Sunday, June 15, 2008

Cairo. Participatory Urbanism

Ezbet El Hagganon: Life under the voltage

Informal Additions

Cairo has been so difficult to get my head around. It’s got a little bit of everything. Much of the people have taken the city into their own hands, finding whatever room they can maneuver in to live. They are creating order out of chaos. Or chaos out of order. This is the real Cairo. And it extends out in all directions, as explosive growth (70-80% of it informal in last 15 years) has transformed lush agricultural land into vertical highrises of concrete and brick, never quite finished. But, to the east and west of Cairo, on the peripheries (both physically, socially, and economically), the new world of control, exclusion, and consumption is slowly taking shape. The need to escape the chaos of the city and find the order that has typically defined such places as suburban America is driving the upper class to communities by the names of Allegria, Beverly Hills, and Dreamland.

Beverly Hills in the Desert

In the heart of the city is a completely different story. People are engaged in the urbanism in extraordinary ways. I think this is what gives Cairo so much of its energy, but you may not notice it if you are taking the typical tourist path. It was in the neighborhoods of Boulak, Manshiet Nasser, Ein El Sira, and Ezbet Al Hagganan where I could not help but to almost cry, but at the same time, be utterly amazed at the active ways in which they stake some level control over their environment and the necessity by which it is accomplished.

Cairo Constructed and Deconstructed

In many ways, it looks as if a bomb has hit much of Cairo. Some people also describe it is a tomb. But , underneath all of it, Cairo is a little bit of everything. And in this city, it is not just he poorest of the poor who are struggling to find their space in the city. It is most of the population. Yet, unlike in most other cities, collectively, it feels as if they own and have staked claim to much of the entire city. In his article entitled “Cairo’s Poor: Dilemmas of Survival and Solidarity”, Asef Bayat describes it as ‘quiet encroachment.’ He continues that this challenges “many fundamental aspects of the state’s prerogatives—including the meaning of order, control of public space, the importance of modernity, and finally, the state’s encroachment on private property.”

Fields Turning into Buildings

Yet, while this encroachment may be described as quiet, when put together on a scale such as Cairo, it becomes very loud visually, and that has certainly been part of the draw. One of the drastic and massive challenges is the land on which much of the growth is taking place. Much of the informal development is taking place directly in the Nile River Valley where private owners are converting their agricultural plots into homes, then adding more floors, eventually turning building into highrises. Generally speaking, building land will fetch between 8-12 times the price of agricultural land (Sims and Sejourne). And slowly they morph together turning once fertile land into oppressive (but very necessary) vertical communities of brick and concrete, providing images I could only imagine in movies. I cannot help but wonder about the connection between this conversion of agricultural land to urban land in the midst of the global food crisis.

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