Missing public space
Cairo's public space is almost nonexistent and traffic is admittedly bad, but common sense
Cairo is abundance. It overflows on so many levels: noise, dirt and people on the one hand, discoveries, history and charm on the other. One thing sorrowfully lacking, however, is public space.
Public space refers to space that is truly open, accessible to all, regardless of background, identity, gender, age or social class. Public spaces are maintained for the good of communities as a service of the state. No fees are levied for entry. Malls do not qualify, as they exist to promote commerce; neither do sporting clubs, as they by definition cater to an exclusive membership; likewise religious spaces. Public space most often refers to parks, gardens, boardwalks and public squares. But not all public spaces need to be outdoors: public libraries are a good example of indoor public space.
Cairo is somewhat unique in its lack of public space. Around the world, public spaces are woven into the very fabric of successful urban centres. Those who witnessed the inauguration of US President Obama several days ago will have noticed the millions of citizens who were accommodated into one of Washington DC's main axes of public space, the National Mall. European cities are full of gardens and parks; in America, cities are ranked by the amount of public space they maintain per citizen, and city administrators vie to do well by this account. Nor is commitment to public space restricted to the first world: New Delhi, India, and Havana, Cuba, as two examples, maintain extensive public space within the urban core, and have a similar socio-economic -- and in the case of India, a similar demographic -- profile to Egypt.
Public spaces play an important role in the successful functioning of society. They provide citizens a social outlet, and the ability to interact with others in their community outside of the home. They relieve the tension of cramped living quarters, and provide urban apartment dwellers with the space needed to connect, pursue recreation, and relieve stress. Public spaces, in which everyone is equal, bring communities together. In a sense, they act as the soul of a society. Public space, as it is a shared resource, maintained for all and enjoyed by all, brings out the best in us and connects us to one another.
Egypt in general, and Cairo in particular, has very little that can truly be considered public space. Some of the population has access to private sporting clubs, which can provide an alternative to public space in club membership. While some public spaces still remain in Cairo, many in Zamalek, entry fees cordon these spaces off to many. And Egypt's coastlines are rapidly moving in the same direction: to find a public beach between Agami and Marsa Matrouh on Egypt's north coast is increasingly challenging.
This was not always the case. Cairo in its not-too-distant past maintained admirable amounts of public space. The Azbakiyya Gardens, for example, which shared the same architect as Paris's Bois de Bologne, was only recently paved over and used to provide Cairo's population with an urban lake. Cairo's Mamluk rulers sought to ensure their legacy by building elaborate funerary complexes that resemble today's community centres, including a school, a hospital and a mosque. Likewise, the grand Mamluk avenue, Bayn Al-Qasrayn, provided ample space for thousands to gather and to enjoy a variety of public spectacles. Cairo's shrinking commitment to urban public space is a new -- and disturbing -- phenomenon.
To be sure, maintaining public space in crowded urban cores, with many competing demands for real estate and investment, is difficult, and in this way Egypt is no different from many similar countries. Public space is expensive and difficult to maintain. In the face of intense competition for limited governmental budget, open spaces often get knocked down the priority list. Similarly, public spaces inherited from prior generations, particularly those in urban areas, often fall prey to greed and administrative corruption in view of the financial value derived from their development. Because public spaces exist for the good of citizens they are more commonly found in societies governed by highly participatory democracies. Societies where leaders are less accountable to the people naturally exhibit less commitment to public space.
But there are also some more uniquely Egyptian obstacles to public space. One of these is a lack of awareness of the role of public space in societies. In the new residential communities springing up around Cairo, developers are quite sensibly restricted in the number of homes they can build by the requirement to maintain a certain amount of open space. Rather than develop parks or community land, however, the most common way to fulfil this requirement is by developing golf courses. These certainly look nice on marketing materials for the compound, but they hardly provide an egalitarian gathering place for the community as a whole. Likewise, during the debate several years ago about a proposal to transform some of the Gezira Club and Reaayet Al-Shabab in Zamalek into a shopping centre, some of the well-connected proponents of the scheme made the case that this would be a much better use of space than the current "wasted" space provided by these clubs.
Similarly, Egypt suffers from a fear of the truly public. The rush towards gated communities on Cairo's outskirts is fuelled in part by the wish to select one's neighbours, and by definition exclude certain elements of society. It is assumed, perhaps with good reason, that public space would become immediately overrun on account of the sheer demographic pressure that it would attract. Similarly, also for good reason, women assume they cannot freely access public space on account of the harassment they might encounter. As a result, the sense of shared obligation towards community has broken down. In the place of community, every family fends for themselves. Watch how Cairenes litter from their cars, or allow their apartment building to decay in spite of the orderliness of each individual unit. These are signs of a decline in importance of the communal at the expense of the personal.
These obstacles can surely be overcome. India's urban centres are often more impoverished and more crowded than Egypt's, yet they have maintained much more extensive public space. A famous joke during the time Sadat ended with the derisive punch line, "What, do you think I'm an Indian?" If India can do it, Egypt surely can as well.
There are many signs for hope. The Aga Khan Foundation is spearheading impressive redevelopment efforts in the Darb Al-Ahmar district at the foot of the Citadel. In these communities, public spaces are being developed into the fabric of communities with the assent of those communities. The Mubarak administration has signalled a commitment to public libraries, and several beautiful libraries exist around Cairo. The streets around the stock exchange downtown have been restricted to pedestrians, and Cairo's master plan calls for the development of many more pedestrian only zones. Alexandria and Marsa Matrouh, likewise, have developed superb corniche boardwalks in recent years. In light of this, the future role for Midan Tahrir should be seen as an exciting opportunity.
