A new identity for Ramses Square
Will a new scheme to redevelop Cairo's Ramses Square put an end to its present traffic chaos, asks Nevine El-Aref
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The controversial new design of Ramses Square promises solutions to traffic problems and the different forms of pollution
Three years ago when the magnificent red granite statue of the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II made its way to its new home at the planned Grand Egyptian Museum overlooking the Giza Plateau, the fate of Ramses Square, where the statue had stood for more than five decades, was not really known. However, rumours were doing the rounds in the media to the effect that the 116 square-metre lot where the statue had stood since 1954 would be sold to a private company that wanted to set up a large investment project.
Some also expected that the name of the square would be changed to Mubarak Square, in order to match the name of the metro station beneath it. Yet, what actually happened was beyond all expectations, since the square was in fact divided into several sections. The area that had once housed the statue was planted with grass and trees and completed with wooden seating, while streets surrounding the square were closed off and the traffic on others redirected.
These developments represented a vast improvement to the notoriously chaotic square, but they were only a temporary solution to the square's problems until a complete scheme could be drawn up to re-conceptualise the square and put an end to one of the most chaotic areas in Cairo. Meanwhile, Ramses Square continued much as it had always been, with some 300,000 pedestrians and nearly three million cars and microbuses traversing the square every eight hours.
Few people followed the traffic regulations; microbus drivers continued to pick up and drop off passengers in the square and not at the dedicated stations; pedestrians crossed the street wherever they could rather than using the underground tunnels or pedestrian bridge provided for them. Sometimes they even jumped over the barriers in the middle of the traffic in order to reach the railway station on the other side. In 2007, a parking garage was built in front of the train station in order to use the vacant lot, but this $5.8 million structure was later torn down, with no one thus far having been held accountable for the loss of public funds.
In 2008, the National Organisation for Urban Harmony (NOUH) launched an international planning and architectural competition for the design of Ramses Square under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture. The idea was to produce a master plan for the square that would also be part of a larger vision for the Cairo city centre. According to the competition's terms of reference, the master plan would also need to make the best use of empty buildings and other properties and open spaces around the square.
Following examination of the 34 schemes submitted to the competition's jury, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif announced the three top winners in the middle of last month. The Bureau egyptien de conseils techniques (BECT) in cooperation with the French architectural office AREP won the first prize of $100,000 for its solution to the square's traffic problems, confusion of uses and various forms of pollution, whether aural, visual or environmental. The Irish company Quilligan Architects won the second prize of $75,000, and a Turkish architectural group represented by Nimat Aydin won the third prize of $50,000.
Today, the art museum at the Cairo Opera House grounds in Gezira has been temporarily converted into a showroom for each of the winning competitors to display their plans for Ramses Square in the form of models, three-dimensional renderings and computer mock-ups.
According to architect and urban planner Omar El-Husseini of BECT-AREP, his company's plans not only aim to redesign Ramses Square, but also to eliminate its chaotic traffic and make it more traffic and pedestrian friendly. "This will be implemented through focussing on three elements," El-Husseini said, emphasising that putting an end to the traffic congestion in the square, particularly in the Ghamra, Ramses and Shubra areas, was the scheme's main aim.
A second aim of the scheme was to reduce the visual pollution that was destroying the atmosphere of the square, El-Husseini said. When Ramses Square was drawn up during the reign of the Khedive Mohamed Ali, El-Husseini said, a decision had been taken to develop a park in the area, but this park had since turned into the traffic congestion we know today.
"Removing the 1.3km-long section of the 6 October flyover connecting Ghamra to Al-Asaaf will reduce the visual pollution, as will removing the pedestrian bridges and the neglected building belonging to the railways authorities in the square and presently used as storage spaces and workshops," El-Husseini said in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly. Removing these things will restore the square's visual connections with the surrounding areas, he said, which have been submerged for years under flyovers and ugly buildings.
