Smart (Suburban) Growth in Egypt
Since January 25, 2011, Egypt has been spoken about intensely within Middle Eastern and Western media outlets. Despite Egypt receiving a lot of media attention due to politics and its worsening Economy, a major part of Egypt is being ignored. Within Egypt, a country of an estimated 85 million people living on 386,659 square miles – the majority of which is desert land, housing and transportation have become major issues. Unfortunately, not enough attention and work is being put to improve these concerns.
As an American Egyptian, I have had the opportunity to travel to Egypt many times throughout different months of the year. Traveling to Egypt from the United States can be a shock to many people due to the different culture, infrastructure and way of life in Egypt. Throughout my frequent trips I have been exposed to the housing problems that widespread in Egypt, particularly in major cities like Cairo and Alexandria. John Metclafe’s recent article about high rises popping up across Egypt’s desert highlights one strategy that is being used to provide affordable housing for middle and lower class citizens. For many, this can be seen as a positive beginning in resolving overcrowding and maybe even homelessness. However, building towers in the desert is not the answer. Even if the apartments are sold at “affordable” prices, the long-term costs of living on the outskirts quickly add up. Residents in these new developments will be completely reliant on cars or public transportation (if it’s expanded to these areas). Basic needs such as schools, health clinics, supermarkets and even jobs will become long and onerous commutes causing distress for these residents, most of which will be lower class who are barely earning a living from their monthly salaries. Building new communities in desert land outside of cities is unlikely to alleviate these challenges. Rather these projects will serve the opposite ends and become failures if they are not created as dense, urban places with the myriad of mixed uses found in urban neighborhoods. As Egypt is a large energy importer, long term concerns about the cost to a family for gas with which to commute by car could be very significant in the future. These type of developments are likely to make things worse. A recent example of a successful suburban development can be found in Tyson’s Corner, part of the outskirts of Washington DC. While this is a very different (and US-based) context, it shows that the cutting edge of thinking on urban and suburban development isn’t to build new places on desert or farmland in the extreme periphery, rather to redevelop certain low density suburbs into dense, multipurpose communities with housing, jobs and marketplaces all together. This topic is covered in a TED talk (linked here) and book by Ellen Dunham-Jones called “Retrofitting Suburbia” and a related resource is the Sprawl Repair Manual. Common features in this new “smart growth” movement that are appropriate to Cairo is:
- Projects are genuinely inclusive for poorer families
- Development is concentrated around reliable and cheap public transportation (or Transit Oriented Design TOD)
- Mixed Use Development – Supermarkets and workplaces are built on the lower floors of buildings to stimulate economic activity and provide community and so called “eyes on the street” to ensure streets are safe
- Day care centers for working parents
Smart growth in the urban periphery could be a way to provide more jobs and encourage citizen involvement, however, many of the projects proposed for Cairo are just towers in the desert divorced from jobs, transportation and community. The experience of cities around the world that have followed this model of pushing “housing only” to the outskirts has shown that it only decreases congestion for a short period of time, while increasing congestion in the long run: having the opposite of the intended effect: this process is known as induced traffic demand. Moreover, it is very important for the Government of Egypt to get involved in resolving the housing problem in Egypt. The housing department must take serious measures in planning and implementing project plans for at least the next 20-50 years to improve not only the housing crisis in Cairo and other major cities but also transportation and congestion concerns. It is imperative to make any new housing communities inclusive and part of their surroundings. Lastly, land revitalization should be to expand living options, not getaways. Metclafe quotes Alvarez Diestro, “The gated communities are for the wealthy and meant as an escape from Cairo’s congestion and pollution. Putting housing isolated in the desert from jobs, markets and community is likely to further fragments Egyptian society by isolating a part of the wealthy in the desert from the rest of the population living the central areas.” There is already a huge social and economic gap between the wealthy and the poor in Egypt. Building closed off communities will just enlarge this gap and cause more tension in the future.
Sarah Elbery is a recent graduate of Rutgers University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Planning & Public Policy and Middle Eastern Studies. She is currently an MPA candidate at Rutgers University with a concentration in International and Regional Development.