On Cairo

The inadvertent urbanism that results from the necessities of both the city and its inhabitants may be chaotic or haphazard, but responds precisely to Cairo’s immediate needs.

Yet an urbanism based on patchwork alone, however creative, cannot sustain the growth of a city like Cairo...

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Cairo’s population estimates vary wildly between an “official” 18 million and a popularly exaggerated 30 million. This extraordinary margin of error reflects the very real margin of unofficial growth. As the city densifies and expands, its population improvises. Ranging from informal building extensions to whole neighbourhoods emerging almost as quickly as voids appear in the city fabric, or to the everyday irregularities that compete for space and attention on the streets, Cairo functions best through this vibrant and informal —rarely sanctioned yet rarely curbed— use of the public realm. It would be misleading to call it “public space”, as it deals with less clearly defined legal boundaries.

“Peripheral” actions —socially, legally and spatially— represent a popular creative drive that offers solutions, albeit sometimes transient or wobbly ones, to an otherwise unsustainable urban growth and erratic infrastructure. Through repetition, individual actions with a limited impact become broader trends that reflect the concerns and needs of current urbanization. As these urban habits become necessarily accepted and expected norms, a gradual (unorganized) collectivity lends them enough weight to override pre-existing systems or rigid rules. Shifts in urban behaviour set in motion by thousands of concurring individual actions thus define the character of growth in the city. City-wide implementation of these unofficial rules takes informality beyond an economic imperative, beyond curiosity into a popular consciousness of self-directed transformation.

The inadvertent urbanism that results from the necessities of both the city and its inhabitants may be chaotic or haphazard, but responds precisely to Cairo’s immediate needs. Its “inadvertent”, or unorganized nature in no way detracts from its inherent awareness and relevance. The flexibility embodied in many of these popular actions, such as extending a kiosk’s domain by constructing walls of goods across a pavement, or even leaping over a pedestrian control barrier, is reminiscent of the search for adaptable architecture and user involvement, which designers often struggle to implement. These should be a key tool of analysis and intervention for designers aiming to harness (or just understand) a city’s collective-creative drive.

The question remains whether established (top-down) guidelines that no longer respond to the everyday needs of the city can be left to simply atrophy as they become increasingly defunct. An urbanism based on patchwork alone, however creative, cannot sustain the growth of a city like Cairo. Perhaps by extracting and abstracting the practical initiative from the apparent chaos of popular norms urban professionals can inform the adjustments necessary for “top-down” planning to regain relevance in cities seething with both urgency and solutions and that can support and potentially further accelerate current development. As today’s cities change at unprecedented speeds, we have a wealth of coherent “user responses” to the modern urban condition. It is essential to “read” them before embarking on new creations.