For decades, Cairo has been synonymous with traffic, as the city of millions continues to grow in size and population on a daily basis, creating pressure on its urban fabric. Nonetheless, Egypt’s capital has long defied expectations of collapse, due to an intricate system of informal “solutions” to large-scale holes in its infrastructure.

Pressures on Cairo’s road network in particular have long exceeded its capacity, creating untenable conditions and short-term fixes in many parts of the city, while the discrepancy between development rates across higher and lower-income parts of the city becomes increasingly noticeable. Problems with transportation have prompted ad hoc solutions, such as micro-buses to combat the major undersupply of public transportation alternatives, while a lack of affordable housing has pushed 25-35% of city-dwellers into informal settlements, according to UN numbers.

It is precisely for these reasons that the more affluent strata of society have begun to migrate outwards, prompting a surge in the phenomenon of new satellite cities over the past forty years that has majorly picked up momentum in recent years. However, in doing so, have these segments of society resolved the issues associated with a choking urban fabric, or simply exacerbated them? This article seeks to explore the urban development of Cairo outwards, and the relationship between the new satellite cities and their urban center in terms of distribution of resources, accessibility, and the overall integration and long-term vision for the city.

Prevalent Problems in Central Cairo and Outlying Districts

With the unprecedented population boom in Egypt in the mid-twentieth century, and the ensuing rural-to-urban migration trends, Cairo’s population exploded with unmitigated growth. According to a research paper entitled “The challenge of urban growth in Cairo” by Mahmoud Yousry and Tarek A. Aboul Atta, the population of Egyptians living in the Greater Cairo Region (encompassing the governorates of Cairo and Giza, as well as certain urban developed areas of Qaliubiya) skyrocketed from 11.2% in 1950 to 18.4% in 1960.

This was coupled with intermittent peaks in a generally high population growth, whereby in 1987, the population growth rate exceeded its 1960 peak of 2.7%, recording 2.77%, according to World Bank figures. This compares to a current average worldwide growth rate of 1.2%.

These factors together resulted in a number of phenomena that only proliferated over the decades, among the most prominent of which are the expansive informal settlements that sprang up throughout the city beginning in the 1960s onwards, and, in parallel, the spiraling levels of congestion, both of which could have been mitigated through comprehensive policy and planning for the growth of the city.

Notoriously, since the 1980s, much of government spending has not gone towards expanding Cairo’s public transportation networks, instead favoring pouring government resources into building road networks and large highways. The policies and planning that were adopted were largely biased towards the spread of cars and car-ownership, according to Magd Zahran, Urban Governance and Planning Specialist at UN Habitat.

This came at the expense of the state plan to expand the public transportation network, in particular the metro, the implementation of which has seem numerous postponements since it first opened in 1987.

“At the time of the planning of the metro, its network was expected to expand to the area of the existing Ring Road,” Zahran told Invest-Gate. However, despite being one of the most efficient means of transport in a traffic-laden city, the initial Greater Cairo metro plan is far off-schedule from its initial dates, and plans to expand it outwards to the new existing satellite cities have been all but scrapped.

Similarly, it was only in recent years that large-scale social and middle-income housing initiatives really took off; in previous decades, the gap in affordable housing was met in an ad hoc manner, with a growing gulf in the spending on infrastructure and basic services across neighborhoods of varying levels of affluence.

Moreover, despite Nasserist efforts to introduce social housing schemes in the 1950s and ‘60s, informal housing has continued at a steady pace over the decades, oftentimes encroaching on agricultural space through unlicensed building, according to a report by urban planner and researcher David Sims for the UN. Moreover, the social housing initiatives remained largely abandoned for decades, under Sadat and particularly under Mubarak, who only conceived the million units housing program in his final days in office.

New Cities: New Prospects?

The model of the gated communities in Egypt’s satellite cities, most prominently New Cairo and 6th of October City, erupted almost entirely as an antithetical model to the growing issues associated with the heightening population density. Emulating the model of the US suburbs, these gated communities have sprung up, with ostensibly high levels of success and demand, serving the small segment of the population with access to upward mobility.

The new cities brought with them models that were nearly alien to the Egyptian community; detached houses and villas and wide open green spaces that are presumed to be for public use. The land on which these communities are built is controlled by the New Urban Communities Authority, the investment arm of the Ministry of Housing, which nonetheless operates in administrative independence, and does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Cairo Governorate.

“In terms of area alone, the size of New Cairo is 1.8 times that of what is now considered central Cairo,” Zahran said. However, in terms of population density, he stated that New Cairo is currently only at 20% of its expected occupancy, while only 2% of the Cairene population lives there.

This is expected to majorly grow within the next few years; however, within the past five years alone, traffic levels within the new cities have steadily grown, as more axes are being built. However, New Cairo in particular has succeeded in escaping the vast infrastructural problems that plague many other areas in Cairo; namely the lack of facilities and services (sewage, electricity, etc.) that are extended to certain areas of the capital.

In terms of the level of spending on infrastructure, Zahran said that New Cairo alone commands 60% of the spending on Cairo, a vast number when compared to the percentage of the population actually living there.

Conversely, spending on public transportation in new cities is minimal to non-existent. Part of this is intentional – maintaining the sense of exclusivity of the areas. However, looking beyond Egypt towards successful plans for developed cities, the idea of a fully integrated and accessible city becomes crucial. Not only does New Cairo lack public transportation facilities, such as buses and a metro line, according to Zahran, any attempts to meet the demand for informal transportation facilities, such as microbuses, have been met with animosity.

Moving Forward

The existence of the new satellite cities is crucial to easing the pressure on urban density in the city centers. However, part of this includes ensuring an equal distribution of types of housing across the various satellite cities. As the government picks up pace with social and middle-incoming housing, this is becoming more viable, with projects such as Dar Misr ensuring that some of the outsized demand on relatively affordable housing is being met.

Nonetheless, as it stands, much of the housing in the satellite cities is on the one hand focused on upscale investments, and on the other, such areas remain highly inaccessible from other areas of the city. According to the UN City Prosperity Index, the overall success of a city can be measured across five different axes: productivity, quality of life, infrastructure development, environmental sustainability, and equity and social inclusion.

Accordingly, a housing model based on exclusion is not only problematic, it is unsustainable in the long term, as such new satellite cities are largely serviced by segments of society that live in remote areas and have no means of easy access to the city. From a productivity perspective alone, this is problematic, not to mention in terms of social inclusion.

“At the end of the day, segregation creates alienation,” and is not conducive to the conditions that would resolve the major issues faced on the city-wide scale, Zahran said. In the future, as plans for Cairo’s fourth metro line come underway, it is crucial to begin to address the wider questions of population distribution and accessibility, in conjunction and parallel throughout central Cairo and the new suburbs.

Investing in a fully functional rapid transit system is a major step towards ensuring both accessibility, functionality, and equitability, while land offering and policy-making must increasingly favor affordable housing schemes. In the long-term, this is likely to create a far more functional and investment-friendly city. Foreign investors are far more likely to be encouraged to invest in accessible areas, so long as Egypt’s most viable asset continues to be its booming population.