A recent surprise declaration by Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab informed Egyptians that the government is exploring an ambitious project for a new town outside Cairo to house all State ministries and apparatuses. The project, according to the PM, would be erected east of Cairo on the Cairo Suez road, and should alleviate the notorious Cairo congestion in buildings, services, and transport.
Some four decades ago, amid a trend to erect new towns, President Anwar al-Sadat (c.1970 – 1981) decided to establish a town to house government buildings. Madinet al-Sadat (Sadat Town) thus cropped up out of the desert sands some 80-km northwest Cairo, on the Cairo Alexandria highway, with the explicit purpose of housing the State ministries and apparatuses that would be moved from Cairo. It included residential neighbourhoods as well as services and an industrial area. But the months and years went by, Sadat died in 1981, and no government apparatus was moved out of Cairo. Quite the opposite, some ministries expanded inside Cairo, and others moved to the outskirts of the capital, augmenting the already suffocating congestion.
So what aborted the momentous, much-needed project? It was the absence of the bold political will to incorporate the project in the national plan, to render it independent of any change of persons in authority.
The purpose of building new towns was to offload near half of Cairo’s population, improving the quality of life for those who leave the capital as well as those who stay on. However, 40 years and a number of satellite towns on, Cairo has not been unburdened of any tangible portion of its population. The towns around the capital grew into residential, industrial, and service complexes which contributed a substantial added value to our economy, but did not relieve the city. The proof is the heavy volume of morning and evening traffic flowing into and out of Cairo every day, constituting a monstrous load on the roads and requiring the outlay of billions of Egyptian Pounds for the construction of new roads, bridges and tunnels to sustain the additional traffic.
Those who investigated the failure of the new towns to attract Cairenes made two observations. The first was that the top managers, whether in public or private enterprise, refrained from moving into the satellite towns. Their subordinates followed suite, as well as middle managers and lower ranking personnel who then requested their firms to provide fleets of buses to carry the workers daily from Cairo to their place of work and back. This of course contributed to the chronic traffic congestion. The only ones who moved to the new towns were the workers in the lowest rung of the employee scale who, in order to make ends meet, tend to save the cost of daily transport.
The second and very serious observation concerned the legal sale of land along the main roads connecting Cairo to the new towns, an action which stabs the concept of satellite towns in the heart.
Satellite towns are set up to attract and absorb a portion of the population of nearby densely-populated towns. The satellites are planned and designed so their urban space is strictly limited by clear borders, and an ample distance separates them from the mother town. The sale of land on the banks of the connecting roads between the mother town and the satellite towns is totally banned. Otherwise, there is risk of urban development expanding prodigiously till the distance between the mother and satellite town disappears, so that the mother town practically appears to have expanded to ghoulish proportions. Where Cairo is concerned, the threat is that by 2050 the city would balloon to stretch over 100km on all sides, swallowing Banha to the north and Fayoum to the south, reaching Islmailiya and Suez to the east, and more than half the distance to Alexandria on the west.
The thought of the new town proposed by Mr Mahlab is thus not such a rosy prospect after all. Without firm political will and adequate supportive administrative and legislative action, it will only yield chaos and problems that would mushroom to turn the ambitious dream into a disaster of a nightmare.
Apart from the planning perspective, a town for State ministries and apparatuses does not merely revolve around buildings or offices. Government buildings should form the centre of the town, and residential areas that accommodate all living standards should surround it. All services—educational, medical, commercial, entertainment, sports, and security services—should be adequately provided. That is, if we really wish to relieve Cairo of its heavy burden and not slip back into the errors already committed with Cairo’s current satellite towns.
10 August 2014