Cairo 2050: urban dream or modernist delusion?

AuthorTarbush, Nada
PositionGLOBAL PUBLIC POLICY NETWORK ESSAY - Egypt - Critical essay

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. The third and final section maps out possible ways forward.

Two points of clarification should be made before proceeding. First, this article is not arguing that plans to improve Cairo's urbanization are, in principle, wrong, and that the status quo is the best alternative and should be maintained. It is arguing that Cairo 2050's vision is flawed. The second point is, by extension, that this article is not meant to romanticize informal areas, but rather to show that the construction of these areas has been and continues to be rational, which should be recognized in any response to informal development. Hence, while the construction of informal areas should not be condemned, they have disadvantages that should be addressed.


Greater Cairo Region (GCR): Includes the governorates of Cairo, Giza and Qalyoubiya. Note that the Sixth of October governorate (seen in Figure 1 and Figure 2) and the Helwan governorate (seen in Figure 2) were reincorporated into the Cairo and Giza Governorates, respectively, in April 2011. (7) Throughout this article, "Cairo," "capital" and "city" are used synonymously with "Greater Cairo Region." The GCR has a population of approximately seventeen million people. (8)

Formal areas: Characterized by legal modes of urbanization. About five million people live in these areas.

Informal areas: Characterized by extra-legal modes of urbanization. About eleven million people live in these areas. (9)

New towns: These are towns that have been built in the desert around Cairo. Approximately 800,000 people live in these towns. (10) Throughout this article, "desert towns," "satellite towns" and "new towns" are used synonymously.


Cairo 2050 is a $3.5 million proposal that was commissioned by the Mubarak administration and was intended to be a new "Strategic Urban Development Plan" for the Greater Cairo Region. (11) The General Organization for Physical Planning spearheaded the effort under the aegis of the Ministry of Housing, Infrastructure and Urban Development. (12) A number of organizations collaborated on the project, including the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, the World Bank, the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) and the Japan International Cooperation Agency. (13) The idea behind the plan is that Cairo cannot continue on its current "flawed" development path if it is to become a modern global city.



Perceived Problems

According to the study, Cairo "has declined as a result of several problems: (1) High density in [the] inner-city; (2) Traffic congestion; (3) Environmental deterioration; (4) Informal development." (14) These are interlinked, with high population density--largely the result of informal development--leading to chaotic traffic, pollution and the construction of more informal housing. Informal development goes hand in hand with high density, causing the "maldistribution of population." (15) This contrasts with the more evenly distributed populations of Paris, New York and Tokyo, among others.

The comparison with other global cities is a leitmotif in Cairo 2050, indicating that the lack of modernity--defined as the extent of deviation from Western urban models--is also perceived as a fundamental obstacle to proper urban development. Informal development and its associated high population density and "maldistribution" are phenomena that deviate from Global North urban models; hence, they are antithetical to modernity and contribute to the "backward" state of Cairo's development.

Vision for the Future

To modernize Cairo and mitigate the problem of informal development and its associated high population density, Cairo 2050 envisions widely redistributing the population. This would entail removing some informal areas of Cairo entirely, and decongesting others by replacing built-up areas within them with wide boulevards, green open spaces...

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