There is a direct relationship between the simple loaf of bread and the urban growth of Egypt’s cities, particularly Cairo.
Egypt, once the breadbasket of the Mediterranean, is the world’s biggest importer of wheat and grains. Egyptians consume the most bread per capita in the world. Over the years Egypt’s dependency on imported wheat has steadily increased with no sign of reversal.
Egypt’s population, currently 81 million, is growing at 2 percent a year. By 2025, its population could reach 104 million, and by 2050 it population could be close to 140 million, an increase of 70 percent.
Our future governments must see the latent potential Cairo and other cities already hold rather than unimaginatively look to the desert and aim to erase Cairo’s neighborhoods
Rising population will mean less land available for agriculture, and if upstream usage of Nile river water increases, as appears likely, there could be less water for Egyptian farmers in the years ahead. Egypt’s dependence on imported food will likely grow.
This population growth also means more need for housing, and more need for land to urbanize. The informal urbanizing process, which mostly follows the patterns of agricultural lands, rather than follow plans devised by urban planners, resulted from government misguided planning policies but also a decrease of value in agricultural land. Some of the world’s most fertile land is worth ten times more if urbanized than if farmed. This imbalance in land value is directly related to the state’s subsidization of imports and inclination to import a foreign product rather than invest in local farming. Thus there is a direct relationship between the simple loaf of bread and the urban growth of Egypt’s cities, particularly Cairo.
As the market supplies less and less properties accessible to the majority of the population, that population will simply create its own properties on already devalued agricultural land
For decades, Egyptians were told that it is they who are the cause of Egypt’s problems. Mubarak himself is famously quoted for saying that there are too many Egyptians; the dictator clearly preferred ruling Egypt with less or no Egyptians. In addition, Egyptian upper classes have regurgitated this line of reasoning by constantly blaming Egypt’s population growth for Egypt’s inability to develop. In reality a larger population means a bigger market and a bigger labor force, both of which can be the core a successful development program; however sound policies are needed to take advantage of this potential. Instead, both the government and the professional class failed to harness Egypt’s potential and have left the majority of the population to fend for itself outside of the rule of law and this has manifested in urbanizing processes.
The speed of urbanization of agricultural land is not only due to the decreasing value of agricultural land but also due to the lack of a real market dynamic in the Egyptian real estate business. The market is constantly looking to “exculsivize” development, leaving behind large segments of the population. Because there are no real market dynamics, populations constantly create their own new market, so to speak, by urbanizing land that was previously unavailable for building (agricultural land).
As the market supplies less and less properties accessible to the majority of the population, that population will simply create its own properties on already devalued agricultural land. Thus Egypt is losing large swaths of its precious agricultural land while the real estate market and cities suffer from this ad hoc and uncontrolled speculative process. The result is a bizarre situation where there is a housing crisis, there is massive speculation and building, the majority of the population lives in self-initiated/self-built so-called informal areas and there are hundreds of thousands (a conservative estimate) of empty developments including state planned “social housing” in desert communities (empty because the government still doesn’t understand that planning doesn’t simply mean building a few concrete towers in the middle of nowhere).
There are many intermingled factors here such, as governance, land ownership, national policy, zoning laws, housing policies and administrative boundaries (the fact that Cairo can keep growing virtually for tens of miles and still be considered Cairo). However, there are two main issues: First, the low value of agricultural land due to importation and government subsidies of imported wheat and grains; and second, the lack of real market values that determine what gets built where, for how much, etc.
There are two main issues: 1. The low value of agricultural land due to importation and government subsidies of imported wheat and grains. 2. The lack of real market values that determine what gets built where, for how much, etc.
1. The high dependency on imported wheat and grains made agricultural land worth ten times more if it was urbanized than if it was farmed. This one-to-ten value ratio, the product of government policies, makes it increasingly difficult for rural communities to hold on to their farms in the face of creeping urbanization. A process of reversal is needed immediately to wean Egypt off imported basic foodstuffs and to preserve the country’s irreplaceable agricultural land and the culture, economy, society that comes with it. Considering Cairo is surrounded to the north and south with agricultural land, this reversal will funnel development, formal and informal in the East-West axis into the desert (which is already the direction of the rather exclusive developments, but not the low income ones). The reason agricultural land is easier to develop informally is because it is already plugged into basic infrastructure (water and electricity), whereas desert developments need governmental large scale planning to extend such services for future developments (except this is only done for high end developments).
Flying over the Nile Delta, one is shocked by the ratio of urban to agricultural land. Once small rural villages and farming communities deeply entrenched in an agricultural tradition are urbanizing at a fast pace to maintain a livelihood. Middle class urban values that were once the material for 1980s and 1990s soap operas have become the life standard which millions of rural Egyptians wish to emulate.
