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12 September 2012 / jenbusse

The Not-so-Dark Side of Informal Settlements

City of the Dead (photo by Nick Hamilton)

I was doing some reading about Cairo’s informal settlements recently, and realized something I hadn’t thought a lot about:  We too often emphasize their faults, making it easy to forget that not all is bad in Cairo’s informal settlements.  I got so excited reading about vibrant communities and stories of the resident families that I had to share what I had found.  Even Cairo from Below spends the majority of its energy addressing how to improve very real challenges despite being established, in part, to promote the positives in these communities.  With this post, I hope to also be sensitive to the fact that I must not overly romanticize informal neighborhoods by discarding the realities faced by their residents.

I was particularly inspired by the article written by Julia Gerlach in GTZ’s Cairo’s Informal Areas Between Urban Challenges and Hidden Potentials. Facts. Voices. Visions (p. 35-36), entitled: “Life is Not Always Bad.”  So many of us are quick to believe people living in some of Cairo’s poorest informal areas are destitute and miserable, that we lose site of the importance of community and bonds between people that actually make them happy and even healthy.   Ms. Gerlach uses the City of the Dead, Manshiet Nasser, and Boulaq al-Dakrour as examples.  One physician interviewed who works in a small clinic in the City of the Dead said, “People here may be poorer than in other popular areas, but in fact they seem to be healthier.” It has been well described that close communities are associated with improved health outcomes.

Often, those living in informal areas reside very near to family members and close friends.  One example cited is on Saidi Street in Boulaq al-Dakrour.  Almost everybody there originated from Upper Egypt, many from the same village near Aswan.  One man living in this area was quoted as saying, “If anybody does anything wrong, it will get back to his family,” reinforcing the tight-knit community aspect of his neighborhood.  Everyone is watching out for each other.

Advantages of the informality of building schemes are also cited in the article.  One woman with three daughters and a son explained, “It is not very smart that the rooms are pre-fabricated…We just build according to our needs.”  Some residents have balconies built especially for their animals, while others construct whatever extra rooms they needed off a kitchen to accommodate for a growing family.  For them, it does not make economic or practical sense to spend too much time planning a formally constructed living arrangement that is inflexible and unable to be changed.

I think the reason I was so drawn to this article is because it challenges so much of what we think and hear so frequently about informal areas and how we might “fix” them.  I think we also need to investigate further the important social and economic needs effectively being met by these areas.  While reading the aforementioned article, I couldn’t help but relate the living experiences of those Cairenes to my patients in the South Bronx, one of the poorest communities in the United States.  It is a community made up of close family members and friends who have struggles day to day, but at the same time, there exists a vibrant, thriving community.  Of course there are challenges, but these resourceful neighborhoods have come up with creative and exemplary ways of making their situations work.  These stories are offered as an example to all of us looking to become involved in improving our own cities.

Jennifer Busse RN, FNP-BC, MPH is a family nurse practitioner and specialist in HIV care and prevention, working as an FNP at a Bronx Lebanon Hospital clinic for the underserved. 


Leave a Comment
  1. jenbusse / Oct 5 2012 2:58 am

    Thanks so much for the valuable resources. We will definitely be checking these out. They’re right up our alley. Especially love the idea of the family and child health one!

  2. DORMAN Bill / Sep 13 2012 10:01 pm

    Some years ago, 1987 I think, the late Linda Oldham and her collaborators began a Cairo Paper on the informal housing sector by observing: “The most interesting unanswered question about informal settlements is why many of them are such nice places to live.” However I suspect she was mainly referring to Manshiet Nasser.

    • jenbusse / Sep 14 2012 4:07 am

      Thanks so much for your comment. That is definitely a very intriguing observation, and one that deserves significantly more thought. I’ll be interested to read more about Ms. Oldham’s work.

      • WJ Dorman / Sep 20 2012 10:33 am

        This is the ref: Oldham, L., Hadidi, H. el & Tamaa, H., 1987. Informal communities in Cairo: the basis of a typology, CAIRO PAPERS IN SOCIAL SCIENCE vol 10 no 4, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.

        You might also want to take a look at: Tekce, B., Oldham, L. & Shorter, F.C., 1994. A place to live: Families and child health in a Cairo neighborhood, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.

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