One afternoon, a husband and his wife were stepping onto the pavement in front of a big supermarket in Cairo, but the wife could not make it.
While I was passing, I heard her saying “the pavement is too high.” I tried to help her by holding her hand. Her husband held her other hand, hoping that this way she would be able to step onto the pavement from the street.
On another occasion a young woman pushing her baby in a pram felt confused for some minutes at not being able to push it up onto the pavement. Other families have been seen trying to find a way across a pavement covered with street vendors blocking their way.
Many such incidents happen in Egyptian streets on a daily basis. Many people complain to each other, while others write to the papers or on social media.
“If you try to walk on any of Cairo’s pavements or in any other governorate for that matter, you will find nothing but bumps, holes, street vendors, extensions of coffee shops and sometimes shelters for cars,” former finance minister Ahmed Galal wrote in an article published in one of the daily newspapers. He was commenting on the situation of Egypt’s pavements and asking who was responsible for their poor state.
Sohaila El-Sawey, chair and founder of the Egyptian Association for Environment and Community Services (EAECS), an NGO, has made it a point to try to “bring back our sidewalks”.
“Once upon a time we had pavements that were wide and smooth and obstacle free. We never had to clamber onto them, as they ran parallel to the street with hardly any difference in height,” she said.
“I remember walking, skipping and running back and forth. Cars were also very spacious once upon a time. Sitting in them was like being in your sitting room at home. They were very comfortable with arm rests and an extra triangle-shaped glass window on each side for more panoramic viewing. As a two-year-old, I would sit on the arm rests and volunteer a detailed account of what was happening in the streets outside as we drove along. I don’t remember traffic jams, as there were very few automobiles at that time.”
The problem is one of “urban harmony”, she said. “Children start their learning experience at home. Then comes school. But what if the home was unable to teach them values? What if the school destroyed values? What if these children are now grown up and are pouring out into the streets? They walk in the street, drive in the street, talk in the street, eat in the street, and work in the street.”
“The street is what we see every day. The street is where everything happens. So, if pavements are brought back to the streets then discipline will be brought back as well,” El-Sawey said.
“Is wanting decent streets anything other than dreaming of a basic human need,” asked one resident of the Cairo district of Zamalek who wanted to remain anonymous.
“We are among the privileged few in jam-packed Cairo that live in Zamalek, a once-exclusive residential area. If Zamalek has deteriorated, the same can be said about many other districts in the megalopolis with the passing of time and exponential urban crowding,” she said.
“But can this justify our being dropped from the national agenda with regard to not only the need to preserve our unique heritage but also to provide the basic human need to have decent streets? There is a good chance of being hit if we count the stones, garbage, and motorcycles on the streets and the narrow strips of cement called pavements that are not made for normal pedestrians.
“The elderly or those with knee problems can’t always climb up to reach these walkways as they are built too high for human legs to avoid fourth-row car-parking. Adding insult to injury, when the district does decide to repair a pavement, its lifespan could be a week or two only, as then there will be more digging for electricity or drainage pipes.
“Walking in Zamalek on a daily basis is not funny and can even be life-threatening We do not know what will become of this small island once the new metro line is operational, adding crowds to crowds, street vendors to street vendors, and litter to litter. Where are the city planners? Where is the head of the district? Where is the quality control,” the resident asked sadly.
A BASIC NEED
Ali Raafat, a professor of architecture, design and theory at Cairo University, told Al-Ahram Weekly that urban street pavements were a source of functional and historical ingenuity in 18th- and 19th-century capitals like London and Paris.
The ideal pavements, according to Raafat, have to be wide enough to serve pedestrians who might be both able and handicapped. “They should not be higher than 15 cm from the street. They need to serve bicycles, metro users, and those needing ramps and so on,” he said.
“Pavementscan serve as transitional areas between the public streets, private shops, and cafeterias and restaurants. These areas should ideally be separated by flowers, trees, flower boxes or statues,” he said.
Such things were lately introduced into Khedival Cairo and notably into Al-Alfi and Orabi Squares by architect Soheir Hawass. Even so, pavements were still 10cm in London and 50cm in Cairo.
“Low pavements reflect a sensible separation between the street and pavement. In Egypt, the municipalities are having to make car users respect a safe separation between pedestrians and cars,” Raafat told the Weekly.
Architect Marwa Al-Aasar believes that if the standard height of a pavement should be 15 cm, most of Cairo’s pavements are not suitable for pedestrians. “It is all about business and personal benefit. Another reason is about making things easy for those who decide things instead of thinking about public needs,” she said.
She agreed with Raafat that cars should be prevented from using pavements as parking areas. “But this means solving one problem by creating another one. People often make ramps which take up part of the street and lead to traffic jams.
“The main reason behind this bad situation of pavements is the corruption of some engineers and officials working in public districts,” she added, saying that too many of them think of cars as being more important than human beings.
El-Sawey added that “an important point is the lack of coordination when planning and building pavements among those responsible. It is the main reason for deterioration and why nothing gets done. Everyone blames everyone else. Electric wiring can be installed after the paving is finished. Water outlets are not included or are left uncovered.”
“Unprofessional workers are picked haphazardly on a daily basis who do sloppy work, especially when there is a VIP visit. There is accumulated garbage from illegal kiosks left to impede pedestrians,” she said.
Els de Keijer, a programme manager for Royal Dutch Visio, an NGO, told the Weekly that the first thing to think about was safety.
“There are lots of holes in the pavements here that are really dangerous for people with visual impairments. So, it would be good to have plain pavements with a lot of space to walk. A lot of pavements have obstacles at the moment, and these should be put to one side so one side is left to walk safely,” she said.
“What is also difficult is the difference in levels. The pavements are sometimes very high, so you have to make a big step up to get to the pavement as there are hardly any ramps. What can help people with visual impairment is predictability. Putting things in the same way in the streets, being systematic, for instance with obstacles and when you have to cross the street, is important, and the latter can be achieved by using special tiles to signal the edge of the pavement and the beginning of the street.
“People with visual impairments can learn this system, making the streets more predictable for them and helping them to walk safely. Another thing that can be useful is to use contrasting colours that make it easier for people with visual impairments to see objects,” she said.
Doaa Mabrouk, manager of the Baseera Foundation, an NGO, and an expert in visual impairments, said that as long as Egyptian pavements are not suitable for able people, they will be an additional problem for people with a disability.
“Pavements are not built according to the building code. We need to improve pavements for able people and then make changes for people with disabilities,” she concluded.
Nile Corniche - Cairo
Painting entrance to tunnel
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Egypt's pavement crisis