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How David Sims Understands Cairo

Especially now that the incompetence and corruption of the former Egyptian government are the target of the people’s revolutionary wrath, everybody wants to understand Cairo—how the more than 20 million Egyptians who inhabit this megalopolis have been coping over the past decades with traffic gridlocks, insufficient public transportation, inadequate higher education, rising unemployment, and scarce affordable housing.

In his comprehensive and accessible new book, Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control (AUC Press, 2010), economist and urban planner David Sims sheds a bright light on the intricacies of Cairo’s urban development and also deconstructs some of the misconceptions about the city he loves. One that he is avid to contest touches on the growth of Cairo’s population. “There is this attempt to lay all of Cairo’s problems on to the very people who are not destroying the city, which is the mass of people who don’t own cars and who are just trying to get along and are perceived to have peasant roots,” explains Sims in a recent interview. “This idea that they form this continued random migration into Cairo is also a myth,” adds Sims, a resident of Cairo for the past three decades. 

And even if “superficially Cairo is a knot of contradictions,” Sims is not afraid to argue in his book that “it is possible for an apparently out-of-control Cairo to function and, in some ways, to function quite well.” During the interview he adds: “Cairo is a very likeable city, you can get anything you want, see a lot going on, and as long as you don’t have to battle with the traffic it’s a very easy place to live in and very comfortable. Sure it has problems but so do a lot of other big cities.”

To explain the logic behind the chaos of Greater Cairo, in his book Sims breaks down the city’s development of the last five decades into three distinct urban forms: the “formal city”—“real-estate projects and land subdivisions that conformed to the laws and government controls existent at the time”—that began in the 1950s and included a “love affair with state-subsidized public housing”; the “informal city,” settlements that “took off with a vengeance” in the 1960s, built “both on agricultural land and in the desert fringes,” while facing “no official resistance” and “clearly contraven[ing] the subdivision laws and building codes”; and finally the “modern desert city,” new towns like Sixth of October designed on government-owned land, “desert sites represent[ing] the planner’s ultimate dream of a total blank sheet of paper, where town layouts would be constrained neither by topography nor by existing urban realities.” The fourth and last urban phenomenon that Sims studies is the “peri-urban” city where “existing towns, core villages, and hamlets expand progressively through informal subdivision outward into the surrounding agricultural plain.”

Sims observes that informal development in terms of population absorption takes an uncontestable lead. “It is no exaggeration at all to say that almost all of today’s Greater Cairo is the product of informal processes, that these processes are dominant, and that they will continue to dominate for years to come.”        

In a new essay relating to his book, Understanding Cairo in Revolutionary Times, written after the February upheaval in Egypt, Sims strongly denounces this very inequitable urban development:

“The new towns around Cairo, toward which the government has lavished a huge chunk of the nation’s resources, need to be reconsidered. Not only do these satellite towns mainly benefit the rich and upper classes, they are inefficient and represent huge unsustainable failures that have attracted only a tiny fraction of their target populations, in spite of repeated government pronouncements to the contrary. After over thirty years of development, the populations of all these new towns do not exceed 800,000 inhabitants. Compare this to the 11 million people who live in Cairo’s huge informal or ‘ashwa’i areas. These informal areas are absorbing over three-fourths of the city’s additional population, and it is these areas that are in desperate need of improved infrastructure, streets and open spaces, schools, and a whole range of basic services.”

Cairo’s transport system is another of Sims’s big concerns. When asked to identify the main factor obstructing the urban development of Greater Cairo today, his answer is immediate: “Build a metro, fast!  It is thirty years behind time and having a reasonable and fast rapid transit system will solve so many problems.” The author elaborates further on this priority in the new essay. “[T]he government has only haltingly invested in expanding the underground metro and is decades behind its planned extensions. […] A clear national project in revolutionary Egypt should be a crash program to finish the third metro line and build the fourth and fifth.”

When pressed to predict if Cairo’s growing traffic crisis will ever improve, Sims says: “The traffic is still in the hands of the generals. Until there is a reform so that you actually get professionals there are people like traffic engineers—in control or who are at least listened to, nothing is going to change.” But he is also quick to point out that it is the private cars, owned by only 14% of the capital’s population, that are at the root of the problem. “The private car is by far the major contributor to the traffic congestions,” writes Sims. “The private car accounts for roughly two-thirds of all vehicles on the streets of the Greater Cairo region, with the remainder being made up of different kinds of buses, taxis, trucks, government vehicles, and motorcycles.”

But if Cairo is somewhat of “a success story” because it “has been able to grow from four to seventeen million inhabitants in less than fifty years on its own, so to speak, counter to government intentions and plans,” how does Sims see the future? In his new essay, he asks whether the departure of Mubarak will change the government’s old habits and its minimalist management and if it will start to provide real tangible basic public services. In his opinion, there are two looming obstacles that may prevent change from materializing: “By no means has the State been divested of all of its self-serving land grabbers and allied business elites,” writes Sims. Furthermore, he is also concerned about whether or not “new attitudes will prevail that sweep away the pompous posturing of the older professional elites whose models for Cairo are London, Singapore, or Dubai.”

To read David Sims’s new essay in its entirety, click here

To read more about David Sims’s Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control and buy the book, click here.

February 2011

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