I decided to write this article owing to the current trajectory of the urban-design sector in Cairo. Seeing the current designs for the future of Cairo as an urban environment makes me anxious. Among them are road expansions in Heliopolis, unaffordable single-family gated communities and the New Administrative Capital.
The reasoning behind these decisions is based on the high level of traffic congestion and urban density in Cairo today. However, current global urban trends are to reduce through-traffic by narrowing roads, resulting in a better pedestrian network, and to design ways to further densify existing conditions to reduce the city’s carbon footprint. This means making it easier for people to walk in the streets and healthier for them to live in a dense city environment.
This article will examine the case of Egypt’s New Administrative Capital and the possible opportunities this will give to Downtown Cairo.
The decision to move the Egyptian administration from Cairo was taken by the government in the early 2010s. The desert site chosen is around 45 km east of the city, and according to the government the reasons behind the move are that Cairo has become highly congested and is in need of decentralisation. However, unfortunately the result looks much like the current satellite cities, with their emphasis on unaffordable, segregated and single-use design. There is not enough of the integration of functions that is the key to creating a vibrant urban setting.
This opportunity is not found in the New Administrative Capital, possibly owing to the fast-track approach the public and private sector has taken to make it happen. An opportunity does, however, exist in the empty space the New Capital will leave in the heart of Cairo. What will happen to Cairo after the government sites are relocated?
Many government-owned sites in Downtown Cairo and Garden City will be empty after the offices they contain move to the New Administrative Capital. If treated strategically, these sites could become a network of memorable and outstanding moments in the urban environment. On the other hand, if they are sold off to the highest bidder without a thought as to what should replace them, there is a high probability that they will negatively impact their respective neighbourhoods.
Urban-design strategies can be adopted in Downtown Cairo that make use of the space that will be left behind after the government offices move to the New Administrative Capital in order to prevent the sites from turning into highly secured privately owned ones. They could be used to further activate their surrounding areas by identifying missing functions in each neighbourhood. Such uses could include museums, theatres and civic centres.
Indeed, by adaptively re-using existing characterful buildings and allowing their public use a city preserves its cultural heritage. Such uses should be suggested in response to the historic uses that once existed in the Downtown area or to new uses that plan on giving a specific character to a neighbourhood, reintroducing a more cosmopolitan variety of activities. Although it might be too soon to judge, a positive example of adaptive re-use could be the Baron Empain Palace in Heliopolis, which was recently transformed from a decaying historic palace to a renovated museum.
Another urban-design move could be to open up the waterfront of the Nile to the public by the simple removal of the fences and gates that currently block access to parts of it. One intervention here could be to create a continuous walk on one side of the river, with a wide variation of uses on the other side. There is a current plan to implement a river walk, but a continuous walkway along the waterfront without activities to support it will not become a vibrant city magnet. It is important to think of the functions that will exist along the waterfront as well. Instead of large hotels and concrete blocks, an active street would change the experience of walking along the Nile.
One example of a successful waterfront of this sort can be found in Barcelona in Spain, where the local waterfront was transformed before the Olympic Games in the 1990s to capitalise on the use of public space. Creating an emphasis on the importance of public space should be a priority in Cairo too, and such interventions could be part of a series of main events throughout the city. The creation of a network of moments within a city linked by corridors is a way of choreographing the city experience, and it is a basic urban-design strategy used to design a city’s character.
If properly utilised, tools of this sort could reinstate Cairo’s centrality through capitalising on public and cultural amenities in the city that are thus far largely untapped. As a result, Downtown Cairo could act as an urban-design model for the future development of the entire Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
However, the current urban trends in Cairo are to widen roads and build more car-oriented infrastructure. Such decisions are based on the high level of traffic congestion and urban density in the city. Unfortunately, they have led to many traffic accidents in which pedestrians crossing the streets have lost their lives. But current global urban trends are to reduce traffic by narrowing roads and creating a better pedestrian network, making it easier for people to walk in and to cross the streets. Increasing car-related infrastructure only increases the number of cars.
Current global urban-design trends lean towards mixed-used and porous environments. According to Peter Kindel, director of the city design practice at US architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, one of the largest and most influential architecture and urban-design firms in the world, “the most innovative cities are moving away from car-oriented infrastructure and towards walkable, mixed-use districts. Some cities are even creating pedestrian-only zones within cities.”
When Kindel was asked what he thought might happen to Cairo given the current urban-design decisions, he said that “designing cities solely for automobiles is based on obsolete thinking and driven by archaic engineering concepts of how people want to live. This thinking creates dangerous environments, which lead directly to more deaths and the creation of unpleasant neighbourhoods.”
There is a need to look at the opportunities that will be available once the government frees up the space it is occupying in Cairo in the wake of the move of many offices to the New Administrative Capital. There is a need to plan what a vision for Cairo after the move would look like. Will it be a city for cars? Or will it be a city for people?
The writer is an Egyptian-American urban and architectural designer and a graduate of the American University of Cairo’s Architecture Programme and the University of California Berkeley’s Masters of Urban Design.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly