So why is Egypt building a new capital city right next to Cairo?

A model of the proposed city (we're assuming the web address won't loom quite so large on the finished article). Image: Getty.

According to the highly reliable source that is Wikipedia, Egypt has had 29 capital cities over the past 5,000 years. The incumbent, Cairo, has been in place since 950 AD, so, in the scheme of things, it was due a change-up. 

Perhaps that's why, last week at an economic development conference, the Egyptian government announced it was planning a giant new building project to the east of Cairo. The new city, which could eventually cover 700 km sq, doesn't currently have a name, and is being referred to simply as "The Capital" (we're really hoping this is a Hunger Games reference).

If all goes to plan, the city will serve as the new administrative and financial capital of Egypt. Amazingly, the ministry claims that development could be finished within five to seven years, and construction on the road that will link the two cities has already begun. 

You could be forgiven for being a little confused as to why a country would shift its capital of over a thousand years 50km to the east, seemingly for the hell of it. Here are a few reasons the project looks so appealing to the Egyptian government . 

Cairo is full

The population of Cairo's larger metropolitan area is nearing 20m, and, as a result, it's one of the most congested cities on earth: the World Bank estimated in 2010 that traffic costs amount to about 4 per cent of Egypt's entire GDP

In this sense, the new development could be seen as an extension of the old city, to cut down on overpopulation and congestion. The housing ministry claims the capital could house up to 7m people; the initial plans include 1.1m residences, 1,250 mosques and churches, and 663 hospitals. That said, "New Cairo", a relatively new development to the east, was built for millions of residents, but is still only home to a few hundred thousand.

Still, Cairo's population is expected to double over the next 40 years, so a new satellite city does make some kind of sense. But why move the country's capital too? 

The president wants to make a statement

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected president in June 2014, and subsequently told the Egyptian people to prepare for the "hard work phase" in their country's recent history, to help the country's economy recover from the effects of the 2011 revolution. That revolution played out in old Cairo, and centred on Tahrir square, the site of many of Cairo's current administrative buildings. 

Mubarak, Egyptian president between 1981 and 2011, actually tried to build a new capital too during his own tenure, but that project failed. If Sisi can succeed, and physically move the government away from the ghosts of the revolution to boot, it'll show he can overcome Egypt's previous setbacks and political tensions and move the country – and, hopefully, its economy – forward. 

Image: Getty.

The Egyptian governemnt may not have to pay for it

The government has hired a Dubai-based real estate investment fund, headed by Emirati Mohamed Alabbar, the man behind the Burj Khalifa, to raise funds for the project and build it. By the end of last week's conference, around $12bn had been pledged by Gulf-based investors, which is over a quarter of the total (that's if the project stays within budget, of course).

The Egyptian people must be hoping for big foreign investment, too: Sisi has already cut food and energy subsidies and raised fuel prices to help the country's ailing economy, which has led some to criticise the announcement of a grand new city project while Egypt's poorest go hungry. 

The Suez canal is getting wider

Another important factor is the city's location: it will lie between Cairo and the Suez Canal, with its profitable trade routes. Under a new expansion project, the Egyptian government is expanding the canal, to allow boats to sail in both directions at once (it goes both directions at the moment, but along most of its length its only wide enough to go one way at once), potentially doubling the trade revenue generated. 

Here's the planned location, a short hop from both New Cairo and El Shorouk city (the two blobs just to the north of the new capital). 

This will bring the city much closer to the canal,  using up what is at present just a stretch of desert: 

It's been done before

...though not particularly successfully. Malaysia moved parts of its central governemnt from Kuala Lumpur to the newly built Putrahaya in 1999, while in 2005 the Burmese government shifted from Yangon to the brand new city of Naypyidaw (though that city is reportedly still half empty). Egypt, meanwhile, has built over 20 "new towns" over the past half century, most of which are still very sparsely populated. Looks like President Sisi has a real job on his hands. 

 
 
 
 

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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