Egypt is building a brand new capital. Brasília highlights the dangers

An official points to a plan of the new administrative zone in 2017. Image: Getty.

Egypt is the latest country to build a new capital city from scratch, with ambitions to move parliament away from Cairo as early as summer 2019. With nearly 24m people living in Greater Metropolitan Cairo, the current Egyptian capital suffers from severe congestion and overcrowding – problems which the government claims the new capital will resolve.

Egypt joins more than 30 countries or regional states, which have relocated their seats of power to new cities designed from scratch: Brazil, Australia, Kazakhstan and Nigeria are among the most famous examples. Built on a site located 45k, east of Greater Cairo, the city will feature a new presidential palace, a new parliament, a central bank and business district, an airport and a massive theme park, alongside housing for 6.5m people.

Egypt’s new capital, marked in yellow. Image: Google Earth.

But while new political capitals can be symbols of national identity and tools for development, the successes and failures of these mega projects have always been topics of much debate. Perhaps the most famous example is Brasília: designed to embody the progressive, egalitarian ideals of 1950s Brazil, today the city is marred by urban segregation and inequality.

Brasília: a split city

The metropolitan area of Brasília has two distinctive areas: the Pilot Plan – the well known urban design by Brazilian architect Lúcio Costa – and the satellite cities, which have replaced the many informal settlements built by the construction workers who worked on the Pilot Plan.

Less than 10 per cent of Brasília’s population lives in the Pilot Plan. The area was carefully planned to host the federal government, its civil servants and the intellectual elites. Costa dreamed of creating a just city, where the different socioeconomic groups of Brazilian society would be represented and share equal access to the city.

The plan failed to live up to Costa’s vision. Poorer families were forced to move out from the Pilot Plan as early as the late 1950s. The government set forth relocation plans, using environmental, health and even construction issues as technical justifications to locate new satellite cities further away from the Pilot Plan, while showing little regard for those affected.

For example, residents of the Amaury settlement made their homes on the site for the planned artificial Lake Paranoá – in the knowledge that they would one day need to move. But rather than being relocated by the government in a fair and organised way, residents were forced to flee their homes with only a few days warning, as the lake began to fill. To this day, kitchen utensils and other household objects can be observed among the ruins under the lake – evidence of the rushed escape of residents.

Amaury favela, with the Congress and the Alvorada Presidential Palace in the background. Image: Paulo Manhaes.

Relocated to satellite cities such as Ceilândia, more than an an hour and a half from the Pilot Plan by public transport, low-income families had a harder time finding work and taking part in civic life. A 1987 proposal by Costa to review the Pilot Plan and include neighbourhoods of affordable housing was never fully delivered.

The lack of access to basic public infrastructure and the spatial segregation – imposed first by the relocation programmes, and later driven by the private housing and job markets – were and still are the main drivers of inequality in the city.

History repeated

Egypt’s as yet unnamed new capital is intended to have a range of different land uses. Phase one is focusing on the government district and residential areas, with a large supply of public facilities and green and transport infrastructure. Although the plans include affordable housing, average prices are beyond the reach of an average public worker.

The attractive character of the developments in the new capital will make housing developments near the new city increasingly unaffordable. The government has a policy in force to control the price of land every six months. So far, the price of land has only increased. This approach is not an effective way of ensuring that housing in the new capital remains affordable for Egypt’s lower income citizens. There’s a real risk that the new city will replicate the historical trend of spatial segregation, which can still be observed in Cairo today.

Historical spatial segregation in Cairo. Image: Aya Badawy, Hassan Abdel-Salam and Hany Ayad.

As a result, low and middle-income families will search for housing on the peripheries of the new capital, leading to the development of poorly planned, poorly connected settlements, which will only reinforce urban inequality.

A different design

The excitement of a brand new capital and its image as a clean, organised, smart and sustainable city must not overshadow the need for a balanced, diverse and fair community.


The planners and authorities involved in the new Egyptian capital should look to Brasília: there, it is evident that policies to provide affordable housing and access to jobs and opportunities within the new capital could have avoided the relocation of the poorer in the peripheral satellite cities.

If it’s to succeed, Egypt’s new capital must stick to the principles of an inclusive city, where all citizens can come together and share the city and its opportunities. This was the most important design principle for Costa – but without meaningful policies to support low income residents, it could not endure in the Brasília he so beautifully created.

The Conversation

Nuno Pinto, Lecturer in Urban Planning and Urban Design, University of Manchester and Aya Badawy, PhD Candidate, University of Manchester.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

So why is Peterborough growing so quickly?

Peterborough Cathedral. Image: Jules & Jenny/Flickr/creative commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

The 2001 census put the population of Peterborough at 156,000. Some time before next spring, it’s projected to pass 200,000. That, for those keeping score, is an increase of about 28 per cent. Whether this makes it the fastest growing city in Britain or merely the second or the fourth – the vagueness of Britain’s boundaries means that different reports reach different conclusions – doesn’t really matter. This is a staggering rate of growth.

Oh, and since austerity kicked in, the city council has had its grant from central government cut by 80 percent.

Expansion on this scale and at this rate is the sort of thing that’d have a lot of councils in our NIMBY-ish political culture breaking out in hives; that seems to go double for Tory-run ones in Leave-voting areas. This lot, though, seem to be thriving on it. “I think the opportunity in Peterborough is fantastic,” says Dave Anderson, the city’s interim planning director. “We’re looking at growing to 235,000 by the mid-2030s.”

More striking still is that the Conservative council leader John Holdich agrees. “I’m a believer in ‘WIMBY’: what in my back yard?” he says. He’s responsible, he says, not just to his electorate, but “to our future kids, and grandkids” too – plus, at that rate of growth, a lot of incomers, too.

