New Cairo

Yesterday was my refugee psychology class where we usually sit around, hold hands and talk about our feelings.  Every once in awhile, people mention the word refugee, but for the most part the class discussion seems to meander into every direction except refugee psychology.  I don't really mind the class so much, except it is located at the new campus, about an 1 hour bus ride outside of Cairo within the sprawling urban development, New Cairo.


The campus is absolutely beautiful, yet the poor generalplanning of the entire New Cairo development seems to undermine thesatisfaction that one would otherwise derive from the setting.  For the time being, going to school at AUC in New Cairo is disaster.  With no public transportation system in place, the schoolshuttles buses from the old campus gates to the new campus, every dayof the week.  With only 2 or 3 departments still located at the oldcampus, the entire downtown facilities remain empty while the expenseto maintain them remains in place.  In New Cairo, all aspects of dailylife had to be determined and constructed in advance of the residentpopulation, so it is only natural that certain details are lacking orare insufficient.  From technical concerns, such as anticipating theappropriate sewer size for the projected future population, to simplerdetails such as appropriate business hours.  


New Cairo is a rather bizarre place, a big goofy suburb of rich people in big houses out in the desert.  It has many of the characteristics of of new American suburbs, with rows of identical houses, tree lined streets, and convenient shopping centers dotting the periphery, but it also has an array of unique characteristics.  Palm trees dot the medians, giant fountains of water are spread around to showoff the luxury of the neighborhood, and crazy glass office buildings are randomly distributed.  The buildings are generally positioned within a high density, and with nearly zero setbacks, the facades are frequently immediately perpendicular to the street edge.  I can't recall if there are any sidewalks, but I have the impression that the interest of cars dominate the street design far more than pedestrians.

The strange thing about New Cairo is that EVERYTHING is presently under construction.  While normal communities evolve slowly over time, this whole city is planned from top to bottom by urban designers, architects, and real estate companies.  The whole city is being constructed all at once, as all housing, business, utilities, and shopping have suddenly popped up within the Sahara like an oasis of modern commerce.  It makes the area sorta creepy really, to see unfinished concrete buildings buried in the sand, as far as you can see.  An apocalyptic allure hangs over the buildings, especially as I cannot look at them and detach my thoughts from the current economic crisis.  It is difficult to measure or understand the economic downturn from where I stand, as the distinction between rich and poor is so massive within this country, that even with serious detriment to the Egyptian economy, one can barely see a difference.  Yet as New Cairo rises from the desert, I wonder if it will ever accomplish the vision that was set out for this place many years ago.

When I went to school for city planning, many of my more traditional instructors would profoundly echo to the students that the most important characteristic for any planner to contain is to have a strong sense of vision.  To have vision for the future, an ideal to work toward for the greater good of the community, and a specific sense of how this vision can be created in material form.  As I look at New Cairo, I reflect on this sens of vision, contemplating the vision of those who initiated this plan, and yet to see their intentions undermined by greater forces.  Certainly vision matters, but another lesson I had learned while studying planning was the value of metrics.  How much did these planners study and measure the forces that shape communities, that shape the creation of their vision, and ultimately determine the success of this new settlement?  Planning is of course, not a pure science, or at least is often not pursued in that manner as Community Planning is an interdisciplinary discourse.

While personal vision and precise measurements are certainly needed, I would argue that New Cairo reveals a common shortfall among planners, the element of community.  As a completely designed new settlement out on the urban periphery, there was no preexisting community to serve as a foundation for growth.  Communities evolve over time and cannot be magically called into existence.  Yet without a community in place, how does one truly ever know what to plan for?  Maybe in the future, New Cairo will stand as the feature destination for tourists and and successful businesses within Egypt.  Perhaps it will be the glamorous counterpart to Cairo, or maybe it will become assimilated into the general sprawl of Cairo, so that these two different cities will merge into one single massive settlement.  For the moment, New Cairo remains a disconcerting venture as it seems to have everything except for the most crucial ingredient.  People.