Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1297, (26 May - 1 June 2016)
Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Issue 1297, (26 May - 1 June 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The admin capital

The idea of a new administrative capital for Egypt is a good one, but the new city must be planned effectively and be self-sustaining, writes Mohamed Salmawy

Al-Ahram Weekly

In everything I have read so far about the project to build a new administrative capital, I have come across nothing to convince me that it is not worthwhile. In fact, we need such a project more than ever.

According to official estimates, Cairo’s population exceeds 18 million, making life intolerable not just for its inhabitants but for its infrastructure, which has deteriorated to a level considerably worse than that in some other governorates. Cairo was originally built for about 10 per cent of its current population.

Expansions were introduced over the decades, despite the fact that the city was barely equipped to accommodate at most five million people. That this figure has now more than tripled is definitely a sign of the need to exit the city.

Life in Egypt is extremely centralised. All of the country’s now 90 million people are dependent on Cairo for their prospects of work and success, or merely to get some official paperwork done. This over-centralisation, to which we appear addicted, has drawn millions more from other parts of the country to an already overcrowded capital city.

The vast majority of these would have been more than happy to remain in their hometowns and cities if the work opportunities they sought had existed there. None would have left home to go paper chasing in Cairo if the official documents and stamps they needed could be obtained in their own governorates.

Eighteen million is an enormous number of people. Very few capitals of UN member states have populations even half that size. Eighteen million is about a fifth of Egypt’s total population. We cannot go on living with these absurd realities year in, year out without making efforts to remedy them.

The idea of creating a new capital for Egypt was proposed decades ago during the Sadat era, but no action was taken. It was raised again several times during the Mubarak era but, again, nothing happened. No studies were made. No possible sites were even identified for a new capital. It was not until very recently, under President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, that we began to move forward on this urgently needed project.

Some believe that building a new capital is too risky an undertaking for us. Yet the idea of building new cities is hardly an alien one here. Many began to sprout in the 1970s. Some, such as 10th of Ramadan and 6th of October cities, have thrived and bourgeoned, regardless of serious planning flaws. Others, such as Sadat City, were less successful. Why? Was the problem in the preparation and planning?

Clearly a new city, any new city, is not like a newborn human being who could be born normal, or with some birth defect that will prevent the infant from growing up to live the normal life his parents had envisioned. When it comes to building new cities there are rules and conditions than cannot be ignored with regard to selection of the location, planning and services provided, for example, and also with regard to the purpose for which it is being built.

Perhaps the best example, in our modern history, of the successful construction of a new city is Heliopolis, the model — designed by foreigners — of a complete, self-sustaining city that meets its intended needs. While Heliopolis was eventually incorporated into Cairo as one of its many districts, it was originally designed to be able to thrive independently from Cairo.

What is the secret of its success? What is the secret of the failure of some of the satellite cities that emerged in the 1970s?

The plans for Heliopolis, designed by a Belgian firm, included, in addition to housing, sporting clubs, schools, cinemas, hospitals, restaurants and commercial outlets. More importantly, the planning from the very outset took into account two very important factors: the need for residential areas for the people who would be working in the city, whether as domestic staff or in stores or other facilities; and the necessity of developing new means of transportation to link Heliopolis with Cairo.

Towards this end, the Belgian company created the first modern tramway network in Egypt. It was an integral part of the planning, designed to link together the various quarters of Heliopolis to the capital and other areas.

When we compare the construction of Heliopolis, which took place in 1910, to the residential areas called “compounds” (using the actual English word) by their denizens, we find that the latter all lack the essential services that would enable them to be self-sufficient. In other words, they are essentially new residential quarters that add new burdens to a city that is already reeling under too heavy a load.

In this, the compounds are no different than the “informal urban developments” that also began to proliferate in the 1970s. In fact, we could say that the “compounds” are a randomly planned urban sprawl for the rich.

True, some of those areas now contain huge shopping malls that, needless to say, do not exist in the urban sprawl for the poor. However, they still do not contain, for example, schools, hospitals or major sporting clubs. Because of this we often find that children growing up in those “compounds” spend their weekends with the grandparents in Cairo proper, so as to be able to meet their friends, got to their favourite club or take in a film at a movie theatre.

But perhaps the biggest flaw is the lack of proper public transport linking these compounds with the capital. While residents may own a car or two, what about their domestic staff and other workers? I was amazed to discover that some of these residents dispatch their driver to the other ends of Cairo — Pyramids Road, for example — to pick up maids and servants who work in the “compound”, driving them back home at the end of the day. It is hard to imagine worse planning.

We desperately need a new administrative capital. However, if we are going to build one, we need to observe all the prerequisites for building new, self-sustainable cities. Otherwise, that too will end up becoming yet another burden on Cairo, further aggravating this city’s crisis rather than helping to solve it.

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