Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Two sides of the city

A couple of building experts have a different vision of Cairo in 2020. Dena Rashed gets the best and worst pictures of the capital

Click to view caption
Parts of the Cairo plan in the next 10 to 30 years aim at solving the traffic problem, creating more green spaces, re-planning the Nile Corniche and perhaps moving parts of the cemeteries outside the capitalabove ground metro. The underground metro is expected to cover some areas that are already served by the current on the old street metros.

Cairo is incomparable to any other cosmopolitan city in the world. You fall in love with it at night by the Nile when the streets are quiet, and you hate it when you're stuck in traffic in the 12 rush hours of the day (starting from 8am to 8pm). You admire how its streets reflect history but you can't help but despise how chaotic it has become. You might like the fact that the city is always alive and bustling, but you might wish that you could relax and sit down on a bench in a park for one Zen moment.

Well, after a decade of the public wishing -- some would say wishful thinking -- the government thought it was time to make dreams come true. Almost a year ago it decided on a major plan to revamp the city. The ambitious project is big and stretches to the year 2050. The plan includes new metro lines and two new railway stations in Greater Cairo alone, a redistribution of the city's population, the creation of 50,000 feddans of green space inside the city, and moving industries to the outskirts. The ministry's plan also involves building 14 high-speed roads of 1,000km and redeveloping the area around the Egyptian Radio and Television Building by licensing administrative offices, services and tourist skyscrapers, in addition to redeveloping the Corniche of the city. Part of the scheme includes developing the area around the ministries in downtown Cairo as a cultural district and building underground multi-storey garages to cope with the chronic problem of parking in the capital. Al-Sayeda Zeinab, Ataba, Al-Azhar, Al-Hussein and Abdine neighbourhoods fall under the umbrella of developing historic Cairo and turning them into literal museums.

Also the area of Nazlet Al-Semman will be developed; its 253 feddans will be transformed into an open museum. This is in addition to creating a road that is 600 metres wide and eight kilometres long that stretches along Bolaq Al-Dakrour district to allow for a view of the Pyramids with a 250-metre square park.

Mustafa Madbouli, chairman of the General Organisation for Physical Planning (GOPP) at the Ministry of Housing, Utilities and Urban Planning, tells Al-Ahram Weekly how the plan is coming along. He is the man who believes we should think big and dream of a Cairo that is contemporary and exceptional.

One of the two areas where the planning phase is over is the Corniche from Sawiris towers to the Agha Khan area, with the aim of making it a one- way street and increasing the pedestrian area by the Nile. It is the only area where tall buildings are allowed. "Building is going to be proportionate to the land," Madbouli says. "The maximum building will be 50 floors and it is going to be difficult to construct because then the building is going to be only on 20 per cent of the land. If somebody is building on 50 per cent of the land then he builds 25 floors and the rest is left empty."

The other area that is being planned lies behind the Supreme Constitutional Court, involving the development of Dar Al-Salam. The idea is to open roads, making the Corniche one way to Maadi, while the other way back downtown will be through the Misr-Helwan Agricultural Road. The governorate is already on top of things and the results of the work in the two already planned areas are expected to be finished in five years.

"It's not just about constructing buildings; the plan is all connected because the construction is associated with the development of roads and streets," Madbouli explains.

The ministry has also started working extensively on four other areas. The first plan is centred on the shanty area of Nazlet Al-Semman in Giza up to the new open museum and the area around the Pyramids. "We are not going to move people out of Nazlet Al-Semman, but we are going to re- house them in the same area after redeveloping it."

Madbouli admits that in some shantytowns re-housing the residents is the best solution but in other areas that are dangerous for people to live in, like Dweiqa, it is not possible to re-house the inhabitants in the same area. Rather, they have to be moved to a different location. "We are planning to have a tourist area and hotels in the area around the museum and we will re-plan the streets," Madbouli adds.

The other area witnessing change is Khedive Cairo downtown which is expected to see a major change within five to 10 years, according to Madbouli. The ministry has already announced an international tender inviting the 10 most prominent architect houses in the world, each of which will work with an Egyptian firm. "The point is to give pedestrians the space to move and walk downtown a la the Champs Elysee while preserving historical buildings." The governorate, in cooperation with the National Organisation for Urban Harmony, has started restoring and painting the fronts of the buildings downtown.

Madbouli says car parks would be banned "so there will be more underground garages."

The third area of development is Hadebet Al-Fustat, site of the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation -- which the Ministry of Culture is building -- and the cemeteries. "The museum will be the major source of attraction and there is expected to be many green areas and a focus on historic buildings."

There has been controversy regarding moving the cemeteries and the population that resides there to the outskirts of the city and also turning the populated Geziret Al-Dahab and Al-Warraq into public parks.

Concerning the cemeteries, Madbouli says a survey and a count by Ain Shams University, in cooperation with the University of Milan in Italy, showed this: the cemeteries stretch along 1,400 feddans and areas are divided between buildings and cemeteries. Those who live in the buildings are 60,000 out of which are 10,000 who live in rooms in the cemeteries. They are not a million like what people say," adds Madbouli.

The problem, as he describes it, is on the northern side of the cemeteries. "The water level has increased in the 500 feddans of Ain Al-Sira cemeteries, so this is the part that could be moved and used as a park." Madbouli emphasises that this will only happen as part of developing the whole area of Al-Fustat, not just the cemeteries.

Madbouli argues that the 10,000 people living there would need 2,000 housing units, which is not that large a number for the government. "The most important step for us was to find out the real number of the people involved and we wanted to know the specifics. We are not moving the buildings where people live, and cemeteries like Al-Mogawrin and Al-Ghafir will be developed and streets will be paved. That will allow people to visit the historic cemeteries."

