COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

The Streets and Squares of Cairo Should Belong to Its People

Sep 25, 2011
Dec 14, 2017

If  any city has proven the importance of public space in the last year,  it’s Cairo, where Tahrir Square became a vital gathering place for  protesters determined to overthrow the government — as well as an  international symbol of the desire for freedom and democracy. The Arab  Spring may have been organized in great part online, but it was in the  city’s public spaces that the people took action that could not be  ignored and brought about radical change.

So much future potential. Photo: Ed Yourdon via Flickr.

And  it wasn’t just Tahrir Square or the boulevards of central Cairo that  played a role. It was the streets of residential neighborhoods as well.

Back in July, PPS’s Cynthia Nikitin visited Cairo for the UN’s Designing Safe Cities with Women and Girls stakeholder planning meeting (the trip was part of our partnership with UN-HABITAT). While she was there, she talked with people about how, during the February revolution, they had used the  streets outside their homes in a way they had never envisioned before.

“The  neighbors were protecting their own streets,” Nikitin says. “They had  cellphone sentinels deployed, and if they saw Mubarak’s people coming,  they would call and text and hold them off. Middle-class people who had  never wielded a weapon before banded together with their neighbors.  Women were on daytime duty and men were on the nighttime watch.”

Those  actions revolutionized the way people saw these streets. “The street  become not just a place to park their car, it become the gateway to  their homes in a way that was sacred,” says Nikitin. “People came out in  the street to defend their homes and also to participate in this  revolution. They also were using the streets in a new way, meeting  neighbors. It created a sense of shared space that protected their  neighborhoods like a moat.”

Vendors are vital to the Cairo streetscape. Photo: Ed Yourdon via Flickr

It was a sense that no one wanted to give up.

“People  were still talking about it in July,” says Nikitin. “It deepened the  social cohesion of these neighborhoods. And they’re talking about how to  bring that forward, saying, ‘We don’t want to just go back into our  little apartments and shut our door, we want to go forward. But we don’t  know how to do that.’”

Some architects and planners also recognize the pressing need for a better relationship to public  space in Cairo. In an article published over the weekend in the English edition of Al-masry Al-youm, Steven Viney reported on a presentation from a planner  called Fady al-Sadek about “The Streets of Cairo and the Battle of  Public Space.” From Viney’s excellent report:

Sadek  said disrespect for Cairo’s public spaces, and therefore the  connectedness of its citizens, has resulted in urban planning disasters,  such as the large informal expansions that now accommodate  approximately 60 percent of Cairo’s population.

This  disrespect has not only meant over-congestion and poor planning. The  majority of Cairenes have become alienated from their own city because  the common ground no longer belongs to them.

Overcoming  this division is one of the biggest challenges facing urban planners:  How can Cairo, formal and informal, be progressively brought back  together?…

In  this vein, public spaces play four vital roles: opening channels of  communication among the communities of Cairo; rebuilding the  relationship and trust between residents and planning authorities;  bridging the gap between the macro and micro urban scales of planning  and development; and the establishment of bottom-up rather than top-down  developments.…

The example of Al Azhar park was used: an old trash dump transformed into Cairo’s finest green  public space. The space now very successfully bridges the gap between  the more affluent, modern east side of the park with the western,  semi-informal side.…

Al-Azhar Park is one of Cairo's public space success stories. Photo: Andrea Diener via Flickr.

Sadek  believes that respect for public space is at the root of what is needed  to reinstate a lost nationwide sense of community. It would present the  groundwork for what is fundamentally needed to overcome most of Cairo’s  urban planning challenges.

Clearly,  there is a real appetite in Cairo for a Placemaking approach to  planning. It will be interesting to see how things develop there as the  political situation continues to evolve.

(Thanks to @beirutpspace for the link to the Al-masry Al-youm story.)

Photos: Street scenes, Ed Yourdon; Al-Azhar Park, Andrea Diener; via Flickr.

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