Above the Roofs of Cairo
Urban gardening: How a citizen-led movement transforms Cairo’s rooftops to greenery.
Once a leading granary for the entire Mediterranean region, Egypt is one of the largest food importers in the world today. A net importer of food since 1974, agricultural commodities alone accounted for 30% of the country's imports by the 1980s. Today, Egypt is importing over 40% of its food and more than 60% of its wheat. Robert Walker therefore once ironically noted: “Today, the world is asking "who will rule Egypt?" Tomorrow, the world will ask "who will feed Egypt?”
There are several reasons Egypt is far from achieving the aim of “food sovereignty” set out in the constitution (Art. 79). Firstly, food consumption has dramatically changed over the past decades, as it has in other emerging markets. Meat is increasingly becoming part of daily meals. Secondly, there is the rapid population growth. Egypt’s population has grown dramatically since the 1950s – from 24 million in 1952 to 50 million in 1986 and 90 million in 2015. In the 1980s, a growth rate of 2.8% meant that one million inhabitants were added to the population every nine months.
Two demands competed for the same land: the small strip along the Nile and in the Delta region.
Not only did this growing population need ever greater amounts of food; it also needed more and more housing. These two demands competed for the same land: the small strip along the Nile and in the Delta region. Housing, economic production and food production have to share just 4% of the country's land. In the country overall, and in the Delta especially, urbanization increased rapidly from 26.4% in 1937 to 37.5% in 1960 and 43.9% in 1986. Because of decreasing birth rates in the cities and less rural-urban migration, urbanization has been stable since the late 1980s with 43.1% of the population living in urban areas in 2015. This means in concrete, that cities and villages are expanding at the same pace. Also, what is defined in Egypt as rural, a village for example, can have several ten thousand inhabitants. Accordingly, the population density of rural areas is comparable to that of larger cities.
The Egyptian government adopted various policies to manage housing for its burgeoning population – notably by relocated people from the crowded Nile Delta to the empty, unused desert. For more than fifty years, the government has implemented desert greening projects to gain additional arable land and planned new towns in the desert to cope with population growth.
Reclaiming land in the desert has been a central policy. One important desert greening project was the Mubarak Project for Youth Graduates launched in 1987 to reclaim land for university graduates in the desert and in the West and East Delta and around Fayoum in particular. The project attracted 350,000 people by 2003. Another major project was the Toshka City Project in the south of the country which was planned on an enormous area of 540,000 feddan (226,800 hectares). But both failed to attract sufficient capital and labour, and land remained undeveloped. The project areas were too far from existing settlements, and university students proved unwilling to move to an isolated place in the desert with little or no services.
The idea of conquering the desert by building new towns on empty land attracted many enthusiastic followers.
Even greater emphasis was put on redistributing people to new cities in the desert. First presented by President Anwar El-Sadat directly after the war of 1973, the idea of conquering the desert by building new towns on empty land attracted many enthusiastic followers. Between 1976 and 1982, eight so-called first generation new towns were built. As with the projects named above, they were located in significant distance from existing urban agglomerations since they were designed to be completely independent with their own economic base. They were intended to house an average of between 250,000 and 500,000 inhabitants.
Despite the great effort and investment that has gone into the various generations of new towns, they have largely failed to attract the number of inhabitants set by government targets.
By the mid-1980s, the focus of new town construction shifted towards the concept of satellite cities around Cairo to relieve overcrowding in Egypt’s capital and limit the growth of informal settlements that had been spreading around Cairo since the 1950s. By 1986, a new generation of new towns was being built as twin cities to provincial cities in Upper Egypt for the most part. Yet ten years after the first new town (Tenth of Ramadan) had been established, it was still only home to 8,509 inhabitants. In the mid-1990s, a major shift in the new town housing policy occurred. While the initial idea had been to house working and middle class families in the new towns, from the 1990s onwards private real-estate developers became the main actors in building and promoting new towns. Residential compounds and gated communities became the dominant theme. Despite the great effort and investment that has gone into the various generations of new towns, they have largely failed to attract the number of inhabitants set by government targets. After decades of construction and promotion, the total population of all new towns throughout Egypt was just 800,000 in 2006, although they were designed to house a much larger number. Despite the fact that populations in the new towns significantly increased from the 1996 to the 2006 population census, they absorbed only 4.3% of the population increase during that period.
