, which may include contributions from concerned communities.

Wide-scale replication implies standardization. In this approach it is recommended to devise & adopt a mass-production strategy for small-scale sanitation and explore the concept of locally produced prefabricated units. Standardization of small-scale sanitation systems is needed to allow economies of scale, reduction of costs, reduction of time needed for project preparation and implementation and increase the infrastructure quality. Quality of the work done by consultants and contractors, as well as delays and cost overruns during implementation, are major issues, which standardization is best able to tackle. Many strongly advocate for the adoption of a business approach and the opening of a market for prefabricated treatment units. Such units could easily be manufactured in Egypt. There is a potentially huge market in the country and beyond. Small-scale sanitation could create a lot of job opportunities in production and implementation. Public-private partnerships (PPP) could be developed to stimulate such a process. A clear governmental strategy and leadership is required to support such a standardization process.

Finally, even if often considered as a must in Egypt, chlorination of the effluent is not recommended at all. It is almost never done properly and leads to environmental damage rather than preservation, in an environment where the quality of the receiving water body is often much worse than the non-chlorinated effluent. What is more, a shortage of chlorine makes it difficult for both water and wastewater plants to meet their supply needs (Chemonics Egypt 2009). Focus on preliminary assessment Thorough preliminary assessments, leading to realistic design parameters, are a key cost-effectiveness factor, as they allow dimensioning as close as possible to the needs. “Soft components” (e.g. preliminary interview of stakeholders and management schemes) must become an integral part of each design.

Animal manure and effluent of dairy factories need to be considered as parts of the sanitation system. In the past, faulty dimensioning of infrastructure, due to the lack of consideration of the actual situation on the ground, has cost a significant amount of money in capital and operational costs, and threatened the replication of small-scale systems. Besides, treatment facilities that are over-dimensioned risk reaching the full life expectancy (especially specific components like pumps) far before they reach their design capacity. Over-dimensioning may also lead to reduced performance. In parallel, a good forward planning is necessary, in order to anticipate future developments and design the system accordingly. It is unrealistic to plan for a 2050 horizon for such small settlements. The development of ezbas is highly heterogeneous and depends on a number of factors that are difficult to forecast, leading to large variations in growth. Modular, flexible systems need to be privileged in order to cope with the high uncertainty of future developments. Realistically, in this context, infrastructure development should be limited to a maximal 15 year planning horizon. However, space for future extension should be planned from the beginning; infrastructure can then be extended when and if needed. Take a look at this clip of the UNDP Lake Manzala Engineered Wetland Project, which investigated the suitability of using artificial wetlands as a low-cost alternative for treating sewage from cities, towns, and villages located on the fringes of the Nile Valley and Delta.

Finally, a long debate is on going between the supporters of both techniques and through different levels. Although, deeper and more extensive comparison must be made in order to pre-select the optimal approach to be implemented nationwide or at least identify the geographical location where each approach could be implemented in needed. Yet, the on-going economic crisis Egypt suffers and the on-going threat to a contest water share of the Nile river should encourage The Government of Egypt, which is increasingly aware of the rural sanitation problem, to immediately be committed to implement a National Program for Rural Sanitation in Egypt, the scale of the program should be national, and program interventions are expected to touch nearly every village and household in the Nile Valley and Delta. A well-conceived strategy based on an informed analysis of problems, participants, objectives, and alternatives is needed to ensure that the limited program resources, plus additional resources leveraged by the program, achieve the program’s objective; as the hazards of this problem do not affect only the environment and public health, but also the objectives of water resources management strategy in Egypt. Such a strategy comprises inclusively strategic tasks relevant to the solution of solid waste problem (domestic wastes and agricultural residues) in villages because solid wastes are currently considered one of the important factors causing pollution of residential areas, agricultural drains, and waterways in rural Egypt. The role of local administration and public private partnership should also be activated.


Ayman Ramadan Mohamed Ayad is an engineer and Water Resources Advisor at National Water Resources Plan (NWRP-CP), and has been involved in the future vision for Alexandria integrated water urban development.  He also teaches  applied hydraulics at Alexandria Universities, and serves as the Egyptian Coordinator for NAYD (Network of African Youth for Development).

