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Reconnecting to the Nile

A project to allow better access to the River Nile is underway in cities across northern and southern Egypt

Dina Ezzat , Friday 13 Nov 2020
Promenade for Egypt’s People
Conceptual images of the Promenade for Egypt’s People in front of Maspero
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Early next year, Cairo is set to see the introduction of the first segment of the Egyptians’ Promenade, “a project that is set to give a wider segment of the population better and safer access to the Nile Corniche,” according to assistant minister of housing and professor of urban planning Abdel-Khalek Ibrahim.

The Promenade for Egypt’s People (PEP, Mamshah Ahl Masr), is a multi-segment project that starts in Cairo and extends north and south to the upper and lower ends of the Nile. It aims to create two-level promenades on several segments of the Nile Corniche to allow residents and visitors in cities overlooking the Nile better access to the waterfront, recreational open spaces, and an accessible get-away from high levels of pollution in the air.

According to Ibrahim, the Cairo and Giza segments of the project will be completed in several phases and involve the development of the Nile’s east and west banks in Cairo and Giza along a length of 54km, 37km on the eastern side and 17km on the western.

The segment due for completion and inauguration in the early months of next year, he said, is the one from the Imbaba Bridge to the 15 May Bridge in Cairo. The two subsequent segments, which will be connected to the first, reach from the Imbaba Bridge to the Al-Sahil Bridge and from the 15 May Bridge to the 6 October Bridge.

The scheme, Ibrahim said, is to build two-level promenades, an upper level which will provide free access to walking and bicycling trails with cafés and other services at economic prices and a lower level next to the waterfront that will offer recreational services at higher-end prices.

Ibrahim said that this project aimed to secure three objectives. The first is to offer public access to the waterfront of the Nile, sometimes difficult due to the privatisation of several parts of the Corniche that have been allocated to clubs and restaurants. The second is to provide sufficient income for “the maintenance and sustainability of the project” though providing business opportunities. The third is to reconnect the Corniche to the heart of Cairo and to reintegrate it as part of the visual and physical character of the capital.

“This project is being done in parallel with two other grand projects for the capital, namely the renovation of Khedival Cairo and the restoration of Old Cairo,” Ibrahim said. “It is a mega-scheme to uplift the capital and to make it more attractive to tourists and investors, in parallel with the construction of the New Administrative Capital,” he added.

Construction work started in November last year. While the first segments of the project are constructed, studies are underway for the replication of the project in the north and south of the country. The Armed Forces Engineering Authority is implementing the project.

According to Sahar Attiya, the leading planning and architectural consultant to the project, the PEP started where it was easiest to remove illegal constructions and activities along the Nile. She said there was a unified scheme for the entire project, inside and outside of Cairo, in the sense that each segment of the PEP will include a two-level promenade, enough space for people to walk, and some leisure facilities to operate.

However, she added that for each part of Cairo and for each city overlooking the Nile there might be a range of activities compatible with the nature of the area concerned. The pace and sequencing of the construction inside and beyond Cairo and Giza would depend on funding and the removal of obstructing facilities on the banks of the Nile.

Ibrahim acknowledged the grievances of the residents and small businesses that might have to be removed to allow for the PEP and for the two parallel projects to be executed, but he said this was inevitable and that compensation would always be offered.

“We are trying to strike a balance between the social and investment profiles of the project,” Ibrahim said.



INTERVENTIONS: Samir Gharib, founder and former chair of the National Authority for Urban Harmony, which plays an important role in planning applications, favours an interventionist approach in dealing with the facilities that have been built on the banks of the Nile over recent decades.

Clubs and cafés, whether allocated to worker syndicates, ministries, or simply private companies that have been authorised to operate on the Corniche, will simply have to be removed, he said.

“The basic rule is that the waterfront has to be visible to anyone who is walking or driving down the streets running along it,” Gharib said.

Across the country, from south to north, the Corniche of the Nile should be part of the visual aesthetics of the cities the river runs through, he said. In the case of Cairo, in particular, “the Corniche is part of the identity of the city, and this identity has been compromised with the construction of facilities that should be removed, not necessarily only in the interest of the PEP, but also in the interest of the principle of making the waterfront visible and accessible to all,” he added.

Ahmad Bindari, an architectural historian of modern Cairo, also says that there is a need to “make the Corniche accessible for everyone to be able to access it, and without the cafés or restaurants that inevitably accentuate the difficulties of the traffic on the already crowded Corniche Road.”

A resident of Garden City, one of the few areas of Cairo where the Corniche has maintained its identity as a pretty and accessible waterfront with the shade of old trees and possible access to feluccas, Bindari has a clear recollection of the way the waterfront was in the 1960s and up until the early 1980s, when “it was never hidden, and it was always possible for people to walk along or just to sit on some of the benches without having to spend any money. It was just a space next to the Nile where people could stroll,” he said.

Bindari argues the case for creating wider spaces for pedestrians and bicycle trails by the Corniche and for “keeping the cafés for elsewhere, or making sure that if they are there, they come without high walls that hide the Nile. It should be back to the way it used to be,” he said.

It was in 1920 that former king Fouad decided to build a central part of the Corniche that we know today to give Cairo a beautiful waterfront.

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“King Fouad started the construction of the Corniche from Helwan to Shobra, except for the stretch from Garden City to the British embassy, which had its garden next to the Nile at the time, to today’s Maspero, where there were the barracks of British troops,” said Nezar Al-Sayyad, a professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of California Berkeley and the author of several titles on the Nile and Cairo.

