x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Redevelopment of Cairo aims to trade chaos for elegance

Proposal offers a vast revitalisation, including wider streets and more vibrant public squares.

Talaat Harb Square in Cairo will have pedestrian-only streets and extensive landscaping.
Talaat Harb Square in Cairo will have pedestrian-only streets and extensive landscaping.

CAIRO // If a redevelopment plan for Cairo's clotted downtown is successful, residents of Egypt's capital may soon find themselves strolling down open, walkable streets. That is the vision of AECOM Middle East, a design and planning consultancy that is also managing Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island Cultural District. AECOM Design and Planning (D+P) won a ministry of housing contest in April to re-imagine downtown's crowded, crumbling chaos as a green, orderly, pedestrian-friendly space that would be the focus of Egypt's artistic and cultural life.

"If you visit this area, it's very valuable. It looks like Paris," said Mustafa Madbouly, the chief planner for Egypt's ministry of housing. "There was a winning project which will maintain, revitalise and conserve this area and really turn it into a vibrant central business district as you see in European cities." AECOM D+P officials said the company plans to sign a contract in the next several weeks with the division of the ministry of housing responsible for downtown redevelopment. Final details for financing and design of the plan, which is part of an ambitious vision called Cairo 2050, will be hashed out before the end of the year.

Downtown Cairo has already experimented with a handful of pedestrian-only roads, most notably in the neighbourhood that surrounds the financial exchange. The new plan will feature a patchwork of quiet avenues free from honking horns and the ubiquitous parked cars. For those who know Cairo, the new layout may be difficult to imagine. Despite the traffic and litter, Cairo's downtown has a certain charm. Its derelict buildings recall a past wealth, a history of intellectual ferment and a political landscape that has shifted considerably since the area was first built generations ago.

Khedive Ismail, who ruled Egypt under British domination from 1863 to 1879, was inspired by the architectural stylings of Georges-Eugène Haussmann, whose redesign of France's capital unified that city's architecture during the 1860s. While his attempt to duplicate Paris's success nearly bankrupted the country, it left Cairo with an elegance that eventually fell into disrepair following Egypt's 1952 revolution against Great Britain.

Like Khedive, planners of Cairo's redesign are once again looking to Europe for inspiration. They have re-envisioned the downtown with fewer vehicles, more trees and wider spaces with integrated public transport. But the plan will also focus on certain points of interest and their immediate environs - a strategy they hope will transform Cairo into a finite network of memorable spaces strung together by easily navigable roadways.

"This is what we are proposing: A whole bunch of identifiable Cairene buildings that would contain important events," said Sahar Attia, the managing director of Associated Consultants, a Cairo-based architectural firm that is AECOM's local partner. "The methodology relied on selecting key buildings and key activities which would be the nucleus from which we would expand our revitalisation projects."

Amid the elegant homes and office buildings from the 20th century, Khedivian Cairo, as the historic section of downtown is called, is pockmarked with large historic buildings and sprawling squares that have seen better days. Among the most notable is the Supreme Court - an elegant columned edifice that looks out over a sprawling car park. AECOM D+P proposes to convert the parking space into a vibrant public square.

Opera Square, which is dominated by a non-descript municipal building and parking garage, would see a similar transformation. The area around the square will be landscaped, providing an elegant opening into the historic Azbakiya Park, which would also see significant upgrading. Abdeen Palace, one of the Egyptian president's official residences, would be converted into a venue for special events while the road leading to it will be turned into a pedestrian-only "ceremonial avenue" that will connect all of downtown to the Nile.

Pedestrian-only streets, tram cars and landscaping would link all of the notable locations, including important junctions such as Tahrir Square, Bab Al Louq Square, Talaat Harb Square and Ismail Pasha Corner. At its centre, the road works will emanate from the River Nile, which now is blocked by a busy thoroughfare. The AECOM plan will sink significant parts of the Corniche roadway into a tunnel, freeing the space above for a verdant arboretum and a multi-level promenade.

"One of the main strategies that we were dealing with was how to connect the city back to the Nile and how to provide public access to the waterfront," said Albert Naim, an associate architect at AECOM Middle East in Abu Dhabi. All of these plans will certainly take time, Mr Madbouly said. But the first stages - building multi-storey garages in central Cairo to allow for dozens of pedestrian-only streets - is already well into the planning stages. Mr Madbouly expects some streets to become pedestrian-only with five years. The rest of the projects, he said, should be finished within 10 to 15 years.

@Email:mbradley@thenational.ae