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Informal areas awaiting development
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 14 - 12 - 2015

Cairo is a city of 15 million people, if not more. Half of the population lives in informal areas, waiting for a deal with the government to offer them basic amenities, or locked in legal limbo for decades on end.
Around the capital, the government has identified 68 informal areas for redevelopment and 13 that it intends to demolish, deeming them beyond repair. One of the most-prized areas in the capital is the triangle that contains the state-owned television building and the Foreign Ministry.
To urban planners and an assortment of real estate developers, it has come to be known as the Maspero Triangle, a reference to the French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero who established the nearby Egyptian Museum in 1902.
The northern tip of the Maspero Triangle is the Abul-Ela Mosque in Bulaq, the southern at the Ramses Hilton off Tahrir Square, and the eastern at an Italian school building. Several plans have been promoted in the past to redevelop the Maspero Triangle. But the last, drafted by the London-based architecture firm Foster & Partners, is different.
Unlike the previous plans, which largely ignored the local population, Egyptian planners working with the local community have been able to reset the rules of the game. The international firms competing for the final design had to start from the premise that the local population would not be removed, but would be resettled in new houses built within the same district.
Ahmed Zaazaa, head of the architecture group Madd, was behind the new approach to development. His group was able to liaise between local people and the government to ensure that a more inclusive style of development was in place. “We started working on the Maspero Triangle in mid-2013 as part of our interest in marginalised communities and rehabilitation,” Zaazaa said.
“We had earlier experience in Al-Kom Al-Ahmar and Mit Oqba, but the Maspero Triangle has been one of the most important areas we have dealt with. The idea was develop the area while rehousing the inhabitants in the same district,” he added.
Before Zaazaa and his group got involved, various master planners had tackled the same zone, proposing high-rises and glitzy commercial facilities, but without consideration for the local community.
“Starting with Cairo 2050, a plan proposed in 2008, and then again in the [architect] Hossam Youssef's plan that the government adopted in 2009, and that of [architect] Sahar Attiya, which the General Organisation for Physical Planning (GOPP) and the Cairo Governorate embraced in 2010, what we have seen are projects dazzling in their modernity and buzzing with high-rises. But the common denominator among all of them has been that they have ignored the local inhabitants,” Zaazaa said.
If any of the above plans were to be put into practice, the likely outcome would be that more than 18,000 inhabitants would be asked to leave their homes and relocate elsewhere. The area's residents, especially young people, have seen this coming and have wanted to take precautions.
After the 25 January Revolution, several of them got together and created a group called the Maspero Youth Coalition. It is now a legal entity that represents the community in talks with government officials.
In cooperation with the Maspero Youth Coalition, Zaazaa and his colleagues have prepared an alternative plan and communicated it to the now-defunct Ministry of Urban Development and Informal Settlements. “When we started, our emphasis was on the population,” Zaazaa said.
“We organised a rally with the Maspero Youth Coalition in the heart of the neighbourhood during which we explained our goals,” he added.
The rally was attended by architects and legal experts who fielded questions from the public. Thrilled to have a chance to participate in their district's future, local people even offered Madd an office in the neighbourhood.
Soon, Madd discovered that for some reason the Cairo Governorate had ended building maintenance in the district in 1985, accelerating the wear and tear on old buildings. “This resulted in the collapse of nearly 14 per cent of the housing in the Maspero Triangle in the 1992 earthquake,” Zaazaa noted.
One explanation for the end to maintenance is that governorate officials wished to see the old buildings disappear to make room for future redevelopment. Sorting out who owns what in the Maspero Triangle is not always easy. Some ten major investors, including government agencies and foreign developers, own property in the area, and thousands of landlords and tenants can also stake a claim based on contracts or simple possession.
Zaazaa and his colleagues worked on the Maspero Triangle for almost a year, and half that time was spent taking stock of who owns what and where. “Then we put together a vision of how development could proceed in the area, and we presented it to the media,” he said.
