Waterfronts and green spaces in central Cairo – what´s the way forward?

Waterfronts and green spaces in central Cairo – what´s the way forward?

The city of Cairo is a sprawling metropolis of now eight million inhabitants in its inner core, which has witnessed an Europeanising of its urban fabric some 160 years ago under Pasha Ismael who was inspired by French squares and boulevards after visiting the World Exposition in Paris in 1867. Afterwards, Ismael initiated the construction and redesign of large parks at the Eastern and Western banks of the Nile, as well as on the central city island. Later after the British invasion in 1882, the city centre of Cairo has moved westwards from the Islamic centre to new Europeanised quarters by the Nile. The colonial period ended in 1953 with the foundation of the Arab Republic of Egypt. But today, downtown Cairo continues to display its historical legacy with an eclectic mix of 19th century European, Arabic, informal and modern architecture.

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Downtown Talaat Harb Square built around 1910.

Being an anthropologist with an interest in waterfront development and sustainability discourses in African cities, observations while walking two days through these residential areas along the Nile have raised up some food for thought…

Greening African cities

Urban sustainability, as well as blue and green spaces of African metropolises have gained prominence in global academic and policy debates for the past years. Larger urban modernisation projects in Africa are pushed forward by real estate agencies, which partner in one way or the other with municipalities. Many developers justify and promote new masterplans and rebuilding of central city locations with arguments of sustainability and environmental adaptation.

Besides higher energy efficiency in buildings and improved public transport systems, urban greening seems imperative because of the ecosystem services green spaces may provide: filter air pollution, regulate the micro-climate, reduce noise, drain rainwater and treat sewage, support urban biodiversity, as well as build recreational and cultural values. But evidence from many different locations worldwide also shows that urban greening often enhances gentrification, even if started as local small-scale initiative in poor and abandoned neighbourhoods. Greening in a wider sense increases the living quality in quarters and as soon as they become attractive enough, real estate companies get interested in the housing market. As a result, rental prices rise. This process is called green gentrification.

Zamalek

In Zamalek located on the central city island, called El-Gezira (lit. the island) one can physically sense what this means in practice. The quarter with villas and lovely multi-story residential buildings from the 19th century became popular among expatriates and better-off Cairenes after parks on the island had served recreational purposes of local and foreign elites for many decades. Today it is also a place for embassies and other international institutions. But social housing schemes are also in place. Dusty but representative houses line up along footpaths under alleys of large street trees.

Walking through Zamalek residential area is pleasant in cool shade with less dust and also a hushed noise of the hooting traffic running through the main route not so far away. Gardens hide behind walls and watchmen keep an eye on every move of yours. Some house entries and streets are decorated with private accumulations of plant pots though many look like having been untouched by green fingers… random collections of neglected dry dead succulents and recently pursued fresher substitutes. But Zamalek is distinct from most neighbourhoods in Cairo and hip boutiques, dog-walking residents, floating houses at Imbaba Riverside opposite to Zamalek contribute to the evidence. The southern part of El-Gezira still is a public though fragmented park landscape with a number of cultural and touristic institutions, as well as the area of the semi-private Gezira Sporting Club.

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Zamalek residential buildings at the Eastern shore.

If you walk along the river towards the city centre with the Egyptian Museum and famous Tahrir Square you cross the Kasr al Nile Bridge, one of the six bridges connecting Zamalek to the mainland. Youth enjoy hanging around on this bridge where the view opens to a line of huge floating restaurants and a new harbour for smaller pleasure boats which cruise up and down the Nile in the evenings with colourful illumination and cheerful music.

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Pleasure boat harbour on El-Gezira.

Where the bridge ends, a few hundred meters of novel Nile promenade stretch towards the North. Steps directing to the promenade have crashed and require an unpleasant detour and several venturesome road crossings. Shade at the promenade is still of short supply for many of the trees have only recently been planted. But tea is served by informal vendors. And people take a time out and enjoy. Shy young couples cautiously meet in this public space which is somehow deserted from the city centre by the busy traffic of Nile Corniche Road running here North-South along the Eastern shore of the Nile.

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Eastern Nile Promenade with Nile Corniche Road.

