Thursday, November 17, 2011

Cairo's Neoliberal Urbanisn

Over the summer, I ran into the concept of "neoliberal urban restructuring". It refers to transformations in which formerly public areas become the domains of elites linked to global capitalism, such as in Amman's urban renewal project. I thought of it again when I saw Arabist's link to this book review by Frederick Deknatel:
"By the late 1990s, though, the character of the satellite cities had changed in government plans from mass, working-class housing to suburban getaways in the desert. The regime and its business allies announced a series of high-end commercial developments and luxury, gated communities, complete with golf courses, amusements parks, and star architecture. Today many of these projects sit half-built. Are golf courses, or an office park designed by Zaha Hadid, really rising on that distant stretch of desert? Rather than being the solution to a population boom and a middle-class escape from congestion, the desert cities came to represent the failures and corruption of Mubarak’s neoliberal regime. Urban planning in the desert was sold off, effectively, to private real estate and business interests. Their low-density, wide streets, and sprawl — in contrast to central Cairo’s density — require massive infrastructure investments, from expensive access roads and highways to abundant water and sewage treatment plants. The desert cities are practically unreachable by public transportation."

The review is of David Sims's Understanding Cairo: The Logic of a City Out of Control, which sounds fascinating, and which I'm sure I'll read eventually. One thing Deknatel reports about Sims's take is the agency of the working class in adapting the urban space themselves:
"Despite all these problems, the interplay between state planning in the desert and unregulated, informal expansion near the historic center has in some ways, Sims argues, inadvertently served Cairo — just not how the regime intended. In the ring of slums creeping in on the Nile, Sims sees “true ironic serendipity.” In his view, the state’s neglect of former agricultural land near the center in favor of developing empty desert on the fringes has actually saved Cairo’s density. Affordable housing arose in well-located but officially ignored former agricultural areas around the Nile, with only a fraction of poorer residents moving out to the desert as the government hoped...

"Sims describes Cairo’s informal economy and transportation network, with the aid of government surveys and international development reports, revealing a city of perseverance and adaptability. The informal economy absorbs over half of Cairo’s labor force — which grows by some 200,000 people every year — while investment in informal residential real estate in Greater Cairo is estimated to be over $36 billion, almost 40 percent of the city’s total. Traffic might be horrendous, but informal transportation systems, like fleets of minibuses, shuttle millions across Greater Cairo every day, cheaply and efficiently, for between .5 and 1.50 Egyptian pounds (from less than a penny to a quarter)."

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