3 March 2014 / dkardo

On Ibrahim Mahlab’s Appointment as Prime Minister

Former CEO of construction giant Arab Contractors and official in deposed President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP), Ibrahim Mahlab, has been appointed Egypt’s new Prime Minister by Adly Mansour – the army-appointed president who has been in office since Morsi’s removal in July. This came after interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi resigned last Monday February 24th.

Daily News Egypt

via Daily News Egypt

Mahlab is Egypt’s outgoing housing minister, and given his retrograde stance as housing minister, his record in this role is explored below as an indication of the potential direction he might hope to take the country. According to the Guardian’s announcement of the news, under Mahlab’s watch as housing minister, 1,200 families were forcibly evicted from their Cairo homes, and their houses demolished (Amnesty International cited).

In January, Mahlab “in an attempt to prevent the spread of slum areas and facilitate construction procedures” issued Ministerial Decree 67/2014 to amend Egypt’s Construction Law regarding land divisions. The decree requires only 25% of land area to be set aside for roads and gardens, down from the previous share of 33%. The intentions behind his amendment are meant to ease burdens for real estate developers, and not citizens, falling in line with the status quo under previous administrations. 

Further, at the annual CityScape real estate forum in early February, Mahlab announced that disputes between real estate developers and the New Urban Communities Authority (NUCA) have been settled, with developers being offered a new incentive bundle to facilitate investment in the market.

Mahlab’s actions as Housing Minister appear to echo Mubarak era policies in the housing sector, placing the desire to attract foreign direct investment ahead of much needed substantive reform of the systems that govern real estate development.

Mahlab’s new role as Egypt’s interim Prime Minister may prove to follow suit. It has been reported that while Mahlab would return most ministers to their former posts in the next couple of days, he is expected to stack his Cabinet largely with remnants of the old regime. On Thursday February 27th, it was reported that Mahlab  appointed former finance ministry official Hany Dimian as finance minister in the new government and former technical director of the General Organization for Physical Planning (GOPP) – architects of Cairo 2050 –  Mostafa Madbouly as the new housing minister

What are your thoughts on this topic? Please share your comments and reactions with Cairo from Below in the comments, on Facebook or twitter.

NOTE: for more on Madbouly’s record as housing minister: (Arabic).

20 February 2014 / dkardo

Cairo: The Myth of a City on the Verge of Explosion

Below is a re-post from Jon Argaman originally published on JadaliyyaJon Argaman is a PhD Candidate in political science at the University of Pennsylania. He researches the ways in which city building and questions of urban form emerge as sites of contestation over citizenship and identity. His dissertation research focuses on large planning and building projects in Cairo, Egypt, prior to the 2011 uprising.

Cairo is a crowded city. It is a truism that is easy to find in reportage about the city, which almost invariably begins with a description of Cairo as teeming, noisy, dusty, and polluted. Vendors and parked cars take over sidewalks for lack of space, while pedestrians walk amongst traffic. Shouts and car horns drown out everything else and traffic jams stretch on for miles. Numbers back up the impression: In 2006, just as the a long-term “visioning” exercise known as Cairo 2050 was beginning, the World Bank estimated Cairo’s population density at 37,136 per square kilometer, while CAPMAS, Egypt’s national statistics agency, more recently (2012) had the number at 45,000 per square kilometer, or about one-and-a-half times the population density of Manhattan. The 2008 JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) master plan claimed that, depending on how one defines “Greater Cairo,” it may be the most densely-populated city in the world. It would seem obvious that this level of density is a problem, and that, as Minister of Housing Ahmed al-Maghrabi said a few months before the 2011 uprising began, the city will eventually explode.

[Cairo Traffic. Image by Andy Serrano via]

[Cairo Traffic. Image by Andy Serrano via]

However, the seemingly-commonsense notion that Cairo must be un-crowded if it is to be sustainable, is problematic in two senses: first, there are reasons to be skeptical of claims that Cairo’s degree of population density actually is unsustainable and undesirable; and second, the assumption that Cairo is “too crowded” and therefore its people must be dispersed, allows state officials to disengage from the problems and concerns of the city and the people who live in it. Instead, the discourse around density contributes to and in a sense authorizes often-fantastical plans to colonize the desert.