Before long, Layla Iskandar, then minister of state for urban development and informal settlements, gave them a call. This was a turning point. At long last, someone in the government was coming to the realisation that unless the local population was involved in planning, problems would emerge.
Madd was asked to write a proposal, called the Maspero Development Document (MDD), and this was promptly approved by the ministry and the prime minister. According to Zaazaa, the MDD “set out the criteria and objectives on which the Maspero Triangle would be developed.”
What Madd did, in consultation with local people, was to divide the Maspero Triangle into several zones, including areas that the population would be willing to relocate once their new houses were built.
A “cultural corridor” would be created inside the Maspero Triangle, offering housing and business to locals, while preserving the historically and architecturally significant buildings that give the area its particular flavour. Around those corridors, local and foreign investors would be able to build the high-rises they have set their hearts upon.
However, the ministry concerned was dissolved and does not have a place in the current cabinet. But when work started on the development in September 2014 the ministry was able to bridge the gap between officialdom and participatory politics. Former prime minister Ibrahim Mehleb and Iskandar toured the Maspero Triangle and talked to local people about their problems and concerns.
In early 2015, a precedent was set. The government and the inhabitants signed a memorandum of understanding, one that met the needs of each and set the stage for international bidders to come up with a design for the redevelopment of the Maspero Triangle.
Sherif Al-Gohari was the ministry point man in the process. He speaks enthusiastically about the unprecedented approach the government was able to take in the Maspero Triangle.
“Reaching this stage was a dream,” Al-Gohari said. “We didn't imagine for a minute that the area would really turn into a bright spot in the middle of the city. When I saw the scale model proposed by Foster & Partners, I just couldn't believe how beautiful this area was going to be, and all because we had taken the human factor into account.”
The ministry used the studies Madd had been working on as a starting point for development. Then Al-Gohari and his team started talking to local people, discovering that 60 per cent of them wanted to continue living in the area, while 40 per cent were willing to leave if they received fair compensation. This provided the ministry with an idea of how much housing it would need to integrate into the new plan.
According to Al-Gohari, the government sent its property survey experts to the area, where they worked for a month. These experts estimated the value of the property in the MD, with a view to deciding on the compensation and the rehousing.
The effort proved daunting, Al-Gohari admitted. “We subjected the entire area to Law 119, declaring it a redevelopment zone through a decision by the Supreme Council for Planning and Urban Development,” he said. When this was done, the government announced a design competition among international architecture firms, and this was won by Foster & Partners.
However, this does not mean that the London-based firm will be in charge of implementation, Al-Gohari pointed out. Design and implementation are two different things. Turning the design into reality is a more substantial effort than coming up with the architectural drawings in the first place.
“Design is one thing, and implementation is another. A massive budget of more than LE10 billion will be needed to bring the area to its final shape,” Al-Gohari said.
Tenders will be issued and major contracting companies will bid for them either through one company or a group of several. A few creases remain to be ironed out, however. One is that the assessments that the government has made of the property do not match local expectations.
“The assessments caused a real crisis,” said Maspero Youth Coalition coordinator Sayyed Labi. According to Labi, the government assessors should have worked in coordination with local people, but this didn't happen.
“The assessment committees formed by the ministry and the Cairo Governorate were supposed to include two residents. But they didn't welcome our presence in their meetings, and we weren't even notified of most of them,” Labi remarked.
According to the assessors, one square metre of property in the area is worth around LE4,000, but residents argue that a fair price is three or four times that amount. Some of the locals, said Labi, own or lease one room only. So, at the current rate, their compensation would not be enough to allow them to find a dwelling inside or outside the Maspero Triangle.
“Many families don't own or rent more than 15 metres altogether, so their compensation would be LE75,000. Other families will not get more than LE40,000. And yet they are expected to move into apartments that are 80 square metres in size. Where are they going to get the money to afford the difference in price?” Labi asked.
With the original ministry now gone and the Maspero Youth Coalition feeling short-changed about the property estimates, there is a clear need for another round of talks. But at least a precedent has been set. And planners can no longer dream of building high-rises without taking the claims of the local community into consideration.


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