Former housing minister Ahmed Maghrabi had several projects planned across the city particularly in Giza, some of which, critics argue, were preparing the way for the implementation of the Cairo 2050 plan. Giza was the site of several plans, including the North Giza Master Plan, which included a project for the land that was once occupied by a small city airport at Imbaba. The larger master plan involves stripping property owners of their land under a law that allows for the state to claim such property if it falls within a master plan that is considered for the “public good.” Meager compensation is often paid. The Imbaba airport land had been unused for decades since the facility was put out of order and the proposed project for the land consisted for several main components: an extension of Ahmed Oraby avenue in Mohandessen to reach the Ring Road, housing with several thousand new apartments, and a public park modeled after the success of Azhar Park on the opposite end of the city.
The road extension, seen here in a recent satellite image, is nearing completion and is said to be ready by October of this year. The extension awkwardly bends north with a slight curve as it crosses over the railroad. The road extension (costing around LE 500 million) will reduce pressure on the notoriously congested al-Mehwar which is the only route currently available to link from downtown/Zamalek/Mohandeseen to the Ring Road.
West of the new road extension and north of the railroad that once defined the limits of the planned city in this part of Giza is the site of the 28 acre park. Seen in this recent satellite image the park (costing around LE90 million) appears to be nearing completion and it too maybe open to the public by the end of this year, although that may be an optimistic prospect.
The park is a welcomed addition to Cairo’s long list of parks many of which are hidden in plain sight. There are surprisingly more parks in Cairo than people realize but many are tucked away in neighborhoods, are unmaintained, appear to be inaccessible because of their fencing when in fact they are open, etc. The main problem with Cairo’s parks however is that they do not really fall under the supervision of a city-wide agency, a parks department. Instead various parks belong to the governarate, others to the Housing Ministry, others to the Ministry of Agriculture, and a slew of other owners. Of course the city’s most famous park, Al Azhar, is run by a subcontractor, which is what the creators of Imbaba’s new park seek to emulate. A report from last May confirms that the management of the park, which had been built by public funds, is now up for bidding.
The park is designed with an agricultural theme, claiming to recall Imbaba’s countryside heritage. Themed parks have a long history in Cairo, there is the famous Japanese Garden (Helwan) from 1917 and the Abdalucian Garden (Zamalek) from 1935, and several other themed gardens throughout. But Egypt’s countryside heritage is less about exoticism and more about, well, heritage. That heritage however will undoubtedly be kitschified and reduced to a series of symbols and markers. The design includes details such as “countryside architecture” a water wheel and pigeon towers.
The design is also meant to incorporate fruit trees and include a pond and a stream. In addition the park will include an amphitheater, restaurant, cafeteria, shops, multi-purpose hall in addition to a nearby (probably not inside the park but next to it) mall with four cinema screens. These services combined are meant to be in addition to a series of schools and a 200-bed hospital built in the area to serve Imbaba’s residents.
Further north, and located between the park to the south and the Ring Road to the north is a large area roughly 40-50 acres in size where the new housing blocks are built (consisting of around 3500 flats). The housing component is probably the most important aspect of this plan yet it appears to be the poorest in planning and design. This recent satellite image shows the housing blocks constructed in typical Ministry of Housing style. There is no urban plan to be deciphered here, what have been built are tens of identical building blocks arranged in a way that is more random, عشوائي, than what the Ministry claims to be replacing. There is not a clear street network within the large parcel of land that will be home to a few thousand families. Since there are no clearly defined streets, buildings are not designed to face streets, they simply float in space.
There is no designed relationship between the various components of this development project (the highway, the park and the housing). They simply sit one next to the other as if they weren’t planned at once. The highway now functions as another fault line, similar to many across the city, where on one side there is the community developed area and on the other side is the state developed area. While the community area (informal) may be lacking in services (there are sewage and water problems) yet there always is a sense of community, kin networks, and neighborhood identity and belonging. The state may provide piped water and proper sewage in its development across the street yet it fails, forty years on, to learn from community urbanism. These housing blocks and their haphazard arrangement look like every housing development the state has built since the 1970s showing no major evolutionary development when it comes to architectural or urban design.
While the park, the highway and the additional housing are welcomed, this kind of development project falls short of its potential considering its high costs. It also goes to show once more that the entire system of planning in Egypt is deeply flawed with far too many agencies, ministries, contractors, subcontractors and institutions clamoring together with many bureaucratic hurdles only to produce quite mediocre results. Governance/urban management continues to be the elephant in the room as such issues continue to be pushed to the margins when in fact better cities are not about grand visions alone, they are about good governance and better municipal systems. The life of this park, that highway and these apartment blocks will begin when the ribbon cutting is done and the ministers are no longer conducting site visits. The longterm management of such projects without proper governance structures that empower the community risks turning this grand development project into more of the same.
Read Amr Abotawila on the Imbaba development (Arabic), here.