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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Everything you ever wanted to know about the Seoul Metro System but were too afraid to ask

Gwanghwamoon subway station on line 5 in Seoul, 2010. Image: Getty.

Seoul’s metro system carries 7m passengers a day across 1,000 miles of track. The system is as much a regional commuter railway as an urban subway system. Without technically leaving the network, one can travel from Asan over 50 miles to the south of central Seoul, all the way up to the North Korean border 20 miles north of the city.

Fares are incredibly low for a developed country. A basic fare of 1,250 won (about £1) will allow you to travel 10km; it’s only an extra 100 won (about 7p) to travel every additional 5km on most lines.

The trains are reasonably quick: maximum speeds of 62mph and average operating speeds of around 20mph make them comparable to London Underground. But the trains are much more spacious, air conditioned and have wi-fi access. Every station also has protective fences, between platform and track, to prevent suicides and accidents.

The network

The  service has a complex system of ownership and operation. The Seoul Metro Company (owned by Seoul City council) operates lines 5-8 on its own, but lines 1-4 are operated jointly with Korail, the state-owned national rail company. Meanwhile, Line 9 is operated jointly between Trans-Dev (a French company which operates many buses in northern England) and RATP (The Parisian version of TfL).

Then there’s Neotrans, owned by the Korean conglomerate Doosan, which owns and operates the driverless Sinbundang line. The Incheon city government, which borders Seoul to the west, owns and operates Incheon Line 1 and Line 2.

The Airport Express was originally built and owned by a corporation jointly owned by 11 large Korean firms, but is now mostly owned by Korail. The Uijeongbu light railway is currently being taken over by the Uijeongbu city council (that one’s north of Seoul) after the operating company went bankrupt. And the Everline people mover is operated by a joint venture owned by Bombardier and a variety of Korean companies.

Seoul’s subway map. Click to expand. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The rest of the lines are operated by the national rail operator Korail. The fare structure is either identical or very similar for all of these lines. All buses and trains in the region are accessible with a T-money card, similar to London’s Oyster card. Fares are collected centrally and then distributed back to operators based on levels of usage.

Funding

The Korean government spends around £27bn on transport every year: that works out at 10 per cent more per person than the British government spends.  The Seoul subway’s annual loss of around £200m is covered by this budget.

The main reason the loss is much lower than TfL’s £458m is that, despite Seoul’s lower fares, it also has much lower maintenance costs. The oldest line, Line 1 is only 44 years old.


Higher levels of automation and lower crime rates also mean there are fewer staff. Workers pay is also lower: a newly qualified driver will be paid around £27,000 a year compared to £49,000 in London.

New infrastructure is paid for by central government. However, investment in the capital does not cause the same regional rivalries as it does in the UK for a variety of reasons. Firstly, investment is not so heavily concentrated in the capital. Five other cities have subways; the second city of Busan has an extensive five-line network.

What’s more, while investment is still skewed towards Seoul, it’s a much bigger city than London, and South Korea is physically a much smaller country than the UK (about the size of Scotland and Wales combined). Some 40 per cent of the national population lives on the Seoul network – and everyone else who lives on the mainland can be in Seoul within 3 hours.

Finally, politically the biggest divide in South Korea is between the south-west and the south-east (the recently ousted President Park Geun-Hye won just 11 per cent of the vote in the south west, while winning 69 per cent in the south-east). Seoul is seen as neutral territory.  

Problems

A driverless train on the Shinbundang Line. Image: Wikicommons.

The system is far from perfect. Seoul’s network is highly radial. It’s incredibly cheap and easy to travel from outer lying areas to the centre, and around the centre itself. But travelling from one of Seoul’s satellite cities to another by public transport is often difficult. A journey from central Goyang (population: 1m) to central Incheon (population: 3m) is around 30 minutes by car. By public transport, it takes around 2 hours. There is no real equivalent of the London Overground.

There is also a lack of fast commuter services. The four-track Seoul Line 1 offers express services to Incheon and Cheonan, and some commuter towns south of the city are covered by intercity services. But most large cities of hundreds of thousands of people within commuting distance (places comparable to Reading or Milton Keynes) are reliant on the subway network, and do not have a fast rail link that takes commuters directly to the city centre.

This is changing however with the construction of a system modelled on the Paris RER and London’s Crossrail. The GTX will operate at maximum speed of 110Mph. The first line (of three planned) is scheduled to open in 2023, and will extend from the new town of Ilsan on the North Korean border to the new town of Dongtan about 25km south of the city centre.

The system will stop much less regularly than Crossrail or the RER resulting in drastic cuts in journey times. For example, the time from llsan to Gangnam (of Gangnam Style fame) will be cut from around 1hr30 to just 17 minutes. When the three-line network is complete most of the major cities in the region will have a direct fast link to Seoul Station, the focal point of the GTX as well as the national rail network. A very good public transport network is going to get even better.