Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Rethinking urban planning

The success of any new urban development relies on the creation of a sustainable community, writes Basil Kamel

Al-Ahram Weekly

Heard much about the development of new cities and new towns lately in the news? Every new economic initiative and mega project is coupled with flashy announcements about new urban settlements.  But the problem is how do we guarantee that these do not become new Sadat Cities or Toshka developments, unfinished, haunted, and with no prospect of sustainability?

Three conceptual aspects are the key to creating new sustainable communities. First, we must create a sound economic base that is coupled with a network of infrastructure and social services. Many of the cities developed in recent years have been devoid of the community services that create a strong backbone to social interaction, economic and entrepreneurial activities and a feeling of belonging to the public realm.  

The Tenth of Ramadan City, for example, for a long time had very few outlets for social services. The lack of this crucial infrastructure created a city that repelled residents and an environment devoid of social stability. Even though several satellite and new cities around Cairo were built with some industrial or agricultural activities at their heart, most of these have lacked a socio-economic tie between the economic base and the needed labour power.

Industries imported manpower from the urban fringes of Cairo that was different from that in the city. People who decided to transfer to the new cities lost their second and third informal job activities. Their families were dislocated from the support system that was crucial to their sustenance, and they were left to struggle in a new environment that was alien to their social and behavioural systems.  

Second, we must rethink mortgages as a means of providing affordability to middle and lower-income level occupants. The current mortgage mechanism, borrowed from the west, does not allow people with several informal economic activities as their main sources of income to benefit from it, and new ideas of re-exploring collateral should be introduced relying on group mechanisms rather than personal funding.

Productive power lies within coherent group economics and social ties, a statement that suggests different lending practices that rely on group collateral rather than on a single resource base. Lower and middle-income people that rely on a lot of informal practices also often cannot declare their resources, and even if they did the banks would not consider these to be a legitimate backbone for financial support.

Developing financial support strategies for groups and creating appropriate monitoring mechanisms with phase lending could be the key to new mortgage practices.  

Bankers and financial experts need to question normative models of financing to allow for incorporating informal economic activities as part of the economic potential of such people. When ideas like buying investment certificates with 12 per cent interest rates were introduced for funding the new Suez Canal project, the vast majority of the collected money came from blue-collar workers, farmers, peasants and manual labourers. Utilising such wealth in the building of new communities could parallel the vast informal settlements that have been built by such people despite building restrictions.  

The third concept relies heavily on architects and designers. A new and innovative urbanism that is based on sustainable practices should be the key to the design and construction of these new settlements. We cannot continue to build box-like four and five-storey concrete buildings in low-density, “Irvine”-like suburbs while we are challenged with limited resources, energy problems, and environmental and ecological constraints. Instead, the new urban settlements of today, mostly built in the desert, need to deliver geometries and technical outcomes that can cope with these challenges and allow for sustainable settings.

New materials and construction technologies are also the key to time management, mobility and variance between different zones and locations in the vast land of Egypt that is characterised by a variety of features and resources. We need to question our building codes and urban regulations. The concept of the traditional hierarchy of the neighbourhood and the district, with its cul-de-sacs and clusters, car and walking distances, heights of buildings, densities and the like does not fit our urban needs, social complexity and economic need to support new settlements in desert-like environments. Learning from international examples and innovative sustainable architecture past and present would allow for such innovative practices.  

Collaboration is required to think differently about our new settlements. New city design today is an outcome of several forms of expertise that involve a multi-disciplinary approach to developing designs and construction techniques that lead to sustainable outcomes.

Unfortunately, we do not practice this multidisciplinary mode of innovation and production either in our educational systems or at the level of our day-to-day business.  

The writer is a professor of architecture and urban theory at the American University in Cairo.

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