The Problem of Density

Historically, the question of population density in cities has been Janus-faced: on the one hand, density along with large population size is the commonsense notion of what makes a city a city. It is credited with fostering economies of scale, the exchange of goods and ideas, and cultural dynamism.[1] On the other hand, a dense population was associated with chaos, crowding, dirt, and disease. That duality can still be found in recent discussions of the benefits and problems of urban density. In recent years, researchers have begun to uncover and explore some benefits of a densely-built and inhabited city for facing modern challenges: given basic levels of sanitation and public health infrastructure, denser cities are more productive and, notably, more environmentally-friendly.  However, precisely because basic health and sanitation infrastructure are sub-par in some of the world’s densest cities, density does not correlate especially well with measures of livability. In that sense, Cairo faces very similar concerns as a number of other large cities in the so-called developing world: the question of how to accommodate a large and growing number of people with limited space and resources, and in the face of a changing climate, is a common one, especially in the discourse surrounding “megacities.” One could find similar questions about “sustainable” levels of density, asked in very similar ways, about Dhaka, Lagos, Jakarta, or Delhi. What makes Cairo notable, if not unique, is the large scale and scope of official efforts to reduce its density.

A great deal of research has been done on the impact of neoliberal policies and discourses on Greater Cairo: social and spatial polarization, the rise of gated communities and luxury consumer lifestyles, and the marginalization of a large underclass that had neither the financial nor social capital to “buy in.”[2] It is in that context that the Egyptian state has aggressively promoted channeling Cairo’s “chaos” into new desert communities. Its most recent project, a “visioning” exercise known as Cairo 2050, contained a number of seemingly-fantastical proposals for de-densifying the city, including completely removing whole neighborhoods, replacing them with parks, and resettling their residents in planned communities in the desert. This essay, which is based on my field research on the politics of large building and planning projects in Cairo between August of 2010 and July 2012, examines the internal logic and problematic impact of those efforts.

Cairo Crowded

Planning exercises for Cairo from the last few decades, up to and including the 2050 vision, are preoccupied with density. They are preoccupied with reducing the extremely high population density of Cairo and the Nile Valley, and they are preoccupied with increasing the low population density of the rest of Egypt’s geographical area. The former is seen as an untenable situation and a ticking time bomb, the latter as a waste of perfectly good land. Cairo’s desert New Towns appear for the first time in the 1970 master plan, as a reaction to what the plan characterized as a fast-growing surplus of inhabitants due to rural-urban migration, and a lack of infrastructure, particularly sewage and roads, to serve that population. By the end of that decade, plans had been drafted calling for fourteen new urban centers to be built throughout the country, nearly all in the desert.[3] Rural-urban migration leveled off in the ensuing decades, but Cairo has continued to grow rapidly, and channeling that growth into the desert has been a core element of official plans for the city, and the country, up to the present day.

In a 2006 speech before parliament, now-former President Mubarak referred to desert colonization as Egypt’s “destiny,” a way for the nation to leave its crowded confines and achieve its full potential. He also referred to it as a necessity:

The conquest of the desert is no longer a slogan or dream but a necessity dictated by spiraling population growth. What is required is not a token exodus into the desert but a complete reconsideration of the distribution of population throughout the country.

These claims of necessity seem reasonable on the face of them. Many of the issues of concern that appear in planning documents (traffic, green space, housing capacity, pollution, health, and informality) are density-related. However, population density itself—the sheer number of people and the concentration of them—comes to be characterized as the root problem that needs solving, rather than poor transit infrastructure, poor health and education infrastructure, or housing access.

This is not to say that plans for Egypt in general and Greater Cairo in specific do not call for improvements in housing capacity, access to medical care, number of schools and schoolteachers, etc. All six of Egypt’s five-year plans, as well as Cairo’s strategic plans, dutifully include these points. Rather, they come attached to a framework of rarefaction (i.e. de-densification)—the channeling of virtually all new growth out of the city, and, in the 2050 plan, large-scale removal of citizens already living in Greater Cairo. This push for less density reflects an optimistic view of Egypt’s capacity to spread services over a wide area. There are good reasons to be skeptical of this optimism: Both the World Bank and the GOPP’s own research[4] indicate that Cairo’s population density is actually a mitigating factor in some of the city’s most persistent problems. The road network has a low capacity relative to the volume it has to handle, and public transit options are unequal to the difficult task before them,[5] but high density means that trips will be, in the aggregate, shorter in distance and resource cost than they otherwise might be. Planner David Sims notes that over seventy-five percent of Greater Cairo’s population lives within fifteen kilometers of the city center, and according to a 2000 study, thirty-six percent of all journeys within the Greater Cairo Region were on foot. This relatively high rate of walking, which relieves some of the burden on overtaxed road and transit infrastructure, would not be possible without high densities. Sims also notes that these densities “allow for the very high ridership of public transport systems that guarantees their frequent service and economic viability,” and that a dense, compact city tends to produce jobs and services that people need, in relatively close proximity to where they live.[6]