Constructing a positive city image

A bit to the North, just behind the bridge 6th of October and on the other side of Nile Corniche, lies the Maspero Triangle District, a 35ha large area that faces rebuilding for 30 years but nothing had happened until recently. Most of the area is covered by Boulaq, a poor neighbourhood with decaying high apartment blocks but vibrant economic activities and residents that are emotionally attached to this place for many decades.

In the public debate Boulaq is often referred to as an informal settlement or slum. The current government prioritises slum development and has dedicated a total budget of 15 billion EGP. But pushing development in Maspero should maybe rather be seen in the context of image competition among metropolises worldwide and the increased global interest in waterfronts development.

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Eastern Nile Promenade with Nile Corniche Road.
Eastern Nile Promenade with Nile Corniche Road.

„Cities must actively pursue and construct positive imaginative geographies to endure that they become and remain ´hot spots´. […] The redevelopment of highly visible urban waterside sites has become a key mechanism by which positive images are constructed“ (Davidson 2009). And waterfront are located central to the city and they are also highly visible from many different spots.

Therefore, they may play a special role in these place making and city marketing strategies. From an investor´s point of view, waterfronts are of great interest because they may generate 40-60% more returns compared to central city locations that are not waterfronts (Ibid. 2009).

In 2015, different architectual designs were suggested for Maspero Triangle and three international firms have won the competition: British architects Foster + Partners envisage a modern pedestrianised skyline landscape at the waterfront with lower residential and economic buildings behind it. They intend giving more green community space to the residents and designing housing structures that bear witness to the oriental location and support public street life. Italian architects Boeri want to win back the Cairene middle class residents by constructing new residential buildings in between a new waterfront with public institutions and a hotel on the one hand side and the restored old residential buildings on the other. Green spaces are foreseen by Boeri on a system of artificial Nile islands. An elevated botanical garden was suggested which could cover the city´s main ugly traffic knot in front of the 6th of October Bridge. And the transnational Dar Al-Handasah consortium proposes a kind of social enterprise model for a step by step development of the Maspero Triangle District. But it also recommends a globalised futuristic design with green features that could as well be drafted for Qatar or Kuwait.

The municipality or government will probably translate some of these ideas into a new masterplan that will serve as guideline for private investors. Constructions, however, have not yet started, and local fears from gentrification remain. Residents of Boulaq were already offered different legal options (new housing somewhere else, compensation and move out from Maspero, or return to Maspero after reconstruction with higher rents). Contracts between Maspero residents and the government have taken momentum.

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Nile Promenade near Garden City

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Beautified banks – more decoration than ecological function

“Paris on the Nile”

If one walks southwards on the Eastern bank one feels really reminded of the saying “Cairo – Paris on the Nile”. The ways lead towards Garden City, another wealthy Europeanised neighbourhood which was constructed by private investors after the mid-1950s with the idea of the English garden city in mind. The other side of the busy Nile Corniche Road is rather unattractive to the pedestrian with its sequence of huge luxury hotels. But higher elevated floors provide nice views over the Nile.

These and government buildings cut the vibrant Garden City from the Nile. Shady benches on the waterfront promenade are popular among Cairenes. The river bank below the promenade is partly developed, partly left wild and used as terminal for pleasure boats, private marina or tree nursery. The greenest stretches in the ecological sense are those left untouched by beautification efforts. A few shacks suggest squatting on the narrow green stretch but I might be mistaken.

Urban island fantasies

During my short stay in July 2017, news reported on contestations by residents on Al-Warraq, the next island North to Zamalek where the police arrived with bulldozers to destroy residential buildings in the context of a new bridge project. One resident was killed and about 50 people and policemen got injured. Finally, the police withdrew due to the massive protest. While two bridges connect the north of the 5km2 large island, which is agriculturally dominated, most residents on Al-Warraq share very poor living conditions in the southern and Eastern part of the island. Al-Warraq residents commute with ferries and boats to the mainland. And, as it is often the case with island locations, the Al-Warraq is not as much in the public consciousness of other Cairenes and government officers as informal settlements on the mainland which can be seen from motorways or in neighbourhoods.

