Informality is the rule in Cairo, be it the sprawling extra-legal settlements that form a moat around the city center, forgotten alleys crisscrossing downtown, or the chaotic minibus network.
Mapping these features is a job for the independents, mostly startups and mostly local, which are taking a more discreet route to fomenting change in their hometown.
“I think we’re a little less starry eyed now, but we still have hope and we see the way forward as through technology,” Adham Kalila of Transport for Cairo (TfC) told Wamda.
But it’s the informal aspects of the city that are capturing the imagination of both amateur and professional urbanists.
Cairo has long been a city of uncharted urban elements, a situation not helped by the governmental vacuum since the 2011 revolution.
Today, no official authorities are mapping either people’s needs or features as basic as bus routes.
Renowned urbanist David Sims wrote in his book Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control that the city’s informal areas, or ashwa’iyyat, first appeared in 1950.
He conservatively estimated that in 2009, 63.6 percent of Cairenes lived in informal settlements, or about 11 million of Greater Cairo’s then-17.3 million inhabitants.
“Furthermore, since the January 2011 uprising, informal building all over the metropolis has exploded since any government control has virtually disappeared. Anecdotal information points to a two to threefold increase in informal construction as compared to pre-2011 rates,” Sims wrote in a Cairo Review essay in 2013.
Egypt has been without local councils for five years, since they were dissolved after the 2011 uprising for being controlled by cronies of deposed President Hosni Mubarak.
This has left Egyptians unable to find out what is happening in their neighbourhood. Drastic, yet common, examples include the demolition of 1,200 houses in Alexandria in 2014 without prior warning to the people who owned them, or the attempts to evict 1,500 people from the inner city Ramlet Bulaq slum so the municipal authority can develop it into a commercial center.
This is why the task of mapping Cairo has fallen to independents launched after 2011.
Step aside, TfL
Transport for Cairo (TfC) launched in August last year with an ambitious project to map all public transport in Greater Cairo (an area that includes the city of Cairo east of the Nile, the city of Giza on the west, and the satellite cities).
“I don’t think anyone has attempted to map from the bottom up rather than the top down,” cofounder Kalila told Wamda. “You can highlight where the pressure is and eventually formalise the route.”
They started with a “little idea” to verify bus routes on an old World Bank map from 2010.
Volunteers took GPS-enabled photos of buses and, at a workshop in May with the aid of student group Desert City Mappers, they verified 20 routes over two-thirds of the city and produced three different maps.
The final data will be open source and available on paper and in an app, and stored in a General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) format.
“If someone up there cares, it could be used very well,” Kalila said, referring to government officials. “[It’s] a way to democratise the service. If we do make something it won’t be for money, it will be for people.”
The spaces in between
Unlike volunteer-run TfC, Cluster is a professional urban design office and is the informal mapping leader of Cairo.
The walls are lined with paper maps and large 3D printed diagrams of the city center. Founding partner Omar Nagati occasionally has to dodge a faulty air conditioning drainage tube spitting water onto his desk.
They are behind CUIP, or the Cairo Urban Initiatives Platform which maps the city’s arts and culture scene, and the Downtown Passageways project which charts the social and geographical elements of “in between” downtown alleys.
The Passageways project was “to identify the extent of in between spaces in downtown that form a parallel structure” to the main streets, Nagati said. “They’re less visible so they are more tolerant… We’re trying to approach the city from the inside out, from the basement.”
It started in 2012 and is not only slowly rejuvenating individual alleys, but has published a series of walking tours around the 100-150 downtown alleyways.
CUIP, on the other hand, was to foster collaboration between art spaces in anticipation of the end of the arts funding boom that followed the revolution.
Founding partner Beth Stryker said they used networking meetings to develop a calendar of events and spaces, and now had 300 initiatives on the map. Up until that point many had never heard of each other, despite working in the same neighbourhood.
Nagati said “mapping informality” had its downsides. Cataloguing informal spaces opened them up to the public eye, potentially drawing the eye of the authorities to certain activities or exposing the area to gentrification.
Yet at the same time it allowed “these passageways to reinvent themselves, to reimagine downtown”, as they became sites for film festivals or weekend markets.
Informality to the horizon
Outside downtown, red brick apartment buildings ring the city.
They squash together, separated by dark, dirt alleyways too narrow for cars. Each apartment is marked by a single, tiny window per wall while crumbling mortar and DIY air conditioner attachments mark the hasty, amateurish nature of construction.
Make no mistake, it’s not the very poor who live here, but everyone in the middle.
Nadine Okasha, PR director for high end property developer SODIC, said part of the reason for the informal housing situation was the lack of affordable housing in the 250,000-400,000 Egyptian pound bracket.
“It’s a market segment that could be profitable if you have the right dynamics in place,” she said. “The bulk of Egyptians, no one is talking about that. Where are they supposed to live?”
Without a cohesive government plan - or even a cohesive government system to start that process - for mapping the needs of Cairenes, independent efforts will remain critical to sorting out how the city functions, and giving residents a voice.
Community Jameel and Wamda will be hosting an MIT Media Lab Dubai workshop tackling solutions for sustainable cities, led by designers, scientists, engineers and artists, on August 29 - September 2.