The Greater Cairo region reflects Egyptian daily life. It is a vivid example of a wide variety of both spatial patterns and socioeconomic conditions. It faces many challenges, like urbanisation, overpopulation, insufficient affordable housing, frequent electricity cuts, overflow of sewage systems, dominance of private cars, underutilisation of public transport, and marginalisation of pedestrian movement. But to create more effective and equitable urban strategies that can help overcome these challenges, first we must understand social networks in relation to urban space.
For decades, the Egyptian government has supported the concept of developing new urban communities in the desert to meet housing demand. After the war of 1973, the Egyptian government moved from the socialism policies seen during the Nasser leadership (1956–1970) to the so-called infitah (open-door) policy. The aim was to entice the private sector and to attract international investors. However, the infitah policy resulted in pressures on poor citizens. Informal urban growth sped up as a result of the huge numbers of low and middle class citizens who could not afford legal units in the new cities. And even though the government provided affordable housing, it wasn’t enough to attract low-income communities to desert cities. Seemingly, other urban factors are also required.
Households with modest means need safe and suitable housing that they can afford. When housing is affordable, low-income and middle class families are able to put nutritious food on the table, receive necessary medical care, and provide reliable day-care for their children. But what if errands to urban amenities require a car?
Residents relocated from central Cairo to Masaken Osman, some 40 kilometres (25 miles) from their original settlements, found neither the urban amenities nor the public transportation to link them to the wider urban context of their city. Residents had to commute daily to workplaces in their former neighbourhoods of central Cairo. Moreover, people had to establish illegal kiosks along sidewalks and other available public spaces to provide commercial space for the settlement.
Disadvantaged people are more dependent on urban space than advantaged groups, who are more likely to be car-dependent communities. In other words, the upper class have social networks that are independent of space. Wealthy people can commute easily from desert cities to Cairo’s urban core using their private cars. Moreover, they can employ delivery and online services to get their daily needs. For low income people, well-serviced and connected settlements are first priority, explaining why desert cities have so far only attracted rich people. Bill Hillier, a professor of Urban Morphology, calls this argument the ‘central paradox’ of space —what is good for some groups is bad for others.
How Walkable is Cairo?
The website Walk Score measures the walkability of any place based on distance to amenities, with points given based on walking distance. Places that have amenities within a 5 minute walk are assigned maximum points, while those requiring more than a 30 minute walk are given no points. A location is described as walker’s paradise if it has a Walk Score of 90-100 points, while any address with a Walk Score lower than 50 points is classified as a Car-Dependent.
Unsurprisingly, the walkability map of Greater Cairo shows that new urban communities are Car-Dependent neighbourhoods where all or most errands require a car. On the other hand, the main urban agglomeration of Greater Cairo, including formal and informal areas, has a higher Walk Score so most errands can be accomplished on foot. Meanwhile, the quality and quantity of public service and utilities available in formal parts are higher than those offered in informal settlements. For instance, Downtown Cairo has a Walk Score of 98 percent —Walker’s Paradise— whereas El-Zawya El-Hamraa, an informal settlement, has a Walk Score of 81 out of 100, Very Walkable.
The Future of Walkability in Cairo
In March 2014 the campaign of now-President el-Sisi, in collaboration with Arabtec Holding Company, pledged to build ‘one million housing units’ for low-income youths. The capacity of the government for executing this non-profit project is questionable. Regardless, such a project should not only be residential, but also provide amenities, transport links, and adequate infrastructure. Otherwise yesterday’s problem of “housing without inhabitants” would be repeated.
The emergence of informal housing is an indication of the failure of government housing provision policies. Formulating a more successful housing policy requires a multivariable approach that is defined as an interaction of several core factors, not just providing affordable housing. Understanding and identifying the type of social networks is a key component of this multivariable approach. A new housing policy for Cairo should provide affordable housing, walkable access to amenities and job opportunities for new communities.
Abdelbaseer A. Mohamed is a short-term scholar at American University in Washington DC and a PhD student at Ain Shams University, Cairo, Egypt.