Q&A | Architect Ahmed Mansour on how one-size-fits-all urban planning, overpasses threaten Sayeda Aisha neighborhood’s history and organic structure

For the second time in the last year, areas of historic Cairo are being cleared to make way for overpass expansions. Midway through 2020, the state moved to demolish and transfer graves from the historic area known as the City of the Dead to make way for the Fardous Axis, a 17.5 km long overpass. And as the new year began, the Cairo governorate started to demolish 47 homes in the historic area of Sayeda Aisha Square and move 136 families to social housing in Asmarat, according to statements released by the governorate. Cairo governorate officials have explained to the press that more than 2,700 graves will also be transferred as part of a project to enlarge the square and construct a new bridge to replace the Sayeda Aisha bridge that connects the busy thoroughfare of Salah Salem Road to the Hadarat Axis in Ain al-Sira in historic Cairo. 

In light of the state’s contested one-size-fits-all urban planning, which has faced pushback in the neighborhood of Heliopolis most recently, Mada Masr sat down to discuss the matter with architect Ahmed Mansour, who has worked on projects to revive historic Cairo and was part of a UNESCO team that conducted several studies to revive the capital’s urban heritage.

Mada Masr: Sayeda Aisha is located within the borders of historic Cairo as laid out on the map proposed by UNESCO in 2014. Does this provide the area with a degree of protection? Does it set certain standards that must be considered during development?

Ahmed Mansour: The UNESCO-proposed map of historical Cairo’s borders doesn’t necessarily mean anything without complementary, local regulations and laws that set requirements to conserve the urban fabric and to deal with the various activities existing in the area. The map only illustrates historic Cairo’s borders. It’s more important to have requirements for how to deal with the area.

UNESCO doesn’t set binding rules on how to deal with world heritage sites. Rather it provides guidelines, which countries are supposed to transform into binding rules and laws. Nevertheless, there are clear reasons for registering an area as a world heritage site. One of the reasons behind registering historic Cairo as a world heritage site is its urban structure, including streets, alleys, markets and graveyards — not just its monuments.

Regardless of UNESCO, the most important thing is that the area of Sayeda Aisha is located within the borders of historic Cairo, which is under the supervision of the National Organization for Urban Harmony (NOUH). The organization has clear requirements listed in its establishing law to preserve the urban structure of these areas. These requirements are binding within Egypt.

MM: You worked as a consultant for the UNESCO project to revive historic Cairo. Does the currently proposed plan follow the action plan you proposed?

AM: This project lacks transparency, and we don’t know any of its details. Certainly, destroying an area or part of it has nothing to do with conserving urban heritage. I don’t think there’s a single historic Cairo specialist who knows the purpose of this project or any of its details. This is all too frequent, be it in the case of the Fardous Axis, which cut through the Ghafeer graveyards last year, or with any of the overpass projects that change the city’s urban structure.

For instance, concerning the demolition of 2,700 graves in Sayeda Aisha, a main part of registering historic Cairo as a UNESCO World Heritage Site was the existence of the northern and southern graveyards within its borders, since they’re an essential part of the city. It doesn’t happen often in cities that graveyards are considered a complementary part of its urban structure rather than being isolated from it. There have always been people living in the middle of the graveyards as evidenced by the presence of historic schools there. It is also the site of spiritual visits given the presence of famous shrines linked to moulids. There are books that tell of the legacy of visits to these graveyards in the 15th and 16th centuries. It is, thus, linked to the city and its structure.

When it comes to the construction of overpasses, I think there must be a general overview of transport within the city that does not only focus on cars. In any old, historic city, we must talk of mobility in a broader sense, including passers-by and materials used in different areas. Previously constructed overpasses that mainly focus on facilitating the movement of cars, like Azhar Street and Mohamed Ali Street, didn’t solve problems in mobility. On the contrary, they exacerbated existing problems. We must move away from focusing on the idea of expanding roads for cars. At the end of the day, what’s the percentage of Cairo residents who own cars?

Regarding what has been described as “slums” in the media, they’re not informal housing. In fact, they’re old buildings that we could describe as part of the historic and organic structure of the city. Some could have indeed deteriorated given their age, but they’re not necessarily “informal housing.” The way in which the city was built didn’t remain the same throughout history. Planning that relies on large squares from which wide boulevards branch out is a modern notion at the end of the day. It couldn’t be expected of an old city.

MM: How could we plan the development of historic Cairo without changing its urban structure and in a manner that would take the residents of these areas into account?

AM: To begin with, there must be a social and economic survey of the area. What are the existing crafts? What is the economic network that links this area with others? On the financial side, there’s a need to understand the area’s problems without conveniently placing blame on its residents. This means that residents are not responsible, for instance, for the deterioration of the sewage network or the disappearance of the garbage and waste collection system. In fact, it falls on the authorities responsible for managing the city. These problems should be identified here, and we should create solutions for them.

When I carry out a development process, I start by identifying the existing features: Who lives in this area? What are their needs? How can they be met? I develop social and economic studies of the area, then I start to set a plan that outlines steps to take and the nature of the necessary intervention in every building and vacant lot separately. After setting the development plan outlining the steps and the authorities responsible for each of them and their sources of funding, there remains the most important crucial issue, which is the management plan. How will there be regular follow-ups of this area so that we continue preserving it? Or else, all our efforts would be in vain.

MM: Who is responsible for historic Cairo?

AM: Jurisdiction over historic Cairo is divided between various authorities, but there is no coordination between them. Responsibility for Cairo mainly falls on governorates and their local neighborhood administrations. NOUH handles building requirements, while antiquities are handled by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. The Endowments Ministry owns large pieces of land and properties in this area. Traffic is in the hands of the Interior Ministry, and utilities are in the hands of the various utility holding companies, while urban planning generally falls under the jurisdiction of the Housing Ministry. It’s a matter of whether there’s coordination between these authorities. That’s why I say that the management plan is the most important aspect.

Mostafa Mohie 

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