Bad housing on and unsafe transport conditions to Al-Warraq can be ignored unless new political priorities bring the island back to the agenda. The government argued that residents had squatted public land and would need to leave while residents underlined that they have lived on Al-Warraq for many decades and would thus have land rights. Media reports on the tenure system are not conclusive. Journalists and residents suspected the new bridge to be the initial step to selling the land to foreign investors. An initial masterplan for Al-Warraq had been worked out by Egyptian architects Cube Consultants in 2010. Another masterplan from 2013 by Singaporean architects RSP envisaged a modernist luxurious urban island fantasy unrelated to any of the realities on the ground. Neither plan has been realised. But there is a political will to give downtown Cairo and its waterfronts a modern and more attractive face.

Al-Azhar Park

If we move away from the Nile and downtown, we can visit Cairo’s largest park in the old Islamic city centre. This green tourist attraction is Al-Azhar Park, a 30 ha large landscape in Islamic garden tradition which Aga Khan Development Network has constructed from 1992 to 2005 on a dumping ground surrounded by Darb al-Ahmar, one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Cairo. In order to prevent gentrification, park construction was flag shipped by an employment and training programme for Darb al-Ahmar residents who helped building the park, infrastructural improvements of residential areas (water supply etc.) and the restoration of local monuments. But the Al-Azahr Park could probably had taken a different pathway if it had not been a gift by Aga Khan but if it was implemented under full market conditions.

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Manial Palace and its park on Rhoda Island require an entry fee.

My personal observations while walking through some of the greenest spaces in Cairo are just little puzzle pieces in the much larger and complex urban fabric of the metropolis where statistically each inhabitant has only about 0.5m2 of green space. Certainly, there has been a historical link between parks, private green spaces and urban elites since the foundation of the city. Loss of large parks, gardens and stretches of the Nile promenades on the islands and mainland have accelerated in the Europeanising and modernisation periods and again since the 1980s and 1990s when Egyptian economy opened up for global actors. Since the 1980s, real estate market forces seem to blaze the trail but they serve other customers than poor and low income Cairenes. Green spaces on land use maps neither necessarily mean that valuable ecosystem services are produced nor that green spaces are equitable and accessible to everybody.

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Manial Palace and its park on Rhoda Island require an entry fee.

Cairo´s downtown waterfronts are essential for the city image that attracts tourism and international businesses. Intense population growth has fuelled investments in construction ever since but also resulted in many informal settlements on Al-Warraq Island and in many other parts of the metropolis that require up-grading. Co-developing the neighbourhood and green urban space as in the Al-Azahr example, suggests one way. But how can green gentrification be avoided in a way or other than by regulating rental markets? The idea of retrofitting roofs for urban agriculture as strategy for up-grading of poor neighbourhoods was brought forward. But while such greening initiatives may assemble to produce larger impact on urban sustainability, the actual trend seems to take another direction.

Food for thought…

  • How could efforts to greener Cairo unfold in a way that increases urban environmental sustainability without compromising social sustainability?
  • What historical or local models of urban greening could be promoted if one wanted to decolonise Cairene urbanism? Or would the implementation of strategies based on experience from other regions be the main way forward?

 Further reading

Davidson, M. 2009. Waterfront development. In: Thrift, N. and Kitchen, R. (eds) International Encyclopedia of Human Geography, Elsevier: Oxford, pp. 215-221.
GTZ Egypt 2009. Cairo’s informal areas between urban challenges and hidden potentials. Facts, voices, visions. Cairo.
Nassar, Aya 2013. ‘Being’ in Al-Azhar Park: Public spaces in Cairo. The Open Urban Studies Journal 6 (Suppl 1: M6): 65-74.
Nasser, Rabbat 2004. A brief history of green spaces in Cairo. IN: S. Bianca and P. Jodidio (eds.) Cairo: Revitalising a Historic Metropolis, Geneva: The Aga Khan Trust for Culture, pp. 43-53.
Tawfic, Abdallah 2015. Retrofitting green roofs to the urban morphology of informal settlements- Introducing productive green roofs to Imbaba, Cairo. Msc. thesis. Hafen City University Hamburg.
Wanas, Ayman & Samir, Enas 2016. Social mobility and green open urban spaces with special reference to Cairo. GBER 10 (1): 13-26.

One Reply to “Waterfronts and green spaces in central Cairo – what´s the way forward?”

  1. Very nice piece with alot of interesting info. Thank you for taking us on a journey to the Paris of the Nile.
    Marwa

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