If the government finds itself struggling to provide services to a population that is still compactly-distributed, it is difficult to imagine providing those same services to a widely-dispersed one, particularly for lower-income residents who would be reliant on public transit in a lower-density setting. And yet, along with the wealthy who seek space and escape from urban problems, it is precisely the very poor who are being targeted for dispersal to lower-density desert suburbs. If the public transit network is currently insufficient for a relatively compact megacity, how will it handle the vastly more complex task of linking up a sprawled one?

A City on the Verge of Explosion?

At a November 2010 presentation at the American University of Cairo—an institution that had itself decamped for the desert in search of open space—then-Minister of Housing Maghrabi was asked that very question. His answer reflected a technocratic enthusiasm: he said that a state of the art combination of highways, buses, light rail, and subway lines would provide ample transportation options, and innovative efforts to bring jobs and commerce to the new desert communities would reduce the need to travel into Cairo in the first place. He had charts and schematics feasibility studies to back his claim. A member of the audience expressed skepticism, noting that these things had been promised for the suburb of New Cairo, where the American University is now located, but few had actually materialized: “There isn’t even anyplace to park, let alone anything else.” Maghrabi responded heatedly, falling back on the claim that even if all the promised amenities had not been completed, the move to de-densify Cairo and channel growth into the desert was nonetheless necessary. “It is true we have put the cart before the horse,” he said, referring to building the suburb without equipping it with sufficient infrastructure, “but that was because we could not afford a horse. But we had to move now. We could not wait five more years, or else Cairo will become impossible.”

That Cairo is unsustainably crowded was a sentiment I encountered many times in the course of field research. It was expressed as an obvious truth, in no need of justification or explanation. Similarly, in every master planning document I have been able to find, “reducing population concentration,” to use the turn of phrase from the sixth (2007-2012) five-year plan, has been asserted as a self-evident good. In interviews, common metaphors used for the city were a dam about to burst (from English interviews), or a bomb (qombela) that is going to explode (tinfeger). The rhetoric of crisis is telling. Considering that it is possible to find statements warning of Cairo’s imminent collapse, in very similar language, from virtually every year since at least the late seventies when Cairo’s population was a fraction of what it is now, such talk implies the possibility of a myth. By myth, I mean not an outright falsehood, but a story about the world repeated again and again until it takes on the character of obvious truth. No doubt a large and growing capital will put further strain on Egypt’s water, food, financial, spatial, and infrastructural resources. But what does it mean for a city to collapse? What does it mean for a city to become impossible?

Indeed, with each of the specific ills said to be caused by Cairo’s large and densely distributed population, the iron link between density and the problem turns out to be untrue, or at least not quite true. Traffic gridlock is bad, but comparable to and in fact slightly better than what would be found in such “emerging global cities” as Bangkok or Mexico City, and in any case density seems to be a mitigating rather than an exacerbating factor (see for instance this World Bank report). It is likewise true that Cairo lacks green space, with roughly 1.65 square meters per capita instead of the WHO’s suggested minimum standard of nine square meters, or the “best practice” standard of twenty square meters commonly used in wealthier countries. However, massive rarefaction is a disproportionately invasive option, if the goal is simply to build more parks. Likewise with schools and medical care: some of Cairo’s densest areas lack enough of both, but if anything, each new school or clinic provides relatively more coverage in a dense area than a sparse one. So why have all plans since the seventies insisted on addressing these problems within a framework of density reduction?

