Cairo, one of two megacities in Africa, is home to more than 10 million inhabitants and is the heart of the Egyptian nation. It’s rapid urban expansion has created a slew of challenges, including urban sprawl, decreased access to goods and services, and, critically, the proliferation of informal communities like Embaba. In Greater Cairo, this has resulted in large areas of informal housing where communities have worked to carve out a space for themselves in a city that might not otherwise be able to accommodate them.

Cairo is no exception when it comes to informal communities, however. According to UN-Habitat, a third of all people in developing countries live in slums or informal areas – that’s about one billion people globally. In Cairo, up to 65 percent of the city’s residents live in dense, informal areas, and are often unaccounted for when it comes to the provision of services.

Decades of neglect and positioning Cairo’s informal communities as a burden has meant that the communities themselves often feel removed from the conversation around urban redevelopment – which is not entirely false. In fact, many of Cairo’s most recent urban redevelopment plans overlook informal populations altogether, with projects like the redevelopment of the Maspero Triangle and Al Warraq Island resulting in forced evictions and outbreaks of violence between police and residents.

After decades of neglect, the Egyptian government began replanning Embaba and connecting the neighborhood to the rest of Greater Cairo. In 2007, the Egyptian Ministry for Housing, and the Giza Governorate office began working to implement an urban regeneration strategy for Embaba and the neighboring El Warraq, which together now house over 1.5 million people.

Between 2007 and 2008, the Ministry of Housing and Egyptian consultants worked on development plans that included extending the provision of necessary social infrastructure and road widening schemes; they also used the old airport to design and construct housing units for resettlement and build a public park. In 2016, with funding from the Agence Francaise du Developpement (AFD), another round of research was conducted to evaluate the progress made on the 2008 upgrading strategy and plans for the area.

The 2008 Strategy

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Section of a map of Embaba from the 2008 strategy. (CC: AFD)

Falling in north east Giza and west of the Nile, Embaba had about 878,000 residents in 2006 living in a total area that is a mere 3,140 feddans (3,259 acres). Today, Embaba’s population is estimated to have swelled to at least one million residents, according to research by the AFD-funded team and others. In 2008, the General Organization for Physical Planning (GOPP) of the Ministry of Housing designed a strategy for the area that was included in the Giza 2030 strategic plan.

The 2008 strategy was based on three pillars, which were planned to be implemented over six phases. The first pillar addressed reusing the land on which the Embaba Civil Aviation Airport was, used for aviation training until 2002. The size of the land is approximately 180 feddans (188 acres). The strategy’s second pillar revolved around improving traffic congestion in northern Giza through a street-widening scheme. The third pillar focused on increasing access to public services in the 18 land pockets that were unoccupied at the time.

Additional improvements that were to be made in the area included improving the Nile walkway – more commonly known as the corniche – and the development of agricultural land west of the Ring Road by building a one-kilometer green residential area. The residential area was proposed to include a buffer to prevent the expansion of informal settlements.

The initial budget for the 2008 strategy was set at EGP 3.5 million; however, the strategy quickly fell apart due to continued pressure of informal urbanization on existing vacant land, especially west of the Ring Road. The Revolution of 2011 and the instability that ensued also contributed to the failure of the strategy.

Fruits of 2008

Although the 2008 strategy never came to complete fruition, the city and other stakeholders still managed to make some progress as per the original plan. In 2009, the Egyptian government approved the construction of a theme park on part of the Embaba Airport site, which was inaugurated in 2014. A few months later, 3,168 housing units were completed on the site out of the 3,500 units that were initially proposed. As of 2016, however, the majority of these houses remained empty.

In regards to street widening, the government went back to the drawing boards. With a sizeable growth in population and urban density in Embaba, city leadership was unable to implement the strategy’s second pillar based on their 2006 survey, which placed the population count at almost 200,000 less.

As for the third pillar, which entailed the extension of government services to Embaba, it is still ongoing. Since 2016, four land pockets have been expropriated, allowing the government to begin extending services to these areas of Embaba. Three other land pockets are currently being developed, while 11 land pockets can no longer be developed. In specific, three land pockets in the area are considerably close to the Ring Road and El Kawmeya El Arabiya Street, which significantly inflates the cost of expropriating these pockets.

Embaba Today: Only Upwards from Here

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Cairo from above (CC: Faris Knight)

While the 2008 Strategy was ambitious, much remains to be done to improve quality of life and access to services for Embaba’s residents. The biggest change to the previous strategy is the expansion of the city’s expansive metro system.

The third metro line, which runs from El-Attaba near downtown Cairo to Al-Ahram station in Cairo’s Heliopolis suburb, is currently being extended in the west of the city. Following its completion, the line will have two stations within Embaba, which will exponentially increase the connectedness of the neighborhood. Continued construction on the third line’s second phase began earlier this summer, which is planned to connect El Kit Kat to the Rod El Farrag Axis upon completion in November 2022.

A project by Dutch architecture firm MAATworks and progrss.com hopes to learn from the work that has been done on both the macro- and the micro-scale in Embaba. The project focuses on maximizing opportunities to provide space for positive social and economic drives in the area. These drives already exist and, while they want to expand, they are currently hampered by the limited capacity of schools and the area’s sheer lack of space. The project aims to maximize the potential of the limited land in the area to improve the neighborhood’s access to well-organized, quality space that can be used flexibly to house a large variety of functions and services. 

The vision for the project moves away from the traditional approach of separating the spaces that offer services from the community. Rather, by allowing the community to interact within a shared space, the chosen approach aims to create room for the residents to co-create the space by determining what it should be used for. Alternatively, the project aims to show how stacking different functions – like schools for example – on top of each other can increase land-use efficiency and, with it, improve access to services for the community.

The expansion of the metro, attempts to improve solid waste management in Giza governorate, and the redevelopment of informal settlements are all part of the government’s plans for urban growth. While these plans partially hindered the 2008 strategy, they point to a larger plan at work.

Drawing up a promising development plan for a dense urban area such as Embaba is key to the development of Cairo as a whole. With 65 percent of Cairo population living in similarly dense and under-serviced areas, a model could be developed for replication, also uplifting other areas. Taken altogether, the government’s development initiatives could bring about positive change and healthy urban growth for the Egyptian capital.

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