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 see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.