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Last April a group of activists, academics, architects and those who have become obsessed, in one way or another, with the failures and future of megacities, met at the American University in Cairo (AUC) for a three-day conference. The proceedings of that meeting have been collected in the just-released “Learning From Cairo: Global Perspectives and Future Visions” (CLUSTER and the AUC, 2013). 

The book is an elegant record of a wide-ranging conversation. Participants discussed the relationship between political upheaval and the built environment, and the need for city planning that is shaped by local communities, rather than imposed by distant government officials and business interests. 

Gautam Bhan, from the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, asked: “What does it mean for mass action to try to stand in for everyday governance?” The art historian Clare Davies wondered if a city like Cairo has a lifespan and if one day, “like a dying star,” it will “implode on itself.”

Perhaps we should consider that a certain level of disorder — in which residents are all implicated in some degree of illegality, and must obtain services based on their differing distance from a centralized power — is part of the apparatus of authoritarianism.

Mostly, participants grappled with the question of how the dramatic takeover of Tahrir Square in 2011 and the new ways Egyptians asserted their right to the city in the months afterwards — whether through protests, grassroots community projects or street art — might reconfigure the lop-sided relationship between residents and authorities. This is a debate that has been flowering for the last three years on websites like Mohamed Elshahed’s Cairobserver and Yahia Shawqat’s Shadow Ministry of Housing.

“Learning from Cairo” was edited by Magda Mostafa, Omar Nagati and Beth Stryker. Nagati and Stryker are the cofounders of CLUSTER, the Cairo Lab for Urban Studies, Training and Environmental Research, which, among its many excellent projects, boasts an open library on architecture and urban planning and an interactive map of events and initiatives around Cairo.

They have also just authored and published another slim volume, “Archiving the City in Flux: Cairo’s Shifting Urban Landscape Since the January 25th Revolution” (CLUSTER, 2013). Succinct and brilliantly illustrated, it is essential reading for anyone interested in a novel approach to Cairo and to the question of informality.

Over two-thirds of Greater Cairo’s 18 million or so residents live in informal neighborhoods, or ashwaiyat — the red-brick tenements that have proliferated, at an astounding pace, since the 1960s. They were built illegally on agricultural land and are so tightly spaced as to preclude sunlight, green space or indeed passable roads. But they are the best form of affordable housing that millions of Cairenes, left to their own devices, have been able to come up with. As David Sims pointed out in his 2012 book, Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control,” these neighborhood are, in terms of density and proximity to employment, models of efficiency.

City officials collude in the illegal construction of ashwaiyat and eventually often extend some basic services to these areas. But they continue to treat the majority of the city as illegitimate. City planners have shown an outrageous bias towards the 13 percent of Cairenes who own a car, focusing on new desert cities and suburbs as the solution to the city’s overcrowding. The Mubarak-era Cairo 2050 plan would have displaced hundreds of thousands of poor residents from central Cairo to make room for high-rises along the Nile (creating “a mutant replica of Dubai,” as Kareem Ibrahim and Diane Singerman put it in “Learning form Cairo”).

Nagati and Stryker argue that what happened in January 2011 was the result of “decades of the urbanization of injustice.” What happened after the uprising was the temporary breakdown of the state’s heavy-handed presence, for better and for worse. One informal neighborhood took the unprecedented step of connecting itself to Cairo’s ring road by building its own access ramp. Others have taken advantage of the chaos to engage in less civic behavior, from petty crime to riding motorcycles on sidewalks. 

The proliferation of street vendors in downtown Cairo — where they occupy growing swaths of the sidewalk and the street, poach business from shops and blast music from speakers — is one of the case studies included in “Archiving the City in Flux.” It is a hugely contentious issue and a litmus test for people’s political attitudes and their class prejudices. For some, street vendors represent a much-dreaded lower-class chaos (interestingly, they attract a level of disapprobation that triple-parked Mercedes don’t seem to). For others, they are “the people,” struggling to make a living and challenging the authority of the state.

The CLUSTER team’s work exposes the unfair stigmatization of lower-class informality while not romanticizing every example of people laying claim to a bit of this crowded, competitive city as an act of admirable political subversion. Their approach is empathetic yet empirical. They measured what percentage of sidewalk in downtown Cairo is occupied by street vendors (64 percent). They created a map showing where marches to Tahrir originated from, and they catalogued the changing products sold there (from cotton candy to gas masks to, during extended sit-ins, pillows). They used time-lapse photography to document how sidewalk stalls evolve throughout the day. They drove along the ring road charting where microbus stops, tea stalls, mechanics and staircases have been created by the local communities that were originally encircled but not served by the freeway.

This documentation, they write, was “undertaken in anticipation of the potentially imminent establishment of a new ‘corrective’ order.” That order has yet to materialize. Perhaps we should consider that a certain level of disorder — in which residents are all implicated in some degree of illegality, and must obtain services based on their differing distance from a centralized power — is part of the apparatus of authoritarianism.

Cairo’s dysfunction directly parallels the country’s poor governance, its unfair allocation of resources and centralized, unaccountable powers (most important decisions are made in the governor’s office). Informality is the signature of the entire city — there are illegal accretions and additions in all neighborhoods, and the new desert suburbs are the result of dodgy land deals that have been challenged in court. Everyone complains of a lack of order but skirts the rules to get by. Basic questions of urban planning and development — Who do public spaces belong to? How can we mediate between the claims of different citizens? — are loaded with political implications. It is hard to see how the capital’s enormous challenges can be solved without a change in the political system that would start, for example, with the election of local municipal councils with genuine decision-making powers and control over their own budgets.

In the meanwhile though, the research and projects chronicled in these two books can point to new, fairer, more promising ways to look at Cairo’s problems and to think about the needs of its residents. Their approach is to listen to the city’s voice — rather than yelling at it, uselessly, to behave. 

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