All this raises two questions. Why is Peterborough growing so quickly? And what can it do to prepare itself?

If you’re a little uncertain exactly where Peterborough is, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Until 1889, the “Soke of Peterborough” was an unlikely east-ward extrusion from Northamptonshire, far to its south west. Then it was a county in its own right; then part of the now-defunct Huntingdonshire. Today it’s in Cambridgeshire, with which it shares a metro mayor, the Conservative James Palmer. When I ask Holdich, who’s giving me a whistlestop tour of the city’s cathedral quarter, to explain all this, he just shrugs. “They keep moving us about.”

Sitting on the edge of the Fens, Peterborough is, officially, a part of the East of England region; but it’s just up the road from East Midlands cities including Leicester and Nottingham. I’d mentally pigeonholed it as a London-commuter town, albeit a far flung one; but when I actually looked it up, I was surprised to discover it was closer to Birmingham (70 miles) than London (75), and halfway up to Hull (81).


The more flattering interpretation of all this is that it’s on a bit of a crossroads: between capital and north, East Anglia and the Midlands. On the road network, that’s literally true – it’s where the A1 meets the A47, the main east-west road at this latitude – and railway lines extend in all directions, too.

All of which makes Peterborough a pretty nifty place to be if you’re, say, a large logistics firm.

This has clearly contributed to the city’s growth. “It has access to lots of land and cheaper labour than anywhere else in the Greater South East,” says Paul Swinney, director of policy at the Centre for Cities. “Those attributes appeal to land hungry, low-skilled business as opposed to higher-skilled more knowledge-based ones.”

That alone would point to a similar economy to a lot of northern cities – but there’s another thing driving Peterborough’s development. Despite being 70 miles from the capital, the East Coast Main Line means it’s well under an hour away by train.

In 1967, what’s more, the ancient cathedral city was designated a new town, to house London’s overspill population. The development corporation which owned the land and built the new town upon it, evolved into a development agency; today the same role is played by bodies like Opportunity Peterborough and the Peterborough Investment Partnership.

The city also offers relatively cheap housing: you can get a four-bed family home for not much over £200,000. That’s fuelled growth further as London-based workers scratch around for the increasingly tiny pool of places that are both commutable and affordable.

The housing affordability ratio shows average house prices as a multiple of average incomes. Peterborough is notably more affordable than Cambridge, London and the national average. Image: Centre for Cities data tool.

It’s made it attractive to service businesses, too. “London has probably played quite a big role in the city’s development,” says Swinney. “If you don’t want to move too far out, it’s probably one of the cheapest places to move to.”

The result of all this is that it has an unusually mixed economy. There’s light industry and logistics, in the office and warehouse parks that line the dual-carriageways (“parkways”) of the city. But there are also financial services and digital media companies moving in, bringing better paying jobs. In a country where most city economies are built on either high value services or land-hungry warehousing businesses, Peterborough has somehow managed to create a mixed economy.

Peterborough’s industrial profile: more services and less manufacturing, and more private and fewer public sector jobs, than the national average. Image: Centre for Cities.

At the moment, if people think of Peterborough at all, they’re likely to imagine a large town, rather than the fair-size regional city it’s on course to become. Its glorious 12th century cathedral – the hallmark of an ancient city, and at 44m still by far the highest spot on the horizon for miles around – is stunning. But it’s barely known to outsiders, and at least twice on my tour, the council’s communications officer proudly announces that the Telegraph named her patch as one of the best towns to live in within an hour of London, before adding, “even though we’re a city”. 

So part of the council’s current mission is to ensure that Peterborough has all the amenities people would expect from a settlement on this scale. “What the city needs to do is to adopt the mind-set of a slightly larger city,” says Anderson. Slightly smaller Swansea is developing a new music arena, of the sort Peterborough doesn’t have and needs. He frets, too, about retail spend “leaking” to Cambridge or Leicester. “Retail is now seen as a leisure activity: in the core of the city it’s important that offer is there.”

To that end, the early 1980s Queensgate shopping centre is being redeveloped, with John Lewis giving up a chunk of space to provide a new city centre cinema. (At present, the area only has road-side suburban multiplexes.) There’s major office, retail and housing development underway at North Westgate, as well as work to improve the walking route between the station and the commercial centre, in a similar manner to Coventry.

Fletton Quays. Image: Peterborough Investment Partnership.

Then there’s the city’s underused riverside. The council recently moved to new digs, in Fletton Quays, on the far bank of the River Nene from the centre. Across the river from the Embankment, the city centre’s largest green space, it’s a pretty lovely spot, of the sort where one might expect riverside pubs or restaurants with outdoor seating – but at the moment the space is largely empty. The Fletton Quays development will change all that, bringing more retail space and yes, new homes, too.

Jobs in Peterborough are unusually distributed around town: in many cities, most jobs are in the central business district. Image: Centre for Cities.

The big thing everyone agrees is missing, though, is a university. It already has the University Centre Peterborough, where degrees are provided by Anglia Ruskin University. The plan is for the site – a joint venture between ARU and Peterborough Regional College – to go its own way as an independent institution, the University of Peterborough, in autumn 2022. That should help provide the skills that the city needs to grow. A growing student population should also bring life and cash to the city centre. 

How big could Peterborough get? Could its enviable combination of good location and cheap housing and grand ambitions combine to make it the modern equivalent of Manchester or Liverpool – one of the great cities of the 21st century?

Well, probably not: “I think the optimum size for a city is probably about 250,000,” says Holdich. But that’s still a whole quarter bigger than now, and the council leader even discusses the possibility of refitting his dual-carriageway-based-city with some kind of light rail network to service that growing population. Peterborough’s not done growing yet.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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