No one wants to associate with it these days. The $3.5 million study that outlined Cairo’s problems and the way to deal with them for the next generation or so is metaphorically in the dock along with the major figures of the NDP. In real life, the study is gathering dust in the drawers of the prestigious organisations that have helped put it together since 2007: the UNDP, UNHABITAT, the World Bank, Germany’s (former) GTZ, and Japan’s JICA. Cairo 2050’s local mastermind, the GOPP (General Organisation for Physical Planning), is quite reticent about it. When pressed by reporters, GOPP officials now dismiss the plan as “just an outline” or even a “dream”.
But what is Cairo 2050?
It is perhaps one of the most detailed, sophisticated visions of Cairo’s future to have been put together in the past thirty years or so. It combines urban planning with visions of economic revival, environmental concerns, and (what the detractors would call lip service to) community participation, while offering a glamorous vision of architecture that evokes Dubai.
I searched for a website detailing the 2050 plan, but found none, although the 36-page agreement between the UNDP and GOPP, signed in December 2007, promises not only the creation of such a website, but frequent workshops to keep the public involved in the plan.
A recent 3-hour presentation on the subject by Dr. Wael Zaki, former urban planning professor in Cairo University and currently an international consultant, shed some light on the recently-discarded plan. Zaki, whose lecture was hosted by the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, was closely involved with the project but is now one of its vocal critics.
Had it been completed in the way it was planned, Cairo 2050 would have made Cairo an even harder place to live for the poor, Zaki said. While trying to “decongest” parts of Cairo, the plan would have pushed lower-income groups farther from the centre, making jobs and transportation even tougher on them.
On the upside, we – or some of us – would have had more green space to enjoy. Cairo now has less than half of a metre of greenery per person. But once new open areas were added in the eastern and western expansions, and some of the urban space re-used to increase the available promenade space, we could have acquired 10 metres or so of open space each. In the process, Geziret al-Dahab and the southern cemeteries would be designated as promenade zones.
Now, this is where the problem lies. Areas like Geziret al-Dahab, al-Warrak, or southern cemetery have two things in common: (1) they provide sanctuary to the poor, and (2) they are prime real estate. The planners may have aimed to involve the local community in future development, but if this is white-wash, as the critics claim, the scheme begins to resemble a real estate scam camouflaged with planning documents.
The planners have actually talked to the public. In the preparatory stages of Cairo 2050, a sample of Cairo inhabitants told researchers associated with the project that they aspired for a city with wider streets, more gardens, better garbage collection, efficient transportation, lively cultural activities, and better housing, etc.
Some of these demands were addressed in the plan, which envisions two more metro lines, improved amenities in poverty-stricken neighbourhoods, cleaner air, and less noise. To accomplish this, some of the polluting industries, along with a major part of the ministries and government offices (especially near Qasr al-Eini Street) will be moved out of the city. But what will remain?
Critics of the plan say that once the face-lift is finished, once all the informal areas have been restructured (or removed), once all the historic parts of the city have become promenades, and once the Nile view areas have been dotted with skyscrapers, Cairo will be too expensive for its population - for the shop owners, day workers, plumbers, and car mechanics, who keep our city going.
From then on, we’ll be shopping in malls, eating in chain restaurants, and generally leading the over-priced, air-conditioned, and valet-parked existence that consultants made de rigueur in Gulf countries. Either that, or resentment would build up leading to... well, revolution!
Shelving the plan is all well and good, but one cautionary note: Dumping Cairo 2050 doesn’t save Cairo. And almost every concern that the plan addressed is genuine: the pollution, the unplanned growth, the failure of basic amenities, the encroachment on historical sites, the paucity of open space, the precariousness of informal housing, the lack of proper transportation, etc.
Cairo 2050 may have harboured thinly-veiled greed, but this is only one part of the vision, identifiable and excisable. So instead of distancing itself from it, the GOPP should dust it off and rework it. We don’t need to turn Cairo into a Dubai, but we need to keep it running. And this plan – once reworked – can do just that.