Dirty Slums and Clean Slates

One piece of the puzzle is that some of Cairo’s most densely populated areas are informal and often illegally built neighborhoods, known in Arabic as ‘ashwa’iyyat. Or more precisely, those areas whose densities and crowding are identified as “problems,” such as Ezbet al Haggana or parts of Imbaba, tend to be ‘ashwa’iyyat(highly crowded but higher-status areas, such as Mohandiseen, are not typically characterized as unsustainable in the same way.) The high population densities they tend to have—along with disorder, ugliness, encroachment on scarce farmland, and other criticisms of these areas—are frequently described in official documents and in my interviews as the result of “a lack of planning.” Whether intentional or not, the density-reduction framework allows officials to prioritize large planning and building projects over providing the services that might make existing, but stigmatized, neighborhoods more livable. In this sense, the myth that Cairo is on the verge of detonation is a productive one. If Cairo is too crowded due to lack of planning and the rise of ‘ashwa’iyyat, then, the reasoning goes, planners must come up with a way to un-crowd it. If the root of Cairo’s urban woes is that the city is unsustainably dense, then merely providing services and infrastructure to existing areas is insufficient. In other words, the myth provides justification for the imperative to start over, to avoid dealing with the existing city, which requires a fine-grained understanding of communities and their needs, and instead turn to dreams of building new housing and cities elsewhere.

As one Cairo Governorate planner said in a personal interview, granted on condition of anonymity, “It is as if, every few decades, we declare Cairo’s problems to be impossible, unsolvable, and that the only solution is to start fresh just outside the existing built-up area.” Here, the appeal of the desert becomes evident: it is, or at least seems, empty and infinitely malleable, the perfect canvas for land-moving, water-pumping, solar technology, and other symbols of technological might that states and engineers are fond of deploying. Building in the desert at least seems like a technical problem rather than a difficult and fine-grained social problem, although getting people—particularly the poorer residents of some of the densest informal areas that are seen as contributing the most to Cairo’s crowding—to move to the desert is another story. If society cannot be controlled, the reasoning goes, perhaps nature can.

Conclusion: Perpetuating Inequities Rather Than Addressing Them

This, ultimately, is the political work that emphasis on the “crisis” and “unsustainability” of Cairo’s density does: it enables state actors to disengage with the problems and social inequalities of the city where people live, and instead imagine those people living somewhere else. Such a focus reproduces and exacerbates social inequities: it authorizes a particular kind of solution to Cairo’s problems. Rather than expanding services that can make high-density work, the state promotes sprawl. The well off (voluntarily) decamp from the city and move to new developments that are walled-off, sometimes literally, from the rest of the populace, while some of the city’s poorest are targeted for (often-involuntary, and poorly-compensated) removal to new planned communities.

The impact is even clearer in the context of official plans to transform and settle desert land outside of the Nile valley. Channeling a large fraction of Egypt’s population into the desert over a series of decades is a massive undertaking, and one that has been criticized, feasibility concerns aside, on grounds that it is an attempt to wish away Egypt’s current social reality, and to avoid addressing serious and growing inequality and polarization. Over the course of my research, I heard activists, NGO professionals, housing advocates, academics, and others express many variations on the criticism: “Why is the government pursuing fantasies in the desert when there are so many issues in the already-existing city that need to be addressed?” Density, or more precisely the way in which the discourse about Cairo’s density has been employed, is a key element of the logics of those plans and priorities. Thinking in terms of density—and how to identify and meet priorities for improving the livability of a dense city—provides both a better understanding of official policy and growth strategies, and a crucial part of thinking through alternatives.



[1] See for instance Jane Jacobs, Cities and the Wealth of Nations (New York: Vintage, 1985).

[2] See particularly “Dreamland” in Tim Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-politics, Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); Eric Denis, “Cairo as Neoliberal Capital: From Walled City to Gated Communities”, and Mona Abaza “Egyptianizing the American Dream: Nasr City’s Shopping Malls, Public Order, and the Privatized Military” in Singerman and Amar eds., Cairo Cosmopolitan: Politics, Culture and Urban Space in the New Globalized Middle East (Cairo: AUC Press, 2006).

[3] See David Sims, Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control (Cairo: AUC Press, 2011: Chapter 3.) For discussion of plans and decentralization up to the early 1990s, see UN-HABITAT, Metropolitan Planning and Management in the Developing World: Spatial Decentralization Policy in Bombay and Cairo(1993).

[4] “Tackling the Shelter Challenge of Cities: Thinking it Through Together,” GOPP Presentation at the World Bank, Cairo, April 30, 2007.

[5] Ibid. Also see UNDP “Greater Cairo” Project Document # 00056471.

[6] David Sims, Understanding CairoThe Logic of a City Out of Control (Cairo: AUC Press, 2011: 228.)


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