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Cairo 2030

Cairo has arguably grown to become one of the ugliest urban metropolises in the world. Construction gone unchecked in the absence of planning and regulations, and the lack of enforcement of the semblance of regulations that existed, are among the major culprits in what shaped the city we live in today — I wish I could add, ‘and we still love.’ For the few who can afford it, they have fled to the many lush gated compounds on the outskirts of Cairo along the motor beltway. But for the vast majority who still live in the cacophonous metropolis, the city is in dire need of a plan for the future. While there have been commendable efforts to revitalize parts of the old city like al-Darb al-Ahmar, thanks in no small part to the efforts of many who care, as well as support by organizations like the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, there is still no overall vision for the city. At 15-20 million people, Cairo is the most populous capital in Africa and the Arab World, and deserves better.

Regretfully, many Cairenes have come into this world to know the city only as we know it today. One can obviously bemoan the demise of the belle époque of Cairo at the beginning of the 20th century — once a flourishing and beautiful city on the banks of the Nile, in the best tradition of any of its European counterparts. Planned on the ideas of Haussman’s Paris during the reign of Khedive Ismail, with boulevards and parks, the city also developed its own unique architectural style not found anywhere else in the world — a melange of art deco with Pharaonic, and Islamic motifs. One is hard pressed now to see any of this past glory. So, now what?

Alas, an action plan is needed urgently.

The government needs to demonstrate leadership, by stepping up to the plate, and taking ownership of the mess at hand. This is about national pride, and indeed our heritage — once gone, it is irreplaceable. We need to develop a Vision for the City — say, Cairo 2030, we have to start somewhere. Cairo 2030 must be a bold overall strategic and cohesive vision for the city, within the motor beltway and not just the Downtown, addressing issues of planning, growth, transportation, urban development regulations, services infrastructure, but above all education and awareness campaigns. Cairo is expected to be a metropolis of close to 30 million by 2030.

Downtown Cairo would be part of this overall strategy. One effort currently underway by the direction of Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif to the General Organization for Physical Planning (GOPP), is to engage the design services of leading international planning firms to develop ideas for revitalization of Khedival Cairo. While the effort is commendable in its intent, if not part of an overall strategy for the city, it runs the risk of being a singular project, and therefore will merely address the issues in Downtown while displacing the congestion problems, for example, elsewhere. We cannot afford piecemeal solution anymore.

For Downtown, some of the measures that need to be taken to improve the quality of life: limit vehicular circulation in and out of the Central Business District (CBD) ‘west el balad’, designate pedestrian only zones, impose a CBD toll on all private cars accessing the downtown other than public transportation vehicles (not unlike London or Singapore), build public parking structures at key entries into the city (one such structure is already being completed underground in Tahrir Square), and identify locations for development of projects so they do not mushroom on a case by case review and approval basis by a ministerial decree.

Also, create guidelines for the ‘beautification’ of the city, and restoration of our historical architectural heritage and urban landmarks such as parks and public squares, to the extent possible given the years of decay that intervened. Guidelines are being developed by the National Organization for Urban Harmony. These guidelines must address many issues such as public space, pedestrian pavements, use of buildings, and yet must remain flexible enough to allow for creative designs by architects. The Gherkin building in London, and Centre Pompidou in Paris, are but two examples of modern architecture that can harmoniously exist in the middle of an old city fabric.

I prefer to rename this agency the Urban Heritage Protection Agency (UHPA) — to call it what it is, not unlike the Landmarks Preservation Commission created in New York City in 1965 (http://www.nyc.gov/html/lpc/html/about/about.shtml) after the sad demolition of one of its distinguished buildings, Pennsylvania Station in 1963. Let’s not wait for another disaster before we act. Losing the Opera House downtown was enough — and to add insult to injury, it was replaced with a commercial monstrosity that remains standing in what was one of the most important squares in the city. UHPA should not be part of a historicist or nostalgic effort to merely restore every detail of the Downtown, but more of a progressive and comprehensive effort to protect, restore, revitalize and reposition/re-purpose the real estate legacy of Downtown. The city is an organism that must continue to evolve, indeed adapt to all global market forces, and yet remain viable. Its ‘visual memory’ is a reminder of our culture, and where we came from, the legacy of our ancestors.

To be sure, this will not be a walk in the park, the task is a complex one given the density of the population, and the fact that the city is inhabited and not a tabula rasa like many of the cities in the Gulf, like Dubai or Doha.

Action Plan  Planning. Enforcement. Investment. Development.
Regulations are only as effective as how they are enforced. 

Create a semi-governmental corporate body, the Urban Development Corporation (UDC). UDC will be responsible for facilitating the re-development of existing buildings, and mediate between investors, and the city agencies and municipalities, in order to develop projects as part of the Cairo 2030 plan. By creating the right environment for development and restoration, the government creates the right opportunities for investment.

A critical ingredient, however, to the proposed UDC remit is to empower it to be the sole conduit for coordinating the various efforts and agencies to ensure a cohesive approach to implement the vision of Cairo 2030, and, above all, a financially viable approach to development.

The government is not an investor or developer, but it can act as a catalyst by setting the stage for sustainable developments by the private sector. No funding will be required by the government. With well over 15 million people in Cairo, and probably reaching 30 million by 2030, we would all be better served if the government spends its money tackling more daunting ‘hardware’ infrastructure problems, such as public utilities, roads, innovative public transportation systems, and ‘software’ issues relating to education and health. The Private Sector, as is the case in most cities such as London, New York, or Tokyo, will do the rest with clear policies in place, proper planning regulations and tax incentives. 

The government must demonstrate leadership through vision and enforcement, to show its commitment to the people.  Such efforts will go a long way to restore lost credibility by the government, and provide clarity for developers, and architects to shape Cairo 2030.

It is not too late to act, but we must start now, before it is too late.

Header image: Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user gr33ndata

About the Author
Hisham Youssef is an architect at Gensler and is responsible for the firm’s projects in Egypt and North Africa. As a dual Egyptian-US national, he divides his time between New York, Dubai and Cairo. Contact him at hisham_youssef@gensler.com

Reader Comments (3)

great to read articles like this that focus on the big picture and especially the notion of "visual memory", such an important conideration often lost in most dicussions on urbam planning and development...
08.26.2010 | Unregistered Commenterdouglas wittnebel
Very interesting article in yesterday's New York Times on the megacities cropping up around Cairo: http://nyti.ms/diYRyV
08.26.2010 | Unregistered CommenterLeah Ray
Mr. Youssef has it the other way around again and again.
04.23.2012 | Unregistered CommenterAl Stevens

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