As urban waterfronts around the world de-industrialize, cities are increasingly capitalizing on these opportunities to provide open space and alternative commuting routes along riverbanks, bringing residents and visitors back to the waterfronts. Cairo has remarkable opportunities to reconnect its people with the river that was historically its heart.
With a population of over eleven million, Cairo is one of the densest cities in the world. The urban population is underserved by parks and other public open space. The need for open space—and the compelling attraction of the wide river—is put in sharp focus by a common sight on Cairo’s traffic snarled bridges: families set up chairs and picnic on the sidewalks, overlooking the river and enjoying the open space, seemingly oblivious to the honking traffic that crawls besides them. Most of the river banks are fenced off from public access, but those that are open to the public are heavily used by Cairenes of all ages and all walks of life. The potential for human use of the river banks as open-space is enormous.
In an intensive workshop involving 23 students and seven faculty from Cairo University (CU), The American University in Cairo (AUC), and the University of California, Berkeley (UCB), interdisciplinary teams systematically inventoried existing conditions along a 12-km reach of the Nile from Maadi to Tahrir Square, recording river-bank relations, building heights and conditions, circulation, and land-use.
Based on this field work the student teams identified specific opportunities and challenges for interventions along the Nile. The low, wide flood plains along much of the Nile bank have great potential to be reconfigured into accessible and active public spaces. It was also identified as a feasible route for a continuous pedestrian/bicycle trail. Air quality measurements along the river bank showed that particulate matter levels along the flood plain were on average 30% lower than street level measurements.
The presence of historic landmarks and tourist attractions along the Nile provides significant opportunities for urban revitalization and economic development. The excellent views of the Nile and the Pyramids of Giza available at many waterfront locations provide a unique opportunity that interventions along the waterfront can capitalize on. While some stretches of the Corniche have wide sidewalks that can be redesigned to function better as public spaces, the Nile bank provides ample opportunities for ecological restoration at many places. The presence of vacant lots along the Corniche provides opportunities for strategic developments and also for better open space connectivity with the rest of the city. The visible public interest in the limited ferry routes along the river illustrates the potential the Nile holds to function as a significant public transportation corridor if the city is able to expand the existing ferry system.
There are also significant challenges related to existence of incongruent public and private land-uses along the Nile Corniche. Appropriate institutional and regulatory frameworks would be required to ensure that proposals for public space restructuring are implemented and maintained well. Urban waste management is a significant concern in Cairo and the Nile waterfront is no exception.
Building on the identified opportunities and challenges, workshop participants developed a strategic plan for a longitudinally continuous trail network along the Nile with lateral connectivity to important nodes in Cairo. They also developed detailed plans for the revitalization of two key zones (Athur El Nabi and Old Cairo).
The workshop ended just one week before the streets of Cairo became the venue for historic political demonstrations that eventually resulted in major political changes. While there have been many past efforts to rehabilitate the city and ‘plan’ the future growth of Cairo, including the ‘Cairo 2050 Vision Plan’ (a multi-year planning effort initiated by the Egyptian government and undertaken by international consultants), none of these prior efforts have highlighted the potential to develop the Nilotic riverfront. In the wake of the January events, ‘Cairo 2050’ quickly became uncertain and outdated. However, the collaborative research and planning process undertaken here could serve as a model for future planning efforts that are more in-touch with local conditions and reflective of real needs of everyday Cairenes. The political changes of January 2011 highlighted public desires, expectations, and demands for major economic changes and improvements in living conditions. Thus, the concept of reconnecting Cairo’s urban population with the Nile is unusually timely. Bringing the people to the river banks could significantly improve daily life for millions, and could contribute to democratization of society and strengthening of the social fabric.