The other 95% of the population increase was absorbed by existing agglomerations, and primarily through the informal expansion of existing cities on mostly agricultural land in the fertile Nile Delta that succeeded in generating more or less adequate housing at a stunning pace. Informal urban development has been the predominant feature of urban expansion in the last four decades. This trend has been evident in both big metropolises like Cairo and Alexandria and in medium to small cities all over Egypt. From 1970 to 1981, 84% of all units constructed were informal. Today, the scale of these areas is immense and it is estimated that 63% of the population of Greater Cairo, which amounts to 12 million people, live in such areas. In smaller cities, the spread of informal areas is equally high or even higher.
According to several studies, the spread of informal encroachments destroyed 1.2 million feddan of valuable agricultural land between 1982 and 2004. With the implementation of current government-sanctioned plans for the urban expansion of 226 cities, 4,632 villages, and 27,000 hamlets, it is expected that Egypt will formally have lost around 113,300, 207,860 and 13,500 feddan of agricultural areas around Egyptian cities, villages, and hamlets respectively by the year 2027. If this trend continues, Egypt will eventually surrender all its agricultural land, around five million feddan in the Delta, inside of around 200 years. The immense loss of agricultural land poses a threat to food security. Paradoxically, the state is much more tolerant of encroachments on agricultural land than on desert land, although the development of the desert is considered a priority.
Informal settlements offer an economic and social base that new towns have failed to provide.
Already scarce agricultural land is thus being destroyed because people prefer to live in informal areas rather than in the perfectly planned new towns. Why have new towns proven so unattractive in the housing market? Most of the housing units are luxury flats or villas for the upper middle class, whereas most people in need of a flat are looking for something small and affordable for the working class. More importantly, informal settlements offer an economic and social base that new towns have failed to provide. In Egypt, informal settlements are not slums. Most parts of them can in fact be considered structurally adequate in the sense that building materials of reasonable quality are used. Infrastructure and public services are lacking or insufficient, however, streets are too narrow and often unpaved, and public spaces are limited or non-existent – features that result from a lack of urban planning. Still, informal areas offer inhabitants advantages: walkability, vibrant economic life, work opportunities, work-home proximity, proximity to the city centre, and a strong sense of community. New towns on the other hand lack affordable public transportation, vibrant economic life and the social structure on which most Egyptians depend.
Why not combine this informal land reclamation with the building of new cities in locations obviously favoured by citizens?
So what is the solution? Some urban planners propose turning the whole narrow stretch of land along the Nile into one big urban agglomeration called 900km Nile City. This would result in the loss of nearly all agricultural land in Egypt. Alternatively, urban settlements on desert land could be promoted to prevent any further loss of fertile land. To be successful though, the pitfalls of the new towns of the past should be avoided. Housing opportunities should be located close to existing agglomerations, be open to different urban uses, and allow for small-scale economic activities in residential areas. Housing units should be affordable and connected to public transportation. The best way to achieve this is to gradually expand existing cities while at the same time building new cities that fit people's needs. This would be very suitable for agglomerations alongside the Nile south of Cairo. There, fertile land is limited so few kilometres right and left of the Nile. Every city is thus close to desert land. People actually have started to irrigate and cultivate this land informally. Why not combine this informal land reclamation with the building of new cities in locations obviously favoured by citizens? As such, land reclaimed for agriculture or new villages and towns would be very close to economic centres, and public transportation could be easily organized. Instead of giving out flats to individuals, land plots could be given to families which would preserve the social networks of families.
Instead, current government policies continue to ignore to fulfill the need to combine housing options to suit people's needs and still protect agricultural land. Mega land reclamation projects of 1,000,000 feddan in the depths of the desert without a reliable irrigation scheme show that the government or more accurately state authorities in general are trapped by their determination to control and plan everything rather than setting realistic guidelines for development. These ambitious policies (“making a new capital for 5 million people in a few years”; “reclaiming 1 million feddan in the desert”) are doomed to fail because they are neither responsive to the population's needs, nor do they take the state's capacity into consideration.