Takween Integrated Community Development, Participatory urban planning… a reality check

La planification urbaine participative en Egypte… la réalité de terrain

Kareem Ibrahim, 2018

Ces vingt dernières années, la planification urbaine participative a eu le vent en poupe en Egypte. Depuis événements de janvier 2011, le pays a été le théâtre de mobilisations sans précédent parmi les urbanistes, les groupes d’habitants et les universitaires. Tous réclamaient des droits urbains pour les citoyens et un nouveau paradigme de l’aménagement (alternatif) à même de résoudre les lacunes de la planification urbaine égyptienne passée. Les pratiques de planification urbaine par le haut (top-down) –qui avaient été temporairement arrêtées ces cinq dernières années- réapparaissent de nouveau, aussi les urbanistes égyptiens se heurtent-ils à un ancien/nouveau défi.

Cette présentation donne un aperçu du contexte de la planification urbaine en Egypte, illustre les efforts du collectif Takween Integrated Community Development à cet égard, et, plus important, essaie de donner un aperçu de la réalité pour comprendre les défis du mouvement de planification urbaine participative en Egypte.

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Participatory urban planning has been gaining steam in Egypt, especially over the past two decades. Following the January 2011 events, Egypt started to witness an unprecedented mobilization among urban planners, community groups and academics – all demanding for citizens’ urban rights and calling for an alternative planning paradigm that addresses the deficiencies of Egypt’s past urban planning failures. As top-down urban planning practices - temporarily put on hold over the past 5 years - are re-emerging again, urban planners in Egypt are facing an old/new challenge.

This presentation provides an overview of the urban planning context in Egypt, illustrates the efforts of Takween Integrated Community Development in this regard, and more importantly, attempts to provide a reality check to investigate the challenges facing the participatory urban planning movement in Egypt.

Takween is a private firm that was established in 2009 in Cairo, with an ambition to work in two main areas: first, urban development projects that actually engage local communities, local municipalities and the state; and second, is to use this experience to reinforce actual research activity that can somehow learn and build on experience in the field of urban development.

We were raised as architects to appreciate the work that Hassan Fathi has done in Upper Egypt, as one of the very early projects that started in the 1940s to give a recognition to local communities and actually to start learning on how they live and how they can understand their lifestyles and so on, and how they can build an integrated built environment. But unfortunately despite this image, there is a lot of questions about the relation between the professionals and these local communities; in a way that can push us to think about the role of professionals (architects, urban planners), how they actually interact with local communities, the way they represent them or work with them, etc.

So my presentation will be actually questioning and trying to investigate this relationship between the architects and urban planners on the one hand, and the state and local communities on the other. And will also try to see the different positions that professionals can take in this regard. I am going to present and discuss some projects – actually, interventions that we have been working on over the past 10 years - and try to raise some questions rather than giving only answers about this relationship.

First, let me give some elements of understanding and context. Some of you know that Cairo is a city which has been rapidly growing over the last 100 years. It was actually a small urban agglomeration that grew more than a hundred times over less than a century. Almost 50 or 60% of the urban fabric was made informally in the past 50 years. We see different types of urban fabrics and areas that have been growing either on state-owned land or on agricultural privately-owned land. Both types of areas - in terms of informality - represent a lack of supply of public land for people that is suitable for building. Looking at this in terms of statistics in the period of 1996 and 2006: more than 65% of residential units were produced informally. We are talking about a self-built city; people don’t wait for anyone to build for them, or architects to help developing these projects.

We have these interesting types of buildings that were built by architects or local contractors, but I don’t think there is a role for real architects or structure engineers here. And we have people actually finding solutions for themselves. This is a housing typology that we found in Historic Cairo, where we’ve been working for almost 13 years on the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s project in Al-Darb Al-Ahmar area. Like this gentleman who’s been able to develop and build his own house that perfectly fits his needs, on only 20 m² [image below]. An entire family actually lives there, in a house completed by somebody who’s never studied architecture or engineering. And I doubt that an architect would have been able to actually design something that efficient for him.

Here is what we produce right now [image below]: building at the right of the image is in a fancy neighbourhood designed by an architect; and the one to the left is developed by a Butcher/contractor in Historic Cairo who. This Butcher used to demolish old buildings and comes up with this. And in fact, I don’t see much differences between both buildings.

This is the result: we have a city that is growing, which I don’t think we have much influence on it as professionals and architects. So where do we stand regarding this production? What we see in a city like Cairo is that we have constant negotiations between the “authority” (political or economic) and people, pushing from both sides to gain what they can, whether it is land, resources, infrastructure etc. Meanwhile, we have architects sitting on the side waiting for a moment to intervene. And most probably, their eyes are on the authority because it commissions them to do the project or pay them. It is very rare that they get to work directly with people.

So I thought: let’s think about architects working with both sides and try to see the different roles that architects or planner can play. There are, in my view, 4 roles:

Role I: The Authority uses the Architect/Planner

One of the famous examples we have in Cairo is a project called Cairo 2050 Plan (very similar to Richard’s London Plan); which was envisioned in 2006-2008. The government back then wanted to modernize Cairo in a very liberal manner. The vision for this Plan stated: “By 2050, Egypt is to become a socially and economically developed country, active on the regional and international levels”; which is fine, but the main question is: how is it going to be implemented?