Not only is agricultural land devalued due to importation of agricultural products, but desert land is also devalued, for a different reason. Large swaths of land in and around Cairo are owned by the army, rather than by the Egyptian state and such land is bought and sold in opaque deals for the benefit of speculative projects mostly by foreign companies.
2. The real-estate market in Cairo is nearly arbitrary and property prices are entirely based on uncontrolled speculation. Typically the value of real estate is tied to location, amenities, transport options, distance to park/public space, distance to shopping options, in addition to factors pertaining to the actual property: quality of construction, functionality of utilities, cultural/heritage value. By this logic, a building on Talaat Harb Street and Huda Shaarawi in downtown, where there is a park near by at Azbakiyya, a big open square at Tahrir, charming historic buildings, metro stops within ten minute walk, shops, cinemas, museums, should be at the top end of the real estate market. That may have been the case if the Egyptian state and city government focused on what governments typically do: maintain public space, upkeep streets, pass laws to protect historic structures and maintain their economic value. It is these steps that have maintained the urban centers of cities across the world that upper class Egyptians visit for holiday while lamenting the absence of such high quality urban environments in Egypt.
The constant need for more agricultural land and the need for more housing means that planners and politicians need to devise an urban model built on high-density environments
Therefore the center, despite where it should be (at the top of desirable real estate) had there been real market dynamics, is devalued. This process of devaluing the center and neglecting its maintenance has opened the market for desert and exclusive speculation, which have failed to provide successful urban models. This unbalanced speculative process has resulted in two seemingly opposing extremes, although they are two faces of the same coin: a large area of high-density improvised urbanism (known as informal or Ashwaiyat) and large swaths of low-density exclusive and disconnected dystopias.
This imbalance in the market is partly due to the possibility for the city to expand forever, into the desert or into agricultural land. Frontier urbanism, where the closer one is to the ring road, rather than the center, the more value. Hence government plans to build an even bigger ring road (to add to the value of land speculation and potentially destroy massive amounts of agricultural land north of Cairo due to development). But also this market imbalance is due to opaque deals and mysterious land ownership contracts, and irregular corrupt government.
In short, there is a direct relationship between the bread we eat and the city we live in. Policies towards more self-sustained agricultural production will have a positive impact on the dynamics of urban growth and development within a city that must be defined with fixed boundaries.
Historically, there has been a symbiotic relationship between Egypt’s urban and rural economies. One simple example of that relatively successful relationship was the Awqaf system, where profits from agricultural land, which fed both urban and rural societies, were used to maintain urban properties. All the land on Cairo’s west bank (Giza) was Awqaf land that paid for the maintenance of Cairo’s buildings on the other side. That system has been canceled since the 1952 regime took over and new urban areas were planned on that land such as Mohandisseen. With the right global and local politics Egypt has the potential to feed itself and at the same time control its urban development patterns.
The constant need for more agricultural land and the need for more housing means that planners and politicians need to devise an urban model built on density. This can be done in ways that do not replicate the sometimes-unhealthy extreme high-density conditions found in some of the “informal” areas. However, all current government planning is aimed at creating extreme low-density, car oriented, (sub)urban environments, a model that has failed around the world and which is not sustainable considering Cairo’s population growth. High-density environments not only reduce the amount of “waste land” but also healthier social networks. High density urban planning also requires planners to consider mass transit, another essential that is overlooked by Cairo’s planners. In Egypt’s conditions, high density planning is the most sustainable approach - environmentally, economically, and socially - and it will help preserve much needed agricultural land to feed the population. (In addition to the endless potential for urban agriculture/rooftop farming, which can easily be implemented in Cairo if politicians know what they are doing).
Developers need to look to other cities, as Egypt must be decentralized. Our future governments must see the latent potential Cairo and other cities already hold rather than unimaginatively look to the desert and aim to erase Cairo’s neighborhoods. Food security, by reducing food imports and investing in agricultural land, will have a positive impact on Cairo’s urban development but this must also be coupled with a serious reconsideration of property laws, rent laws, and property tax laws. It is a catastrophe that nearly %40 of Cairo’s housing stock remains empty either due to restrictive laws on old properties or speculative half-built structures waiting for their value to be appreciated before they are sold by investors. It is time for investors to see the value in investing in well-designed medium and low-income communities rather than focus on the high-end market. It is time for planners to think about urban connective tissue rather than isolated gated communities. It is time for government to stop supporting agriculture in other countries while allowing Egyptian soil to be urbanized. It is time for a serious transport policy that provides Cairo with the mass transit it deserves. It is time for sound planning and policies. Cairo’s problems aren’t unique and the solutions needn’t be either.
Mohamed Elshahed is a doctoral candidate in the Middle East Studies Department at New York University
Mohamed Elshahed is a doctoral candidate in the Middle East Studies Department at New York University. He lives in Cairo, where he is conducting dissertation research on architecture and urban planning in Egypt