Experts examine Egypt's informal housing crisis

Nada El-Kouny , Tuesday 12 Mar 2013

Urban planners, architects, academics, civil society activists, sociologists, and state planner discuss Egypt's growing informal housing crisis

Ramlet Boulaq
Ramlet Boulaq settlement in downtown Cairo which has been in threat of eviction (Photo: Nada El-Kouny)

In an attempt to tackle the issue of informal housing in Egypt, primarily following the January 25 Revolution, a joint workshop initiative was held on Monday by the French Centre for Social, Judicial and Economic Documentation (CEDAJ), UN-Habitat and the German Agency for International Cooperation’s (GIZ) Participator Development Programme in Urban Areas.

The workshop, held at the French Cultural Centre in Mounira, Cairo, was attended by approximately eighty people, including urban planners, architects, sociologists, economists, and government representatives, all dealing with the issue of informal housing in Egypt.

The 'Egypt Urban Futures' workshop tackled the issue of informal housing—more commonly referred to as ashwaiyat (random) settlements—from a number of different perspectives.

Regina Kipper of GIZ said the main objective of the workshop was to launch a new platform on the urban future of Egypt and its challenges since 2011, by promoting dialogue between civil society, private and public institutions and academics in attempting to work towards sustainable development.

Dina Shehayeb of the Housing and Building National Research Centre provided a brief overview of informal housing in Cairo, stating the phenomenon goes back to the 1950s when there was a major wave of urbanisation, mostly due to the dismantling of the agricultural economy and the increased industrialisation.

Shedding light on more recent statistics, urban consultant David Sims, the author of Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control (2011), stressed there had been an exponential increase in the rate of informal housing in Egypt in recent years. For example, in Geziret El-Warraq in Giza the post-revolution rate of population growth has increased four and a half times compared to its pre-revolution rate, Sims said.

Moreover, the encroachment on agricultural land has increased at a much higher rate. In many villages in Egypt’s Nile Delta farmers have found construction more profitable than agriculture. Referring to a telling statistic, Sims stated that according to the Ministry of Agriculture, 29,486 feddans of agricultural land in approximately 700,000 separate cases, had been built on since the January 25 Revolution.

Conflicting outlooks were presented on the mechanisms used to deal with informal and unsafe housing since the January 25 Revolution, which led to some heated discussions.

Nahed Naguib of the General Organisation for Physical Planning said the issue of informal housing was caused by economic and social problems and her organisation’s work focused on containing the growth of informal settlements. New housing units were being created by the Ministry of Housing and municipalities, Naguib added.

Ashraf Mohamed, head of the informal housing department in Cairo, said: “Just like the Aswan High Dam was built to contain the flooding of agricultural land, we have to stop the increase of ashwaiyat.”

Providing a critique of such a view, Yahia Shawkat, architect and informal housing specialist at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), said the biggest threat to such communities “is the state itself.”

Shawkat also noted that the “real entry point to such a debate has to take into account the agency of these self-built communities that will continue to grow.”

He highlighted a number of cases of forced evictions from informal settlements. He mentioned Qorsaya Island, which has recently experienced violent clashes between police and residents who the army attempted to evict by force, claiming ownership of the Island, despite many residents living there for decades.

Likewise, the government has a controversial “Cairo 2050” plan to clear slums and develop the land. An example of this is Ramlet Boulaq behind the Nile Towers, which planners hope will be replaced with more lucrative projects.

Urban planner Omar Nagati provided a more holistic view on the issue:

“While government officials have attempted to reduce informal neighbourhoods and demolish them, it is important to rethink the way we talk about ashwaiyat. Today, all of Egypt is becoming informal, starting with the street vendors, microbuses, toktoks, etc.”

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