Cairo, the long standing capital city of Egypt is facing an uncertain future as the country’s primary city. Recent proposals have emerged of a whole new, as yet unnamed, capital city being built in the north of the country
Cairo, the long standing capital city of Egypt is facing an uncertain future as the country’s primary city. Recent proposals have emerged of a whole new, as yet unnamed, capital city being built in the north of the country, with the main source of funding coming privately from Mohamed Alabbar, an Emirati businessman whose fortune stems from aluminium processing plants in the Gulf States. Cairo’s well-documented problems such as traffic congestion, low grade housing and poor air quality mean that the plan to spread the growing Egyptian urban population has been accepted by the country’s government. The project, which aims to be completed in seven years is set to house over five million residents and once completed will represent the largest project of its kind in history.
Location of New Cairo in Egypt
The rapid increase in Cairo’s population has caused a large number of its infrastructural problems. Investments in housing, power and sanitation provision have not kept pace with the rate of urbanisation. Population growth to the capital of three percent a year (Ethelston, 2015), a percentage of whom are classified as refugees from countries such as Syria and Eritrea, has resulted in large areas of slum housing. With a population density of forty thousand people per square kilometre (four times that of London), the city of over eleven million people is running out of space for housing and essential services, with residents resorting to roof-top slum ‘villages’ and the infamous ‘City of the Dead’ where city dwellers live in and among the tombs of their dead relatives in mausoleums. There are estimates that traffic congestion costs the Egyptian economy US$8 billion dollars a year, as well as over one thousand pedestrians deaths (World Bank News, 2012). Air pollution in the centre of Cairo can be up to one thousand times worse than what is considered safe by the World Health Organisation (World Health Organisation, 2015).
Cairo has a reputation of very high levels of travel congestion. (Flickr Source: Flickr John6536)
Official statistics for unemployment often mask the true experience for Cairenes. Formal unemployment in the city stands at ten percent but ignores the multitude of street vendors and casual service providers who rely on unpredictable incomes. Around twenty two percent of Cairo’s inhabitants are thought to live below the poverty line and Cairo authorities increasingly have to provide for more people on a lower-per-head tax base. One impact of this is poor standards of sanitation: Just over twenty percent of Cairenes have no access to clean water and those that do have access frequently suffer from water sources running dry as leaks and burst pipes are common occurrences. Around three million people in Cairo have no access to a working sewerage system and faecal matter frequently finds its way into the city’s water supply, increasing incidence of water borne diseases such as dysentery and hepatitis (Ethelston, 2015).
The ‘New Cairo’, located twenty eight miles east of the current capital city, is costing over US$66 billion to complete but carries some impressive proposals for social change within Egyptian urban life. There will be housing for five million new residents, with 250,000 of these located in the city centre, where proposals outline that there will also be access to seven hundred nursery schools, 1250 religious buildings and 663 new hospitals (The Capital Cairo, 2015).
It is estimated that almost two million jobs will be created in the city covering several different employment sectors in order to create a stronger and linked economic system in the city. Infrastructure will also be significantly improved in comparison to the current capital city; a 14km2 airport, 140km of paved roads and highways will connect the city centre to Cairo and the rest of Egypt and 91km2 of the desert will be given over to renewable solar energy farms which will supply electricity throughout the entire city.
The campaign for the new city has largely been supported by the government and the city’s media (Kingsley, 2015) with the recognition that a new location can psychologically generate a new sense of prosperity for a region. This may be felt internationally as well as domestically and it is hoped the new city will encourage and generate more foreign direct investment (FDI) both for the capital and across the country. These investments will bolster that made by the private investor and planners say such funds will enable the city to grow economically in the long term as well as generate national taxes which can be used to help other Egyptian cities facing challenges such as Alexandria (The Economist, 2015).
Competition for space is high in Cairo’s residential areas. (Flickr Source: Josue Llull)
The new capital has smart design at its centre, and if its plans are successful, will be meet current sustainability targets (in terms of resource use) and become a hub for innovation (The Capital Cairo, 2015). Water in the city, which is in short supply across the whole of Egypt, will be fed through recycling plants and conservation and reuse of grey water will be integral to the city’s residential and industrial design. Public transport use will be subsidised and well connected, encouraging people to get out of their cars and reduce the impact of traffic on the new city’s roads.
