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Bread and Urbanism

العيش و العشوائيات: العلاقة بين رغيف العيش و النمو العمراني في المدن المصرية

Egypt, once the breadbasket of the Mediterranean, is the world’s biggest importer of wheat and grains. Egyptians are the world’s biggest consumers of bread per capita. Over the years Egypt’s dependency on imported wheat has steadily increased with no sign of reversal.

Egypt’s population , currently 81 million, is growing at 2 percent a year. By 2025, its population could reach 104 million, and by 2050 it population could be close to 140 million, an increase of 70 percent.

Rising population will mean less land available for agriculture, and if upstream usage of Nile river water increases, as appears likely, there could be less water for Egyptian farmers in the years ahead. Egypt’s dependence on imported food will likely grow.

This population growth also means more need for housing, and more need for land to urbanize. The informal urbanizing process, which mostly follows the patterns of agricultural lands rather than follow plans devised by urban planners, resulted from government misguided planning policies but also a decrease of value in agricultural land. Some of the world’s most fertile land is worth ten times more if urbanized than if farmed. This imbalance in land value is directly related to the state’s subsidization of imports and inclination to import a foreign product rather than invest in local farming. Thus there is a direct relationship between the simple loaf of bread and the urban growth of Egypt’s cities, particularly Cairo.

The speed of urbanization of agricultural land is not only due to the decreasing value of agricultural land but also due to the lack of a real market dynamic in the Egyptian real estate business. The market is constantly looking to “exculsivize” development leaving behind large segments of the population who are left to their own devices. Because there are no real market dynamics, populations constantly create their own new market, so to speak, by urbanizing land that was previously unavailable for building (agricultural land). This means that as the market supplies less and less properties accessible to the majority of the population, that population will simply create its own properties on already devalued agricultural land. Thus Egypt is loosing large swaths of its precious agricultural land while the real estate market and cities suffer from this ad hoc and uncontrolled speculative process. The result is a bizarre situation where there is a housing crisis, there is massive speculation and building, the majority of the population lives in self-initiated/self-built so-called informal areas and there are hundreds of thousands (a conservative estimate) of empty developments including state planned desert communities (empty because the government still doesn’t understand that planning doesn’t simply mean building a few concrete towers in the middle of nowhere).

Flying over the Nile Delta, one is shocked by the ratio or urban to agricultural land. Once small rural villages and farming communities deeply entrenched in an agricultural tradition are urbanizing at a fast pace to maintain a livelihood. Middle class urban values that were once the material for 1980s and 1990s soap operas have become the life standard by which millions of rural Egyptians wish to emulate.

There are many intermingled issues here such as governance, land ownership, national policy, zoning laws, housing policies and administrative boundaries (the fact that Cairo can keep growing virtually for tens of miles and still be considered Cairo). However, There are two main issues: 1. The low value of agricultural land due to importation and government subsidies of imported wheat and grains. 2. The lack of real market values that determine what gets built where, for how much, etc.

1. The high dependency on imported wheat and grains made agricultural land worth ten times more if it was urbanized than if it was farmed. This one to ten value ratio, the product of government policies, makes it increasingly difficult for rural communities to hold on to their farms in the face of creeping urbanization. A process of reversal is needed immediately to wean Egypt off imported basic food stuffs and to preserve the country’s irreplaceable agricultural land and the culture, economy, society that comes with it. Considering Cairo is surrounded to the north and south with agricultural land, this reversal will funnel development, formal and informal in the East-West axis into the desert (which is already the direction of the rather exclusive developments, but not the low income ones). The reason agricultural land is easier to develop informally is because it is already plugged into basic infrastructure (water and electricity), whereas desert developments need governmental large scale planning to extend such services for future developments (except this is only done for high end developments).

2. Real Estate market: The market in Cairo is a total mess. Typically the value of real estate is tied to location, amenities, transport options, near by park/public space, distance to shopping options, etc., in addition to factors pertaining to the actual property: quality of construction, functionality of utilities, cultural/heritage value. With this logic, a building on Talaat Harb Street and Huda Shaarawi in downtown (close your eyes and imagine if this was the real world: there is a park near by at Azbakiyya, a big open square at Tahrir, charming historic buildings, metro stops within ten minute walk, shops, cinemas, museums… wow, this must be the most expensive real estate!).. WRONG! This logic may work in New York, London, Paris, Tokyo, Rome. Here, the burgeoning middle class with their petty bourgeois values have actually reduced the value of the “real thing” and raised the value of the bad attempt at copying it superficially (gated communities with faux classical stumpy buildings with no transport options, no cultural venues, no public space and no community).

Therefore the center despite where it should be (at the top of desirable real estate) had there been real market dynamics is devalued. Then there is the informal ring then the highly-valued disconnected dystopias. This imbalance in the market is partly due to the possibility for the city to expand forever, into the desert or into agricultural land. Frontier urbanism, where the closer one is to the ring road, rather than the center, the more value. Hence government plans to build an even bigger ring road (to add value of land speculation and potentially destroy massive amounts of agricultural land north of Cairo due to development). But also this market imbalance is due to opaque deals and mysterious land ownership contracts, and irregular corrupt government. The army and the rail road company, for example, own massive swaths of land in and around the city and they may dispense of those lands as they wish. In order to raise the value of such lands massive infrastructure may be put in place such as a highway connection.

In short, there is a direct relationship between the bread we eat and the city we live in. policy towards more self-sustained agriculture will have a positive impact on the dynamics of urban growth and development within a city that must be defined with fixed boundaries.

Historically, there has been a symbiotic relationship between Egypt’s urban and rural economies. One simple example of that relatively successful relationship was the Awqaf system, where profits from agricultural land, which fed both urban and rural societies, were used to maintain urban properties. All the land on Cairo’s west bank (Giza) was Awqaf land that paid for the maintenance of Cairo on the other side. That system has been canceled since the 1952 regime took over and new urban areas were planned on that land such as Muhandeseen. With the right global and local politics Egypt has the potential to feed itself and at the same time control its urban development patterns.

The constant need for more agricultural land and the need for more housing means that planners and politicians need to devise an urban model built on density that allows maximum number of people to occupy less land. This can be done in ways that do not replicate the sometimes unhealthy extreme high density conditions found in some of the informal areas. However all current government planning is aimed at creating extreme low density (sub)urban environments, a model that has failed around the world and which is not sustainable considering Cairo’s population growth. High density environments not only reduce the amount of “waste land” but also have proven to provide safer living (safety in numbers, consider the fact that during the Jan 28 release of prisoners and thugs to frighten populations, low density areas were more prone to attacks and theft than high density ones) but also healthier social networks. High density urban planning also requires planners to consider mass transit, another essential that is overlooked by Cairo’s planners. In Egypt’s conditions, high density planning is the most sustainable environmentally, economically and socially, and it will help preserve much needed agricultural land to feed the population. (In addition to the endless potential for urban agriculture/rooftop farming, which can easily be implemented in Cairo if politicians know what they are doing)

Decentralization of Egypt’s development, investment and population is essential. Less imports, more planning, more transparency in real estate markets and trade deals.

Note: except for the first image, all images are screenshots from Yousef Chahine’s short film, Cairo/Le Caire/القاهرة منورة بأهلها

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