Informal areas have largely been responsible for absorbing most of Egypt’s growing urban population for the past 30 years. But most Cairenes didn’t notice these areas — or ashweyat, as the areas with red-brick buildings and narrow, unpaved streets are loosely called — until the Ring Road was built around the formal city limits about 10 years ago.
The road exposed neighborhoods that many residents had never seen before, showing them for the first time that formal Cairo had been completely surrounded by kilometer after kilometer of informal building.
Urban planners now estimate that about 75 percent of those living in greater Cairo live in informal areas, yet they remain unrecognized by state institutions and have not been drawn on official maps. To tackle the issue, three international programs held the first in a series of workshops Monday to better understand the issue and bring together various stakeholders.
A number of urban planners, government representatives, academics and NGOs attended Monday’s workshop, sponsored by the French-funded research center CEDEJ, German development company GIZ, and the United Nations’ human settlements program UN-Habitat.
One of its main concerns was to examine what has been happening in greater Cairo’s informal areas since the 25 January revolution. Data collected by renowned urban planners David Sims and Dina Shehayeb seem to suggest informal areas have been growing at almost twice to four times the rate as before.
Various attempts to divert this rapid growth have largely failed. Most notably, Cairo’s satellite cities — which cost billions of pounds to build — have only absorbed a fraction of the city’s growth due to their distance from downtown Cairo and lack of transportation services. No alternative housing can seem to compete with the needs-based minimalism by which these informal areas, buildings and communities continue to be constructed.
Technically, these structures are illegal. Those who build these red-brick buildings usually don’t own the land, nor do they have building licenses, and most of them are built on valuable agricultural land.
But little can be done to prevent the massive growth, aside from a relatively rare forced eviction or demolition, to the point that formal Cairo now represents the minority of the urban population. Politicians rarely discuss this growth, however, and continue to boast about the city as if it were mostly formal.
That fact may leave some wondering: What is Cairo, if not an informal organism altogether? And why is it not a bigger part of the national dialogue after the revolution?