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الثلاثاء، 19 أغسطس، 2014

A new shining capital by:Prof.Dr: Mohsen Zahran

A new shining capital
 writes Mohsen Zahran

The writer is professor of urban planning at the University of Alexandria.

To save Cairo, and spur the development of Egypt on the national scale, there is no reason to delay in making the appropriate plans and setting to work on building a new capital city,

I have long held that securing a bright future for Egypt rests on a comprehensive integrated strategy for stimulating the wheels of growth and development. Such a strategy must engage a scientifically sound approach and an ambitious national plan for targeted human resource development that encompasses all political, urbanisation, social, economic, development and cultural realms. We are all morally bound to share in the bold and daring fight to overcome the gruelling difficulties and hardships that result from the forces of underdevelopment, the high population growth rates that compound general deterioration, sluggish economic and social development, high unemployment rates, spread of informal urban settlements, shortages in food and shelter, closed horizons and the dissipation of the hopes of younger generations.
One of the facts established by the numerous scientific conferences and workshops and intellectual meetings in which I have taken part is that we must redistribute our populace away from the traditional Nile Delta and Nile Valley axis, where 95 per cent of Egypt’s 83 million people are densely concentrated, leaving 95 per cent of our country’s approximately one million square kilometres uninhabited and a lure to others’ greed. The demographic redistribution across all quarters of our territory to the south, north, east and west, in the framework of a national network of transportation grids, urbanisation and production, as laid out in a comprehensive national development plan, will accomplish national strategic goals in security, safety, sustainable development and growth in the unipolar world of this current era of globalisation.
One is dumbfounded by what we do to ourselves. Our duties to honesty and scientific objectivity compel us to acknowledge that the construction of 22 satellite cities around old cities, with plans for new ones down the line, is not the answer. Rather than alleviating our problem, these schemes will generate further deterioration and crises, spur greed and speculation, and exacerbate the problems of housing shortages, informal settlements and rising prices.
A bold national urban development project should require plans to create new corridors and nuclei that will attract development and, more crucially, that are dispersed across our national territory far away from the current octopus-like urban sprawls. We could begin with the 1,100 kilometre long urbanisation artery along the north coast and another 1,300 kilometre long artery along the Red Sea mountains, and then gradually proceed to develop and integrate new arteries elsewhere across the country, taking advantage of local natural resources, environmental features and economic potentials, aiming to complete a grid covering our entire territory by 2050.
The first pioneering urban corridor in this region arose in tandem with the construction of the Suez Canal, which was opened in 1869. It led to the construction of the three Canal Zone cities, Port Said, Ismailia and Suez, linked together by an urban artery supported by a network of roads, railroads and communications facilities. That was a quintessential model of the linkage between an economic aim and an urban development aim. As attested by the documents of the Suez Canal Company that would later be nationalised, the project accomplished numerous local, national and international goals, while drawing the urban development movement eastward away from the Nile Valley and Delta and giving birth to a dynamic artery for habitation, commerce and transportation. It was an unprecedented feat that overturned the history of Egypt, the region and the world.
It seems as though one must forever despair at the opportunities lost. After the October 1973 war, a new dawn broke with golden rays promising rapid growth and development, engaging billions of dollars in the development of new infrastructure and the construction of dozens of new cities, especially around the capital. Unfortunately, those investments and works at the time were not directed to the realisation of a brave and ambitious urban development strategy aiming to create new urban and industrial corridors away from the overcrowded Nile Valley so as to open new horizons for a poor developing people whose hopes and dreams had been deferred for the sake of helping others and were now dissipated again due to the lack of vision, much talk and little action.
Reality does not lie. In spite of huge outlays and expenditures following the adoption of the “Open Door Policy”, we have yet to develop a bold, unconventional comprehensive urban development vision. Instead of planning for new and promising urban corridors and pioneering development nuclei we have repeated the same mistakes and consequent ills of the satellite cities in other countries. Is it possible that, as of yet, there is no comprehensive plan for Greater Cairo, binding on all, in spite of the numerous plans that have been drawn up but were never authorised and implemented? Does it make sense to construct rings of new cities, all connected to the mother city with umbilical cords and perpetually feeding on it, aggravating the conditions of a capital that is already strained and reeling under enormous pressures? Some have even volunteered the idea of linking the new cities to the metro and bus lines, a suggestion that promises to only make matters far worse. The government spends billions on constructing overpasses and tunnels for cars and metros in the hope of alleviating the urban ailments that we, ourselves, have created and that have given rise to the spreading tentacles of informal settlements, suffocating urban congestion and a permanent haze of pollution. Is there some unwritten rule stating that we should permit construction around ring roads as soon as they are completed, only to begin construction of other ring roads further out in endless waves of expansion, in spite of the fact that we know that we should prohibit construction near the ring roads so as to develop the green belt that we have been talking about since the 1980s? It is as though we are set upon forever battling with accumulating symptoms, narrowly escaping disaster and muttering supplications.