Another challenge for the GOPP is shanty areas which Madbouli says are under the supervision of the Development of Shanty Areas Body, headed by the minister of local development, which has classified these informal areas in Egypt into two. There are areas that are unsafe and others that are unplanned.

In Greater Cairo there are 134 unsafe areas, including Dweiqa, Ezbet Khairala and Establ Antar, housing 66,000 families, classified into three levels of dangerous housings. The number one level includes houses built perilously close to the edge of mountains. The second includes decrepit buildings and the third is for houses that are very close to railways or for example near high voltage towers.

The aim, in six to seven years, is to move them out of the city to the new cities like 15 May, Badr and 6 October governorate.

The other unplanned areas, which do not include unsafe buildings have narrow three-metre wide streets where ambulances or fire trucks cannot pass through, so they are hazardous. In Giza, the informal areas include Al-Moneib, Bolaq Al-Dakrour and Imbaba, while in Cairo, there is Dar Al-Salam, Al-Marg, Ain Shams and Matariya.

"Our solution is to open up roads within these areas and any empty lands would be used as service centres or for re-housing the people within the same area."

The Nile islands in Cairo remain under study. "We want to give citizens the opportunity to go and visit these islands, where families can spend the day," Madbouli told the Weekly. "Areas that belong to the government could be used as parks or cafés. We could also turn the agriculture in these islands to flowers, for example, but any development has to be to the benefit of the residents of the islands and to remain as a green space."

Yet in interviews with the Weekly last February, the people of the islands were sceptical of the government's motives and not welcoming any of the new plans. Madbouli believes the solution will be in the steps taken to help them. "If someone wants to start a project, we will encourage him. When services are developed for the people, like providing a water network, then people will start to trust that we will be working for their good."

There are certain projects like the metro lines that will take up to 30 years to build. The third line is from the airport to Doqqi and Imbaba in Giza, while the fourth is expected to link 6 October governorate with downtown and Shubra in Cairo. New Cairo is also expected to be linked to Heliopolis by a fast above ground metro. The underground metro is expected to cover some areas that are already served by the current on the old street metros.

An electric train will connect Ain Shams with Obour, Badr and 10 Ramadan cities. The time frame for these projects is 10 years but all depends on the funding. "We are finishing the designs and will allow bidding on them soon, whether for the state alone or in cooperation with the private sector." The third and fourth metro lines will cost LE54 billion, which will be covered by the government alone.

The city needs these projects by 2020 because of the increase in population, as Madbouli emphasises. He envisions that in 10 years, the traffic problem would be solved partially because Cairo will have new public transportation networks that will relieve the pressure on the streets. "We will have more green spaces and the endangered shantytowns will be removed and the capital will be linked to the new cities."

The plan seems huge and entails billions of pounds, financed by the government or in cooperation with the private sector. But Madbouli is optimistic. "I follow the school of thought that has trust in a better future, not one that thinks small and only focuses on solving small problems. What we need is a grand scheme for this country. If Malaysia has done so, we can do it as well. Even if we finish just 40 per cent of the plan it would be a success."

Yet for renowned architect and planner Mamdouh Hamza the future of the city is not that rosy. The 2050 plan for the capital, says Hamza, will only make it more crowded. "It will create more attractive points in the city but will not decrease the density of the population," Hamza tells the Weekly. "The government admits planning for 30 million people in the future so that means that the population of the capital will get bigger."

The aim of the plan, says Hamza, is good, but that does not mean it will be achieved by introducing more services and economic activities to the capital. "Besides, there isn't a drastic solution to Cairo's main problem -- the chronic traffic crisis, which needs 650,000 parking places. And there also won't be a solution to public transportation."

As for the islands of Geziret Al-Dahab and Al-Warraq, Hamza is sceptical of the plan. "I believe that the government has a hidden agenda for these islands under the notion of creating more parks, then selling them to investors. We cannot trust the government because it focuses on profit-making and not on making its citizens happy," he adds.

"According to the plan, in 2050, there will be a bridge that falls into Al-Warraq Island, which is one step away from turning it into a concrete island."

The islands are populated and Hamza argues that the best thing to do is make sure that the population does not increase on these fertile lands. "You can't compare the fertile soil of these lands with any other place in the capital. Overlooking the Nile, the islands should be like a vegetable basket of the city."

Although Hamza disagrees with many of Madbouli's ideas he is of the same opinion when it comes to moving the cemeteries outside the capital. "It has happened before and as long as there is an alternative location, it's a good idea. It will keep historic cemeteries intact."

Many parts of the plan will only efface the features of the city, claims Hamza. "Building skyscrapers is one way of doing that. I can't imagine London or Paris allowing skyscrapers in the middle of the city." Also the idea that has been circulating recently, moving political landmarks out of the city, is unacceptable to Hamza. "Cairo is a city with a history and authenticity and no one has the right to move the People's Assembly or the Shura Council to a different place." For Hamza it's a matter of top priority. "People should be asked about what they think and want of urban development. It's more important than asking them who they want as president."

The best way to address the plan, says Hamza, is to open it for public debate and by that he means to publish it in papers and online and hear what Egyptians have to say regarding the major changes that their city will undergo. Hamza would also like those who suggested and designed the plan to attend debates and workshops where they can exchange opinions and ideas.

Hamza's personal vision of the city is worrying. "I see a Cairo where the average vehicular speed is six to eight kilometres per hour, with the highest pollution rate and as a result the highest percentage of liver and kidney diseases in the world, and the highest number of children with mental illnesses."

But is the picture that dark? Nothing positive?

Hamza says the only good thing is that Egypt remains our country.

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