Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Cairo 2050: Urban Dream or Modernist Delusion?

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Cairo 2050: Urban Dream or Modernist Delusion?

Article excerpt

Since the late 1960s, Cairo's urban development has been characterized by a rapid expansion of densely populated informal settlements ('ashwa'iyyat) that now house more than 60 percent of Cairo's population. In 2008, the Egyptian government began promoting Cairo 2050, a grandiose "vision" that aims to counter this phenomenon and transform Cairo into a global city like Paris or Tokyo. This article shows that attempts to redirect Cairo down this path of modernization would fail to resolve the city's urban challenges because they ignore realities on the ground. The article argues that informality and its associated high population density have offered solutions--though they are suboptimal--to resolving Cairo's urban challenges, and that implementing modernity from above will create more problems than solutions.

"This was the regime's 'urban dream': With skyscrapers and luxury developments replacing all the informal neighborhoods, and their working-class residents shunted to the desert, the busy, historic heart of Cairo, home to plenty of crumbling, informal housing of its own, would be remade as a sanitized tourist park."

Frederick Deknate (1)

Since the late 1960s, Cairo's urban development has been characterized by the rapid expansion of densely populated informal settlements, known as 'ashwa'iyyat ("haphazards" in Arabic). They were built without planning or construction permits, mostly on reclaimed agricultural land flanking inner Cairo. (2) The settlements are now home to more than 60 percent of Cairo's estimated seventeen million inhabitants and cover over half of the city's physical space. (3) In 2008 the Egyptian government began promoting "Cairo 2050," a series of mega-projects designed collaboratively by a large, international team of consultants intended to modernize Cairo and counter the city's informal urbanization. (4)

The plan would redistribute residents of informal areas to satellite towns in the desert in order to "even out" the population of the city and make space for elements of modernity like business parks, luxury hotels, tourism centers, office towers, recreational parks and wide boulevards. But why is there such a vision for Cairo? Inspired by global-city master plans like Sydney 2030, Paris 2020, Abu Dhabi 2030, Singapore 2050, Shanghai 2050, Tokyo 2050 and London 2066, the goal of Cairo's strategic plan is to replicate these models of modernity. For a number of reasons outlined in this article, Cairo 2050 is unlikely to materialize fully--at least in its proposed form--particularly in a postrevolutionary setting. Nevertheless, studying the plan is useful for understanding recent developments in Cairo and the Egyptian government's approach to urban planning, including its "continued penchant for the manufacture of unrealistic dreams." (5)

This article shows that the phenomenon of informality in Cairo, far from being an indication of underdevelopment, has been a rational response by Cairenes to population growth and housing shortages. Attempts to redirect the city onto the Cairo 2050 modernization path do not account for this and other realities on the ground. If pursued, they will not only fail to resolve Cairo's urban challenges, but will be detrimental to social equity, the environment and Egypt's cultural heritage. (6)

The first section of this article describes the Cairo 2050 study in more detail, its diagnosis of Cairo's urban problems--namely, informality (and associated high population density) and lack of "modernity" (with modernity defined as the urban state of affairs in global cries like Paris and Tokyo)--and its vision for moving forward. The second section of the article shows that informality and the lack of modernity should not be construed as problems, but as features of the city that emerged logically from the local context. Therefore, the Cairo 2050 plan to counter these phenomena cannot work, and implementing it would have disastrous consequences. …

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