Greater Cairo is being strangled by one ring after another, each bringing new woes. We will continue to suffer from these until eventually we wake up and opt for the rational, scientific approach and proper strategic planning. The experiences of other countries, both developed and developing, have proven that new cities should be built well away from parent cities so that they can mature healthily and become independent and self-sufficient. These experiences also show that when new cities are built close to parent cities they turn into commuter towns or bedroom communities that empty out during the day. Even if factories and commercial centres are built to create jobs, these new cities cannot compete with the pull of the larger parent cities. The thousands of empty housing units that inhabit our new cities testify to this. Perhaps, at least, it would have made sense to link employment in new jobs in the factories of the new cities to a commitment on the part of the employee to live there so as not to defeat the purpose of their construction.
Some countries have followed an approach that has proved successful: creating new capitals and administrative centres far away from the old capital. A prime example is Brasilia, the planning and construction of which began in the 1950s in a vast unpopulated area well out of reach from the urban pull of San Paolo and Rio de Janeiro. The construction of Washington as a capital city in the US certainly did not halt expansion and the rise of major cities such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago or San Francisco, each of which is thriving, unique in character, and capable of sustaining their pioneering civilisational contributions. The same applies to Ottawa in Canada, Melbourne in Australia, Ankara and Turkey and Bonn in former West Germany. In like manner, building a new capital for Egypt will not diminish the brilliance of Cairo and its pioneering civilisational role.
The time has come to put an end to the cancerous urban growth of Greater Cairo that now houses 20 per cent of Egypt’s population. This mega polis monopolises the lion’s share of national investment per capita, yet it continues to buckle under the weight of sprawling slums, congested roads, and deteriorating services and infrastructure while it gobbles up the agricultural land around it. Why do we blindly and blithely keep inflicting this harm on ourselves? How can we allow ourselves to persist in this waste of labour and money?
The idea of building a new capital for Egypt has been discussed since the 1950s. At one point, the government made an attempt to create an alternative administrative capital in Sadat City. The idea was soon abandoned and the empty ministry buildings were turned to educational purposes.
Now, the idea should no longer be put off or ignored. The current policy of the government emphases change, reform, decentralisation and eliminating red tape. Serious and encouraging steps have been taken in this direction. Provincial governors have been delegated a number of ministerial powers enabling them to set into motion the constructions of new urban and development corridors and nuclei. But radical change is needed in development planning, policies, programmes and projects at all levels and in all fields.
The location of a new capital city must be carefully chosen. Above all, it must be situated at a sufficient distance from Greater Cairo to prevent the rise of more bedroom communities that feed off the mother city, and to ensure the practical realisation of the goal of decentralisation. The construction of Heliopolis over a hundred years ago was, for its time, a pioneering venture in urban development that was carried out with little cost to the state. The same applied to Maadi and Moqattam. The crucial point is to identify the aim, the feeling and the specifications of the new capital, and to choose a location that offers the best possible potential for communications, energy, transportation networks, buildings, businesses and all the other ingredients for a healthy vibrant life. Also to ensure the independence of the city and its ability to thrive, it will be important to ascertain that the land in the surrounding desert areas can be reclaimed and put under cultivation so as to provide the city’s inhabitants with food and clean air.
Cairo will have nothing to fear. Its eternal light will not dim. In fact, it will have a chance to shine brighter once we alleviate it of its chronic ailments and burdens. Meanwhile, the new city will perform its intended role and functions, becoming a true seat of government complete with the institutions, agencies and support services fit for a capital of Egypt of the future. Naturally, the project can be carried out in phases over time and space. For example, we can begin with the government agencies that do not interact with the public on a daily basis, such as the presidency, some government administrations, embassies, research centres, private universities and high tech industries. In our computerised age of internet communications, there is no longer any need for government agencies and institutions to be clumped together. Global transnational companies manage their daily activities from continents away. The same applies to the world’s major newspapers that are printed and distributed in various spots on the globe at the same time. Our technocratic era has erased the borders of time and place in the global village of today.
Reflecting this spirit, Egypt’s new capital must be more than just an administrative centre. It should incorporate science parks, industrial parks, business and management parks, entertainment and recreation parks and other diverse and modern features that give it the unique and attractive character that we would like to see in our capital of the future. It is important to ensure that its activities are diverse, organised into diverse hubs, like pearls woven together by a solid, efficient and elegant fabric of state-of-the-art transportation and communications networks, services and utilities, and other such features that will give life to our dreams for a new, prosperous and trailblazing Egypt.
As a temporary step, we might consider turning one of our promising existing cities, such as Alexandria, Sharm El-Sheikh or Luxor into an interim capital until the new capital of our dreams is sufficiently prepared to take off. The crucial point is that the idea of creating a new capital for our country is consistent with the nature of the challenges and promises of the 21st century. We can no longer afford to procrastinate. We need to forge ahead with the type of great dreams and innovative projects that help guard the safety, security and stability of nations and fulfil the hopes and aspirations that are shared by people everywhere.
 If we agree to summon our resolve, we must renew the covenant with a state that protects without intimidating, invests but does not squander, disseminates peace and works make people’s hopes and dreams come true. Accordingly, this requires introducing and implementing the necessary changes in all the political, legislative and regulatory frameworks governing development, the economy, culture, the environment, society and other crucial aspects of life without delay.


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