In fact, the vision had a very “Haussmannian” approach to planning, like opening roads to neighborhoods and existing areas. You can see the proposal of Khufu Plaza and Parks linking Al-Mohandessin neighbourhood to the Giza Pyramids, which is a very nice image. It is almost 600 m wide, with a green area in the middle which is approx. 200 meters wide. This was one of the schemes that have been proposed within the Cairo 2050 Plan. However, this scheme, if implemented, would have resulted in the demolition of 5,5 km² of existing urban fabric and the eviction of almost half a million inhabitants living there. For those who know the city, it is as big as the 19th Century Khedival Cairo. In this case, the Architect/Planner was fulfilling the government’s vision.

Alternatively, we’ve been working on an opposite case, trying to implement some pilot initiatives in one of the neighbourhoods that could’ve been affected by such grandiose plans. This neighbourhood is called Ezbet Khairallah, and it has been developing since the 1970s. It is located in the southern part of Cairo, where hundreds of thousands inhabitants live . What you see is an attempt to define the boundaries of this neighborhood. The red dot that you see [image below] is the only governmental facility for all the 300.000 inhabitants (one school only; the green surface is an empty plot, and the blue line is the ring road - which is not connected to the neighborhood, as if it didn’t exist).

We started to understand this neighbourhood and build a narrative around it. And one of the problems that we found is that it is subdivided into entities of 4 different administrative divisions, each of them has limited budgets and never spend it on this neighborhoods believing that the others are going to. What attracted us in this neighborhood is a struggle that started in the 1980s, a case where local people have been organizing themselves into building a case against the evictions (also documented by Deboulet, 1994). Local residents have been organizing themselves for 15 years to go to court against the state and actually win it; which is the first time in Egypt’s context. They gained access to title of their land, and it was done completely by local resources (no involvement of international aid agencies or activist groups; only local groups and leadership).

We’ve been working with them over the past 6 or 7 years in many different aspects. We first documented the case, and then we started to better understand the neighborhood itself through community mapping activities to identify the assets this neighborhood holds. People were able to produce maps that bring knowledge about the problems and assets of this neighbourhood, and in many others. This has been done through TADAMUN - a research initiative of Takween and American University (Washington, D.C.)

Additionally, we invested in improving the facades of some buildings in the neighbourhood. We wanted to show that with little improvements in such areas, we can achieve a lot – which started to pay in some ways. Not only that, but many development agencies like the French Development Agency (AFD) started to be interested in these neighborhoods, also the Ministry of Urban Renewal started to look at the neighbourhood in a new way. In doing so we wanted to draw attention to such neighbourhoods. We aimed for a less intrusive, more tactical and efficient ways of intervention through injecting services, facilities and infrastructure that respond to the local needs.

Role II: The Architect uses the Authority

This is the other way around. Hassan Fathi was clever enough to do it in Luxor (West Bank), in the village of Gourna. Local communities used to live on the hillside there for years, and this was their way of living. The government was planning to relocate the residents there to protect the pharaonic toms on the hillside. Fathi approached the government and proposed the idea of: “why don’t we do something about Egyptian villages, and rural context?” This took place during a heated debate around rural development in the parliament. The government was pushing the agenda towards “the problem is the built environment. If we sanitize and provide a cleaner environment, people’s conditions are going to improve”; while the opposition said it was a more structural issue that had to do with injustice and the way land resources are distributed, the way poverty is being imposed on people and so on.

Hassan Fathi took the side of the government and proposed to develop a model village to prove the point of the government, being: if we move these people into something that looks nice and that is well designed, their lives are going improve. So, in the 1940s, this village (New Gourna) was constructed over 4-5 years. It is a masterpiece of architecture, completely made of mud bricks. It has a lot of innovative ideas in terms of adaptability, almost 30 years before discussions of environmental sustainability began globally. People started to move gradually from the hillside to the village until the late 60’s. The village remained intact until the late 70s but then started to deteriorate. Fathi documented the whole experience in his book “Architecture for The Poor”. But what is interesting in this book, is that it never mentions any interaction or discussion between him and the local inhabitants asking them how they wanted to live. In more than 200 pages, we were under the impression that this was a participatory project, with someone who is very careful about achieving the community needs. But the only moment we saw him discussing with someone about the village, was with his Hungarian friends who’s lived there for almost 20 years. And in many locations, you see that kind of top down approach about how the village was conceived, built and perceived.