The third goal of the scheme, El-Husseini said, is to convert the newly freed-up area, some 18 feddans of space, into a leisure zone for the area's inhabitants. The area would be divided into two parts, the first of which would be a two-feddan area set aside for retail and other activities. The second area, the remainder of the 18-feddan space, would be turned into an urban park complete with a lake, restaurants and an activity area for children. The concept is designed to create "a second lung for Cairo similar to the Al-Azhar Park. However, there will also be a little twist in the architectural design, in order to fit the area in with the square's original style," he said. The whole of Ramses Square would be a pedestrian zone.
Anyone visiting the exhibition and listening to El-Husseini's ideas may well wonder how drivers will make their daily trips from Giza to Heliopolis if the 6 October flyover is severed. The answer is that under the new scheme the traffic that currently takes the flyover will take an underground tunnel dug under the square. Cars, taxis and buses coming from Giza would continue their trip via a tunnel as soon as they reach Al-Asaaf, and they would retake the 6 October flyover after they had crossed Ghamra. The development will also reduce the 12 metro entrances currently scattered across Ramses Square into one large entrance.
According to Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni in a statement made immediately after the winning designs had been announced, the first winner was carrying out feasibility studies in cooperation with the ministry in order to implement the project, which is scheduled to take three years to complete. "The redevelopment of Ramses Square will be a pilot project for the redevelopment of other squares in Egypt, including the Ataba and Opera Squares in Cairo," Samir Gharib, head of the NOUH, told the Weekly. He described the project as a "mega project" that would need the cooperation of everybody to implement.
Some Egyptian engineers and urban planners have questioned the use of foreign architects and planners in the project, asking whether these foreign experts will be able completely to understand local needs. In reply, El-Husseini said that such foreign experts were not working alone, and that the Egyptian company was "working hand in hand with our French colleagues, as it is a joint-venture project". He added that, "our French partners are helping us to find the most efficient solution to reducing the suffering of people and drivers in the square, but we are handling the project from an Egyptian perspective as we are the only people who know Egyptian tastes," he said.
Commenting on the project, Egyptian architect Mamdouh Hamza said that he was happy about the removal of a section of the 6 October flyover, as he considers it was a mistake building this even at the time of construction. Excavating a third traffic tunnel between the two existing tunnels used by the Cairo metro would not lead to ground instability, he said. "Nothing has happened on the surface since the construction of the Al-Azhar tunnel, though this was also built next to a large existing facility," Hamza said.
People using the square, however, are rather more sceptical. According to primary school teacher Mona Abdel-Hadi, speaking to the Weekly, since 2003 several attempts have been made to develop the square and to make it more traffic friendly, but nothing has happened. On the contrary, problems have become worse and the traffic congestion has gone from bad to worse, she said. "I hope that the new plan will not block the square more than it is already during rush hours," she said.
However, even so most of those the Weekly spoke to were happy to admit that something needed to be done to improve conditions in the square. "I feel lost whenever I step into the square," said Ali Mabrouk, a government official who works in Zagazig and comes to Cairo from time to time on official business. "Sometimes I feel that nothing has changed in Cairo except in Ramses Square, because whenever I enter it I find that the direction of the traffic has been changed."
Sami Suleiman, a construction worker, said that he hoped that the new scheme would discourage aggressive microbus drivers, who currently use the square as if it were their own private property. "Microbuses are an important means of transportation, but they are also the main cause of traffic problems in the square because they stop anyway and everywhere to drop off and pick up passengers. They also create a vast amount of noise pollution, always blowing their horns. Sometimes I feel as if I am about to have a nervous breakdown after crossing the square," Suleiman said.
Many other people besides Suleiman also support the proposed development. Nagwa Zaki, a housewife, said that though she did not work outside the house and therefore did not have to face the daily chaos of Ramses Square on her way to work, she did have to collect her children from school a block away from the square. "Driving through the square and along Ramses Street is like walking a tightrope," Zaki said, explaining that she not only has to try to avoid drivers who do not follow the traffic regulations, but she also has to look out for pedestrians who cross the street as if they were walking across a corridor in their own homes.
Hossam Abdallah, an engineer in a well-known company, said that he was totally behind the development. However, "will the proposed tunnel ease the traffic congestion, or will it be like the Al-Azhar Tunnel during rush hours?"