“However, the very first segment of the Corniche was actually built in 1906 by Abbas Helmi II,” Al-Sayyad added, saying that the larger part of the Corniche as we know it today was built in 1953.

“After the July Revolution in 1952, the British barracks were removed, and the British embassy had to move its gardens back to allow for the construction of a road and ultimately for the missing segment of the waterfront from Helwan to Shobra. The rest of the Corniche followed over subsequent years, first in Cairo and Giza, and then throughout the rest of the country,” Al-Sayyad said.

“The idea of building the Corniche related at first to the control of the Nile’s floods, as historically the inhabitants of Egypt built cities a few km away from the Nile to avoid having them damaged by flood water.”

After the construction of the Aswan Dam in 1902 and then the High Dam in the 1960s, the construction of the Corniche came into its own. “This is the way it is all over the world: wherever a river is controlled, there is a waterfront and a promenade, and if the river is not under control, then there is no waterfront,” he explained.

The constructions of facilities, whether licensed or not, on the banks of the Nile in Cairo and in many other cities that overlook the Nile should not have taken place, he said.

“The waterfront should be for all, with no restrictions. It is an essential part of the city,” he added.

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STUDIES: In 2011, the architecture, construction and urban-planning departments of the University of California Berkeley, Cairo University, and the American University in Cairo conducted a study on the best way to reconnect the Nile to Cairo.

The study examined the path of the Nile Corniche from Zamalek to Maadi and concluded that despite the many buildings that were hiding the waterfront there were still ways to give better access to residents and visitors to the city to see and enjoy the Nile. The recommendations included the construction of two-level promenades to allow for a range of recreational activities.

“Reconnecting Cairo with the Nile could provide much-needed open space and parkland for urban residents and visitors and provide healthy bicycle and pedestrian transportation alternatives connecting the city centre with outlying neighbourhoods,” the study argued.

It said that as “other major cities redevelop their riverfronts, Cairo has remarkable opportunities to reconnect its people with the river that was historically its heart.” But it also acknowledged that “many private projects have arisen along the Nile in recent years and have contributed to the inability of city-dwellers to freely access the riverbanks. The heavy public use of the existing, remaining, accessible short reaches of riverbank demonstrates the tremendous potential for a riverside trail.

“It is such a pity that the Nile has to hide behind ugly buildings in Cairo. No other city in the world has such an amazing waterfront like the one of the River Nile in Cairo, and the city is failing to make proper use of it,” Al-Sayyad said. He added that to make the best use of the waterfront, it would have to be as accessible as possible, and “the PEP is one way of doing so, but it has to be done right.”

Gharib, for his part, argues simply that there is a need “to apply the law, which may not allow large entertainment zones, but could allow some”.

The regulations on construction next to and by the banks of the River Nile do not make up a unified body. There are regulations that fall under the responsibility of the ministry of irrigation, and there are others that are within the mandates of governorates or urban-planning authorities.

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According to Attiya, the present work is being executed with the consensus of all relevant bodies, “and with their views and remarks being taken into full consideration right from the point of planning onwards,” she said.

But for Abbas Al-Zaafarani, a professor of urban planning, plans to build promenades on the banks of the Nile in Cairo have been in place since 2000. “The urban-planning faculty of Cairo University drew up plans, and they were partially executed, but the promenades were not maintained. Inevitably, people had to resort to the bridges to enjoy a nice breeze in the evening instead,” he said.

Bindari argues that some of the bridges, “the old ones like Qasr Al-Nil, for example, should be turned into pedestrian zones to complement the space that the PEP will create.”

“Qasr Al-Nil is one of the bridges that should not be put under further circulation pressure, and we should not wait to see it being dismantled and turned into metal waste, as was the case with the Abul-Ela Bridge,” he argued.

In parallel to the Qasr Al-Nil Bridge that connects today’s Tahrir Square to the new Cairo Opera Complex at the south end of Zamalek, Abul-Ela Bridge at the north end of Zamalek once connected the island to Boulaq on the other side of the Nile.

While the first is a 1930s reconstruction of an original bridge that was built in the second half of the 19th century, the second was built in 1908 and was dismantled in 1998 out of fears of possible collapse.

“Appeals to turn the bridge into a pedestrian space were overlooked. That was very unfortunate because it could have been a beautiful open space to enjoy the Nile for those who don’t subscribe to private clubs or can’t afford to go to a café to enjoy an evening by the Nile,” Bindari said.

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According to Ibrahim, the PEP “will provide free open space for everyone, and on the upper promenade buying tea or coffee will be a matter of choice,” he said. “We think people like to have a place where they can get a cup of tea, and for years there have been people selling tea, cold drinks, and snacks on the Corniche. We are just making things more regulated to maintain the place and sustain the service,” he argued.

According to Mohamed Abu Samra, another professor of urban planning, building a promenade that offered services at economic prices in the Upper Egyptian city of Edfu in 2002 had proved to be a success story.

“We did it in line with the urban style of the city and customised the services to the tastes of the inhabitants, so they came to it and took part in its maintenance,” he said.

Ibrahim explained that the commercial plans for different parts of the PEP will differ from one city to another. “The idea is that in every city that overlooks the Nile there will be free access. This is already the case in some governorates in Upper Egypt, and this is why the planning and the phases of the project are being carefully considered,” he said.

He added that the PEP is a long-term project that will take years and large funds to be fully executed across the country. However, it is a project that the government is fully committed to, in order “to celebrate the beauty of the Nile”.

 

*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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