Open spaces are a critical component of successfully functioning societies. There is clearly the need for public space in Cairo; as proof, just watch the evening crowds strolling along one of Cairo's downtown bridges, or the families picnicking on the median strip of Orouba Street on the way to the airport. (As an aside, what does it say about a society in which the median strip of the airport road is more beautiful than any public space that most of the population has access to?) What is needed is for Egypt to reaffirm its commitment to its existing public spaces, and build public spaces into its ongoing development.
Cairo's roads suffer from a bad reputation. Yes, traffic is bad. Yes, road conditions aren't great. Yes, the behaviour of Cairo's drivers is erratic. But it could be much worse.
I travelled through Southeast Asia several years ago, and if you ever have the chance to experience traffic there, you'll come home thinking that Cairo traffic is a blessing. For in Cairo, bad traffic means adding 15 minutes, maximum half an hour, onto your travel time, assuming that the delay has not been caused by the entourage of a travelling dignitary, at which point I hope you brought a picnic basket.
But in Bangkok, for example, bad traffic means not moving for several hours. It means never travelling without water, because your thirst may not survive the wait. It means switching off your engine during delays to make sure you don't run out of gas before your wheels have a chance to spin again. Bangkok traffic police are trained in assisting with childbirth, in case an expectant mother happens to get stuck at the wrong time. In Bangkok, traffic is stacked up on several different levels, thus leaving downtown more of an ugly tribute to the automobile, rather than a graceful gathering of civilised humans.
However, the fact that others have it worse is no reason to rest on one's laurels and do nothing. And in fact much is being done. Or, this being Cairo, it would be more accurate to say that much that could be done is being studied. Gamal Mubarak's Policy Unit at the National Democratic Party, for example, recently took on this topic and came up with a substantial investment target for what will be required in order to keep Cairo's downtown traffic moving at a stately 15 kilometres per hour. While the required size of this investment may be daunting, and the solutions proposed might be difficult to imagine, Cairenes can take solace in the fact that their traffic is in fact moving. Speak to a commuter in southern California, and they will tell you that 15 kilometres per hour sounds like paradise.
However, many of the solutions being proposed for Cairo's traffic ailments involve infrastructure-based approaches. In recent months, I've heard dizzying accounts of the number of new mehwars, or linking roads, that are due to be constructed parallel to the 26th July Corridor linking Mohandiseen with the Cairo Ring Road and the Alexandria Desert Road. However, an overwhelming amount of international evidence points to the fact that new roads are just another space of tarmac cars can fill. It's like opening up another lane at a crowded passport control. For a moment things fly, until the reality of congestion sets in once again.
While up to date infrastructure is important to any city, seeking its rightful place in a progressive universe, infrastructure must be accompanied by common sense. Implementing common sense is invariably considerably cheaper than infrastructure, and it's often much more effective. With this in mind, I would like to make three suggestions to Cairo's road planners:
1. Get buses and taxis off the roads during pickups and drop-offs. I lived in New Delhi a while ago during a period when people were talking about traffic much in the same way as Cairenes discuss their own traffic. Delays were growing, new infrastructure was immediately inundated, and tempers were rising. A particularly smart traffic planner instituted a radical innovation. Instead of building new roads, he simply built bus lay-bys on existing roads. Furthermore, he imposed stiff fines on buses that chose to pick up or drop off passengers in normal travel lanes. In Cairo, buses and taxis picking up or dropping off passengers in travel lanes create massive gridlock behind them. Road planners will tell you that a single delay can send massive repercussions throughout a traffic system. A bus stopping removes one, if not two, lanes from the flow of traffic. Building lay-bys would be a simple to implement and affordable way to massively ease congestion.
2. Build breakdown lay-bys on enclosed highways. How many seemingly interminable delays on the 6th October Bridge are the result of a single stalled vehicle? Building frequent lay-bys on restricted roadways, especially on raised highways, where broken down vehicles can be pushed to get them out of the travel lanes, would remove one major cause of congestion. Checking up on the health of cars a bit more diligently, to remove from the streets those crumbling Eastern European relics that cannot hope to make it through a Cairo summer, wouldn't hurt either.
3. Build adequate pedestrian crossing infrastructure and enforce pedestrian rules. By pedestrian infrastructure, I don't just mean over or underpasses. These are expensive and tend to go unused. A simple crosswalk, with electronic crossing indicators tied into the traffic light system, will suffice. But infrastructure without enforcement is useless. Whenever I suggest this to a Cairene, they roll their eyes, as if to ask if I've learned nothing in my years in Cairo. This is Cairo, and this is how it operates. But there isn't a single city in the world where traffic flows and pedestrians wander (or scramble) at will. A commitment to improved traffic in Cairo requires a new approach to the relationship between cars and pedestrians.
Cairo's traffic is bad, but many places have it much worse. The next time you're stuck in traffic, just ponder this and you may feel a bit less stress. Much is being done, or considered, to address Cairo's serious traffic challenge in the future. But a little common sense sometime equals or exceeds a lot of infrastructure.
John Harris is a writer living in Cairo.
By John Harris