Situated along the outskirts of Greater Cairo lie rapidly populating areas – an extension of informal urban growth that's been dominating the absorption of this megacity's population since the early 1960s.
These areas can be referred to as "peri-urban," or periphery-urban, Cairo. They're the result of continued expansion of unregistered housing that occurs because the majority of Egyptians cannot access suitable accommodation for themselves.
The growth of informal neighborhoods occurs within the borders of Greater Cairo. But peri-urban communities, which have existed since the 1940s, expand differently. They grow polycentrically outward into various locations, such as around fringe towns and villages where rural Egypt meets Greater Cairo.
Peri-urban communities differ from suburbs in that they have their own "city" centers, rather than being built around public transit routes that extend from formal Cairo. This allows peri-urban communities to exist even further from the city while maintaining access to the city center.
But to understand the importance of the peri-urban phenomenon, it's important to identify the organic nature by which informal areas have been able to meet Cairo's urban expansion needs.
Cairo's congestion and increasing population are critical concerns, and many urban planners and investors have searched for ambitious solutions to the problems – the most obvious attempt being the creation of Cairo's desert cities.
But though these solutions were supposed to help lower socioeconomic classes, they did not benefit very much and began to take it upon themselves to construct suitable – albeit informal – housing to accomodate their needs.
“Informal areas were established in contravention of laws and decrees that either prohibited building on agricultural land and governed subdivisions, or required building permits to be issued for any structure,” states David Sims, an urban development specialist with 30 years of experience in the developing world, and author of “Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control."
Informal areas are constructed with little to no urban planning, which leads to issues like a lack of open public spaces and static infrastructure with poor connectivity to utilities. However, informal areas have an approach more in tune with the needs of the average Cairene.
According to a population census conducted in 2009, informal Cairo constitutes approximately two-thirds of Greater Cairo’s total population, as opposed to being practically nonexistent in 1950, demonstrating its ability to absorb significant population growth.
The magnetic qualities of these informal areas are patent: affordable housing, easy access to transportation, and densely populated residential communes that enable the establishment of informal economies, organic growth and social cohesion.
These three qualities are, in essence, what investors and planners have continuously attempted to recreate in desert cities, not accepting the natural growth of the peri-urban communities.
“The informal areas are able to provide what architects and urban professionals failed to provide with their alternative housing ambitions,” states Amir Gohar, an urban planner and designer who is internationally experienced in working with informal settlements and private-sector firms.
“Instead of facing reality and upgrading the true nature of their economic base, the government opted to invest in alternative solutions with no infrastructure, no economy and no social dynamic, despite the pre-existence of highly populated informal neighborhoods,” adds Gohar. “Obviously it failed.”
As the expansion of informal Cairo continued, however, the government has made various half-hearted attempts to recognize these informal areas, but with limited success.
“When the government allowed for the connection of utilities – electricity, water and sewage – to these areas, they made a fundamental mistake,” states Kareem Ibrahim, an urban planner and co-founder of Takween, an urban planning solutions initiative established after 25 January.
“It wasn’t a mistake to give them utilities. The mistake was not to use this opportunity to transform these areas into formal ones, rather than encourage their informal nature, which in turn encouraged further population absorption,” he adds.
However, as population growth and informal absorption continues, as it has in the past decade, according to population censuses, it has witnessed a reduction in the growth rate of traditional informal areas surrounding formal Cairo, and an increase in the growth rate of the peri-urban frontier – the fringe, polycentric adaptation of informal Cairo.
Various factors have contributed to this inevitable switch, due to certain disadvantages presented within traditional informal settlements.
“Since the developments are largely out of sight," says David Sims, "there are less prohibitions on building on agricultural land than along the informal fringes of the core agglomeration of Greater Cairo.”
This has allowed for looser and faster expansion, and therefore even more affordable housing solutions, particularly for the bulk of lower-income families.
In addition to this, peri-urban areas have also been able to adopt more efficient systems of urban agriculture, further increasing the ability of informal economies to establish themselves more effectively and independently.
“Peri-urban areas provide the ideal conditions to establish proper urban agricultural systems, such as backyard farms and rooftop gardens,” says Osama al-Beheiry, a professor at Ain Shams University’s Faculty of Agriculture who is a champion of urban agriculture.
“Aside from the obvious benefits of urban agriculture, enhanced land usage and supply chains, peri-urban areas are less exposed to the severe pollution levels that exist closer to Cairo, which makes them much easier to implement organically,” he adds.
The existence of improved agricultural access in urban environments has allowed peri-urban areas further independence as self-sufficient communities, gradually presenting themselves as attractive alternative housing solutions for the lower socioeconomic classes – namely, the majority of Cairo’s growing population.
In this vein, peri-urban Cairo is ever-so-slowly transforming itself, organically and at low cost, into what Cairo’s desert cities were intended to be. However, certain factors are preventing informal and peri-urban areas in Cairo from becoming established solutions.
Despite the attractiveness of informal settlements for large portions of the population and the disadvantages that stem from uncontrolled construction, the lack of a dedicated social analysis and recognition by the government has prolonged their state of informality.
This negligence has resulted in poor budgetary allocations and a lack of infrastructure – such as roads, schools and communal facilities – all of which would come at a cost far lower than the over-the-top investments directed to Cairo’s largely uninhabited desert cities.
“If anything should constitute a scandal, it is this,” says Sims. “With almost two-thirds of the total population of Greater Cairo, informal areas do not receive even a tiny fraction of the city’s investments.”
But as informal populations continue to grow, the government will eventually succumb to an “increasing pressure of numbers.”
“You cannot ignore the informal phenomenon in the hope that it goes away on its own, because it won’t,” says Ibrahim. “So new governments can choose to continue to ignore it, or for once address the needs of the majority and start tackling it, and incorporating informal areas as urban solutions in a significant way.”
However, despite scattered attempts by the government to improve the standards of informal areas, Greater Cairo has yet to attract an urban investment project with the ability to alter large-scale socioeconomic dynamics in the long term.
“We need to seriously study these informal areas, because they obviously have unique, intrinsic qualities that allow them to thrive that are invisible to archetypal urban planners and government officials,” says Gohar.
He goes on: “With a proper understanding of how they work, as well as an honest analysis of the nature of the average Egyptian, we can transform our short-term, socioeconomic welfare distributions into long-term solutions, which will be evidence that the revolution is succeeding."