Cairo has a dangerous growth problem – but how can it be fixed?

Cairo's spread along the Nile has caused concern for agriculture, which relies on the river. Image: Faris Knight.

In the village of Kafr on the western edge of Greater Cairo you can see this almost color-coded conflict.

It’s not a village in the traditional sense though. Brick high-rises stretch ten or 12 stories into the air between fields of alfalfa and leeks. 

This is the most ubiquitous architecture of Egypt’s capital: unpainted red brick buildings that, when combined with their concrete beams and columns, look like Brutalist takes on plaid. Until the 1970s most bricks came from nearby, made from Nile silt, which also provided the rich topsoil that provided the foundation for agriculture in Egypt. 

These brick buildings and farmland are now in direct competition with each other for space.

Most new construction in Egypt is on that agricultural land, despite a complete ban on the practice. Each year, 16,000 acres of agricultural land are built on, according to ‘10 Tooba’, an independent urbanism organization.

 

The fertile Nile Delta, at the base of which Cairo sits, seen from space. Image: NASA

With only 2.75 per cent percent of Egypt’s land suitable for farming, and decreasing on a per capita basis, the land becomes more precious each day. 

Kamel Sayyed moved to Kafr six years ago from another nearby village to take advantage of the cheaper rents. He rented an apartment then for 300 Egyptian pounds (EGP) a month, or £45 at the time. 

Soon though, growth exploded. Building was long illegal and enforcement piecemeal, but when Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in 2011, a security vacuum started a blitz on illegal building.

Un-building a revolution

Sayyed says that almost immediately after Mubarak was forced from office, heavy machinery started digging foundations. Steel, concrete, and brick prices increased overnight. Egypt’s Informal Settlements Development Fund, a government organization, said there was a 10 to 20 per cent increase in three years. 

South of Cairo, hundreds of smoke stacks extend to the horizon for as far as the eye can see. Each of these furnaces can churn out 250,000 red bricks everyday, feeding the city’s appetite for housing and development. This summer, only two or three were operating, as fuel prices were outpacing how much the factories could sell.

Development in Cairo has become sprawling and indiscriminate. Image: Allan Doyle

The government has encouraged development on desert land, in new satellite cities, and suburban-gated communities. One former Egyptian prime minister even referred to the escape from the Nile Valley as a matter of life and death.

These “new cities”, as they are known in Egypt, get 29.8 billion EGP in investment, while existing cities got 28.4 billion. New cities only host about two per cent of Egypt’s population, though.

For the 16,000 acres of rural land that’s built on each year, Shawkat says that only 4,000 acres of desert land are developed. Rural growth rates are doing something in Egypt that doesn’t happen in most of the Global South – outpacing urban growth. Still, Cairo is listed as the fastest growing city worldwide in terms of population. 

“Part of building on agricultural land is because there is need,” says Yahia Shawkat of 10 Tooba. “There is a human, other part, which is speculation: land prices or property prices are really the only thing sort of rising in terms of value in Egypt.

“Urbanizing agricultural land is much, much more profitable than tilling it.”

With 52 per cent of farmers in the country being small farmers, the difference in profit presents a straightforward economic choice for many, for the time being. 

Unconventional agrarian reforms

Building on agricultural land in Kafr has become an industry. Sitting in his office in Kafr, Hany Mahmouf Hafez, who works in construction, says that a single apartment can fetch at least £6,950, while a floor can cost between £900 and £1,400 to build. By comparison, an acre of land can bring in £90 or £140 a year. A woman picking out paint interrupted to say that it’s the best way to make money in the town. 

Whether agricultural land will remain less profitable is up for debate.

Since Egypt floated its currency, agriculture seems more profitable, with food exports rising and imports declining. 

For many, real estate was seen as a hedge against a declining currency. With the floatation, real estate might not be as good an investment in the short or medium term.   

The Nile runs through Cairo's heart. Image: Blueshade

The proposed legislation is an outright ban on building on agricultural land, but that is far from the reality. The idea is to freeze the encroachment of cities into farmland and push it out into the desert, hence the massive investment into new cities. 

But informal settlements that encroached onto farmland had what the new communities didn’t. They were near existing networks of water, sewage, and electricit, and even though they couldn’t be connected legally, a contractor could pay a bribe.

Contractors can pay £230 for an apartment to get power, or £900 for a full building to be connected to the grid. In order to prevent the huge drains on the power grid, the Egyptian government has put these informal settlements in a legal grey area by a partial legalization of unofficial power meters.

It’s a tricky problem. The outright ban isn’t working due to a lack of so-called “soft infrastructure”. The government has built roads, pipes, and power lines, but hasn’t provided enough schools, hospitals, and cultural activities to make living there make sense. 


It’s difficult to think about how to allow rural growth, when ideally it would be minimized. Shawkat says there are ways to build in growth in a way that is sustainable. 

“I’ll do it in a certain density and a certain way that would actually I would lose maybe ten acres, but I’m going to save 50.”

Whether the government plans to do that isn’t clear, and the long-term plan for food security is similarly hazy.

In the longer term, Egypt may need to learn to break with thousands of years of tradition, and start growing horizontally – east to west, rather than north to south along the Nile.

If it can’t, Egypt’s burgeoning cities will choke the fertile farmland of the Nile on which its heritage was built.  

The author's reporting for this article in Egypt was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.