In 2010, we were asked as a group by the World Heritage Centre (WHC)-UNESCO to document the New Gourna Village, leading to the development of its conservation plan. The prevailing approaches towards the village were focused around heritage aspects of saving what’s left of it. Until now, the discussion is about raising awareness on the value of the village’s built environment and how to restore it. But we approached the study differently by trying to understand why local residents are demolishing the Fathi buildings. First, only 25% of Fathi’s plan was built, including the public buildings, because the project was stopped in 1948. Over the past 70 year, people living in the village – despites having their houses on the hillside demolished by the government - didn’t have access to the titles of the new houses or the land they occupy. So basically, this was a violation of these residents’ housing rights. Fathi contributed to the relocation of these residents without satisfactory financial compensation or legal settlement. Since then, residents’ natural growth and their need for additional housing space were not fulfilled since they were not planned in the Fathi scheme. So, residents had two options: either to expand horizontally on the fringes of the village, or vertically by demolishing their houses and build anew with additional floors. Bearing this in mind, we conducted a full survey of the village and developed with the WHC a plan that ensures the preservation of Fathi’s heritage, while fulfilling the residents needs and rights. Hence, the plan was not only based on conservation approaches, but it also expanded to achieve the residents’ access to adequate housing – as means to counter the demolition of Fathi’s buildings.

So, architects have influence after all! Through the first role we saw in the Cairo 2050 Plan, professionals were indifferent to the existing urban fabric and to the local community in their attempt to achieve a high-modernist plan. While through the second role – claiming to have community at the centre - we saw dreams of social engineering imposed on existing communities – thinking that such ideas would change people’s behaviour or their way of life. However, in my opinion, both roles actually ignored the local community.

The third role is what we are discussing today, which is participation. In fact, I’m a bit sceptical of what we can say about it, especially in contexts like Egypt or Turkey, given the space available for architects and planners to work and engage with local communities.

Role III: The Architect/Planner as a Mediator (Community Participation)

Now I’m going to talk about a project that we’ve been working on in the City of Esna (55 km to the south of Luxor.) We were appointed in 2010 by the Informal Settlements Development Facility to develop a revitalization plan for the city’s historic centre. At that time, Luxor had an ambitious governor who believed in grandiose schemes such as the Cairo 2050 Plan and its high-modernist approach. In his attempt to develop the City of Luxor, he demolished entire parts of it – resulting into the relocation of a considerable number of the city’s residents. The approach, supported by the state, was heavy-handed - cutting through the city and demolishing its buildings to excavate archaeology and establish new avenues. Some of the demolished buildings were significant and dated back to the 19th century. Within this context, we had to develop a plan for Esna (which is part of the Luxor Governorate).

Esna is well known for its Greco-Roman temple located at the centre of the city and surrounded by an urban fabric dating back to the 18th century onward. However, it had very limited number of tourists who only come to visit the temple, spend around 30 minutes there and leave. We found that the city centre was almost abandoned after major drops in the number of tourists since 1997. However, we started to understand that there were multilayers of history existing in this neighbourhood. Esna was not only about the temple, but other valuable assets as well: architecturally significant buildings, handicrafts, vibrant social life and community ties, etc. – all with very limited level of study and understanding.

We started developing a plan that is not actually from the top; rather, we tried to understand the characteristics of the area starting with drawing a map of the city – which didn’t exist before. With in-depth understanding, we proposed a plan promoting local economy and capitalizing on the city’s assets - something different from what the governorate was coming up with at that time. We were promoting a local economy that could inject life in the city itself, instead of just waiting for tourists to come. This development plan was approved by the Prime Minister in 2010, and now it is the official development plan for the city. However, the government developed another plan which along the lines of Cairo 2050 – leading to the demolition of the buildings surrounding the temple and erasing the area’s historic fabric and traditional buildings. Since then we’ve been struggling with these two plans/visions, as both still exist.

Role IV: On Legitimacy, Ethics and Responsibility (Beyond Participation)

Just to conclude quickly, I think there is another role beyond participation that architects and urban planners could play: building legitimacy and looking into issues of ethics and responsibilities; and basically focusing on the issues of rights as my colleagues Yahia Shawkat and Ahmad Zaazaa demonstrated. Beyond engaging local communities, we as architects and planners need to reflect and think of issues that have to do with our responsibilities as professionals, and what we produce.

In this regard, we’ve been working on the TADAMUN Initiative to build a research platform focusing on issues of right to the city, adequate housing and public space. We aimed to approach these concepts pragmatically, developing an understanding of how local initiatives of groups are trying to build these rights, trying to analyse this in relation with the state policies (as Yahia was showing about the unequal distribution of water between different cities). We tried to understand local communities in a way that can bring more knowledge about these neighbourhoods to counter the narratives encouraging the demolition of such urban areas.

How to work strategically on issues like the constitution for example? It is an effort we’ve been working on with many different groups, as we based our Constitution Campaign on the Right to the City to understand the different aspects we can achieve in the Egyptian constitution. In a way, we can’t say that it affected the production of the new constitution in Egypt, but there are some articles that we produced have in some way echoed in the new constitution, including the adoption, for the first time in Egyptian legal history, the Right to Adequate Housing.

Additionally, we’ve been also focusing on the importance of using mapping techniques to understand issues of social justice and urban inequality. We have employed different tools to produce maps for Cairo (more than 40). Through these maps, we try to understand - at the lowest administrative level - the level of distribution of public resources and the conditions/needs of different neighbourhoods. By making these maps and data publicly available, Egyptian citizens can better engage with the realities of their city and better understand how their public resources are utilized and distributed among different neighbourhoods.