Socially, sustainability has also been considered with regards to community structure. Residents of the new city will be able to voice their opinions how it develops in the future and the role of governments and businesses be somewhat restricted in this sense (The Capital Cairo, 2015), a departure from the more common regime of top-down management in this region of the world.
The proposed new scheme has caused a degree of discontent within Cairo. There is concern that with the new capital having a lower residential capacity than the current capital, those that inhabit the latter will simply be those most capable of moving between them: the richest and most socially mobile. Some see the plans as a vanity project for the Egyptian elite and question what will happen to those left behind in the poor conditions of the old capital. These feelings have been compounded by the rejection from the original plans of making the new capital’s residential districts comprise almost entirely of affordable housing: instead more profitable homes are being planned disaffecting those whom need the benefits of the new capital most.
Some Egyptians believe that if the same amount of money was invested in Cairo rather than the new capital, the scope of benefits would be felt more widely and for a longer period of time (Fahmy, 2015). Equally the source of the funding makes a lot of Egyptians nervous: many believe that the investment will need repaying more quickly (or with a higher rate of interest) than will be manageable for the country and the long term prospects for the new city may be limited. There is also concern that the weighted focus on the new city will distract the Presidency from other Egyptian issues and provide little incentive to the new Egyptian government to find home grown solutions to the urban challenges that much of the country faces (The Economist, 2015). Very few Egyptians believe that the city, even with its social sustainability mandate, will truly take their views into account.
Similar plans have repeatedly been proposed in Egypt and repeatedly failed to gain momentum and long term investment; wasting billions of dollars. Egypt’s desert is dotted with exotic attempts at building showpiece development projects, (such as the Toshka Valley project in the south of the country), many of which now lie half built and derelict due to poor planning and multiple misconceptions about the needs of the Egyptian people. Understandably Egyptians are nervous that the same could be true of the new capital, but with a greater impact as the scale of the project is so large.
Egypt’s role in the Arab Spring Revolutions may have also set Cairenes to consider their future in the city. (Flickr Source: Muhammad Moneib)
The protest marches and violent demonstrations that took place in Cairo’s Tahir Square in 2011 shook the country and added further power to the debate about whether Egyptians were due a change of fortune from their leaders. With the revolutionary defeat of the Mubarak regime and the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi (the country’s first democratically elected President by the army), the newly established Egyptian presidency and government are looking to move away from the bad feelings associated with those times and the proposed new city may be seen by some as primarily a political move with social change for Egypt’s urban dwellers as a good secondary outcome.
Time will tell if the new city will succeed or not. The new Egyptian presidency has vowed not to make the same mistakes of the past but it is of little surprise that many Egyptians are treating this promise with caution.
Ethelston, S. (2015) Middle East Research and Information Project
Fahmy, K. (2015) Chasing Mirages in the Desert, The Cairo Observer
Kingsley, P. (2015) A new New Cairo: Egypt plans £30bn purpose-built capital in desert, The Guardian
The Capital Cairo (2015)
The Economist (2015) Thinking Big
World Bank News (2012) Cairo Traffic is much more than a Nuisance
World Health Organisation (2015) Egypt Statistics
Foreign Direct Investment (FDI)
Investment from one company or country into another country.
The services and facilities needed for an economy to function, for example transport networks, energy supply and health care.
Development that aims to increase standards of living without destroying the environment while safeguarding natural resources for future generations.
Top-Down (Decision Making)
A process by which decisions are made about the lives of the weakest and poorest by those with the most power, and often, money.
Students can draw a future time line for the new capital project which estimates the potential outcome of the investment and the potential future that would be made for other Egyptian cities as a result of the new capital being built. They can then discuss their ideas in front of the class and give reasons why they think the project will succeed or fail.
Studying a map of Egypt, students can try to consider a number of potential different locations for a new capital city. They can think about what settlement factors would need to be taken into account in a modern and globalised world and on a map of the country pin point where they believe it should be placed, justifying their ideas to their peers.
If Cairo is so bad, why does it receive such high numbers of migrants? Students can consider this question and through empathy based work, imagine the way that refugees and rural-to-urban migrants make choices about their futures.
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