Cairo’s informed/informal brick cities

Informal communities are quite a fashionable topic these days. Most people use the term ‘informal communities’ as a more polite/academic way to say slums, favelas, etc. These words conjure up images of shanty towns in places like India and Brazil. The reality is that there is a huge gradient of community types that fall under the title of ‘informal’. Informal communities basically are defined as those that are not recognized by the government. And if one had to come up with general classifications for them, across many countries, regions, and government structures, they could be thought of as those that are inhabiting existing buildings [squatting], self built, and collectively built. However, there is another type that needs to be added to this classification – ‘developer driven’ informal housing. These so called ‘brick cities’ are pervasive on the edge of Cairo. They represent a different way of creating affordable housing as well as the mode of thinking and dealing with issues of informality.

Looking backward, while moving forward

But how did these communities come into existence? Obviously it is via a long, layered and complex series of events and actors, but for this piece we will only give an abridged version of the causes. In an effort to limit the development of Egypt’s rare and precious fertile lands, the government put forth a policy of building satellite cities, so as to dissuade the expansion of existing cities beyond their borders and into their hinterlands. Much of the planning/regulatory community around the world thought this way – 50 years ago. But the National government, City of Cairo, and most of the dominant planning community it seems has not advanced past this ideology.

Brick Cities

The planned satellite cities, for numerous reasons, have not been appealing to the masses. In light of governmental and professional disinterest, the people of Cairo have taken action. Accompanying the planned new towns, there are regulations preventing development of the rich farmlands on the outskirts of Cairo. However, the enforcement is lax – to say the least. The owners of these lands are often not wealthy. And the demand for cheap housing near a city filled with opportunity, like Cairo, is very high. A common practice is for these land owners to sell the right to ‘developers’. These developers rapidly build housing on these plots [hence the ‘brick city’ title, as the most common form of construction is concrete structure with brick infill], without permits from the city [the buildings can be up to 15 stories in height]. They then sell the housing units to a series of families; and those families move in and take over ‘ownership’ of the building; with the developers then disappearing, untraceable to governmental agencies.

Now, in terms of the loss of fertile soil, obviously the consequences of this development pattern are terrible. However, in terms of cost efficiency of providing low income housing, it is fantastically efficient. A good example of how the government getting out of the way of the people is perhaps for the better. But the difficult reality for the citizens and for the government is that part of the reason the development is so cheap is that no infrastructure is provided. And once the citizens move in, they naturally begin to desire/demand infrastructure. This puts the government in the awkward position of having to provide infrastructure where it was neither considered nor designed for. Not to mention the fact that it forces the government to ‘reward’ these informal developments. This is terribly inefficient, difficult, and expensive.

What the government can do for the people

For one, the government and planning community at large need to acknowledge the reality on the ground. If they were to embrace these conditions, they could see that there is great potential in this model of development, with a need for only a few modifications.Two, they should consider light regulations to these current realities, to ensure higher standards for the residents. By looking the other way, at times the quality of light, air, evacuation, etc can be substandard. They could also contemplate ‘preemptive infrastructure’. Laying the infrastructure before the development – it could give initiative on where building can/should happen and avoid the costly realities of fitting it in later. But the bigger challenge lies not in preemptive acts, but in how to retrofit the existing communities. And this is where the planning and architecture professionals have potential to make a huge impact.

What urbanists and architects can do for the people

In general, in a country with so much happening on the ground, Egyptian architects and urbanists, generally, seem to be more interested in looking backward. Many initiatives/talents are focused on the past. Obviously, Egypt has a rich history and a rich urban fabric to prove it. And much of it is being lost and needs attention. However, much can be learned from what is happening on the ground, now, by the people. These qualities also must be appreciated, embraced and protected. After all, by many accounts, the informal settlements of Cairo house nearly two thirds of the residents of Cairo.

Given the poor vision of the government and the initiative of the people of Cairo, it is incumbent upon the planning/architecture community to accept the challenge of developing strategies for retrofitting these cities. It is an opportunity for innovation within the profession and for community development models worldwide. The way forward is not clear, but there are a series of possibilities to consider:
– Public space as a kit of parts. Instead of trying to insert standard public space elements into these communities or custom designing each space, perhaps a series of public space amenities could be developed as prototype elements and citizens could apply to receive/use them in their community. They, themselves, could insert them, with each community customizing their own public space, mixing and matching them as they see fit.

– New forms of hard infrastructure. Inserting sewage, water and power infrastructural will be daunting in these spaces. However, this is a chance for designers to create small scale, local, cost effective modes of delivering these services. Standard infrastructure is not necessary and can and should be reconsidered.

– New street types. Again, the standard street typologies are not appropriate for these communities. There is an opportunity to develop new street types. One example would be from the ‘shared surface’ models developing elsewhere. Which, in reality, these are the way the historical streets of cities like Cairo used to function.

– New forms of transit. Inserting metro or even buses will be very difficult within these communities. However, one can think of micro transit systems that link to larger systems. This layering of economically efficient transit modes and ensuring their interconnection will be key for these communities’ long-term evolution.

– Recapturing lost soil. This is perhaps the most difficult problem to solve and there will never be a full recovery. However, the communities are ideal for contemplating urban agriculture. How could the urbanism community assist/guide the loca
l citizens to harness the potential of locally grown food?

– Ownership of public space. Given the ownership issues of these communities, there is a chance to reconsider the traditional assumptions of landownership and stewardship in cities. Could a new model of the public realm be considered? Could citizens ‘own’ the public space and thus take more personal responsibility for it? Could this lead to greater care for the public space? This could lead to a greater interest in the self enhancement of the public space for the greater good of the community.


What we can learn

The development and reality of these communities provides many lessons, both locally and internationally. For one, utopian or idealistic models should be questioned, if not cast aside, as a mode of thinking and planning. After all, besides in films, people don’t live in utopias. There is a power in seeing each city as an organism to attempt to understand and to learn from. Instead of solely replicating models from outside of Cairo, perhaps the best thing urban and architectural professionals can do first is to learn from the urban realities and citizens of Cairo. Urban planning does not need to be so planned and dogmatic. It can be more nimble, adaptable and innovative. At times, perhaps the best strategy is to allow the people make their own city. However, this in no way frees them from their obligations to the people. There is much that the professional/governmental realm can do to help the people. And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, this model of developer driven, collective, locally solved attitude towards low income housing is an example that many other cities, both inside and outside of Egypt, can and should learn from. These brick cities and their citizens, despite being derided and ignored by their government and urban professionals, have created a new model that wields the power of citizens and informality in new and quite successful ways.


This article would not have been possible without the brilliance of the work of David Sims. Particularly: “Understanding Cairo: The logic of a city out of control.” And many thanks to May Al-Ibrashy, May El Tabbakh, Mohamed Elshahed, Omneya Abdel Barr for sharing their thoughts and insights.


Jason Hilgefort Jason studied urban planning and design at The University of Cincinnati and architecture at The University of British Columbia – Vancouver. His work experience ranges from New York (Ehrenkrantz Eckstut and Kuhn), to Los Angeles (Behnisch Architekten) to Mumbai (Rahul Mehrotra). Jason has formed Land+Civilization Compositions for investigating issues ranging from daily objects, to infrastructures, to cultural research. He is also a contributor to uncube magazine with writing on ‘architecture and beyond’. This article was  first published at Cairobserver, October 12, 2013. 

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