From a tourist’s perspective, Egypt evokes images of pyramids, tombs, and perhaps a boat tour down the Nile. Beyond these remarkable destinations, however, await other fascinating discoveries tour guides rarely discuss. One of these is informal settlements.
The term “informal settlement” is typically associated with crowded, low-slung encampments built from makeshift materials that emerge in unregulated urban territories. Typical definitions focus on the illegal nature of these developments. For example, Oxford Reference defines an informal settlement as “Houses (for temporary or permanent use) which have been built on land without formal planning approval.” Other sources, such as the Urban and Cities Platform of Latin America and the Caribbean Urban and Cities Platform of Latin America and the Caribbean, adopt a human-centered approach, describing these areas as places “where the inhabitants do not have security of tenure regarding the land or housing they inhabit.”
The informal settlements of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, called ashwa’iyyat, represent a distinctive approach to urban housing that defies many preconceptions and offers lessons for formal development. Notably, the ashwa’iyyat are not marginal communities. In greater Cairo, approximately 13 million inhabitants—or 65% of Cairo’s population—occupy informal settlements, which are typically situated in former agricultural zones near the city center. In other words, the majority of Cairenes live in these areas, often more centrally located than many government-approved residential enclaves.
The ashwa’iyyat represent a significant planning, design, and construction undertaking. Urban planner David Sims describes the typical material language as concrete frame with brick infill—the “classical informal”—and high rises of 15 stories or more are common. Such an achievement requires a well-organized, albeit undocumented, effort involving investment, development, engineering, and design-build services—not to mention robust community negotiation. Although technically unlawful, this housing also has some access to city utilities, thanks to limited government approval of utility connections following the 1992 earthquake.
Despite their illegality—which might suggest inconspicuousness—these settlements communicate the ever-changing physical needs of human communities with greater transparency and authenticity than their formal counterparts. The ashwa’iyyat offer a model of the design-build process writ large. The buildings’ perpetual state of construction—and incompletion—reveals the unceasing human desire for adaptability and accommodation of fluctuating needs.
For example, building roofs are rarely finished (a fact that owes much to the scarcity of rainfall in the region). Rebar typically extends upwards from the highest set of cast concrete columns—indicating a future story to be built with adequate funding and materials—at times with open staircases leading to the sky. Occasionally, rooftop additions constructed in a completely different material language—such as multistory lumber-framed or metal enclosures—appear like architectural parasites atop these edifices.
Ashwa’iyyat facades offer more clues about a building’s construction than is typical. Interior concrete stairs indicate their presence on a building's elevation, projecting a map of internal vertical circulation on the exterior. Building envelopes also reveal a remarkable level of customization. The frame-and-infill model provides a predictable regularity in which window systems, balconies, and other facade elements may be readily adapted to individual occupant needs. In tall buildings, the dizzying diversity that results from this approach is especially striking. Like roofs, building elevations rarely seem complete. Voids lacking apertures are common, and these windowless areas indicate unoccupied units awaiting future occupants' selection and installation of facade systems.
Another remarkable, if unwanted, ashwa’iyyat phenomenon results from subtraction. When the government expands infrastructure, such as widening a highway, existing buildings in the new right-of-way are immediately vulnerable. Instead of demolishing an entire structure, however, the strategy is to remove only the noncompliant portion of the building. A literal section cut exposes interior walls, whose colorful surfaces adorn the new facade. This externalized face memorializes the imprints of the residents who occupied these spaces before they were forced to relocate.
Urban design and the configuration of public space are similarly intriguing ventures in the ashwa’iyyat. According to Dina Shehayeb, Director of Architecture and Urban Design at Nile University in Cairo, there is no public space per se in such communities—only shared private space that emerges from neighbor-to-neighbor negotiations. Cairo’s informal settlements have typically developed on agricultural lands, so the buildings and street networks reveal the influences of the original land cultivation patterns. With narrow streets and few squares or plazas, the primary communal zones in the ashwa’iyyat are streets and rooftops. Activities routinely spill into the narrow lanes, which also function as playgrounds and social spaces.
Researchers of these settlements have noted that they not only house the impoverished but also many middle-class inhabitants. Shehayeb explains, “Studies reveal the profile of informal areas to include a wide spectrum of socio-economic groups” including doctors, lawyers, and government employees. Despite the economic mobility to live in formal neighborhoods, many choose to call the ashwa’iyyat home for its walkability, central location, home-to-work proximity, convenience for daily needs, and safety from the watchful eyes on the street.
These vibrant pedestrian neighborhoods reinforce family and community connections in ways that gated, automobile-centric residential developments cannot. “The close-knit fabric and sense of belonging to the same culture and a certain community that shares the same values, traditions, and beliefs are the two assets that informal settlements build on,” explain the authors of a study in the recent sustainable urbanism issue of Buildings.
Egypt’s informal settlements are certainly no panacea for urban challenges. The ashwa’iyyat suffer from obvious and significant limitations due to their unregulated design and construction practices, relative lack of infrastructural support, and inherent physical and legal vulnerabilities. However, viewing these neighborhoods as entirely undesirable or inferior is shortsighted. The ashwa’iyyat and its residents offer valuable lessons about continuous adaptation in construction, mass customization of architectural systems, and support of dynamic walkable neighborhoods. They demonstrate what we have always known but not recognized: that architecture is never really complete. Looking at formal practice by comparison, one can appreciate that the unquestioned paradigm of finality in design and construction is a myth that can obscure hidden inflexibilities.
Egypt’s informal settlements need help in the way of improved government-provided services and enhanced regulatory stability. But they can also help us. Designers and planners of formal projects can benefit from the ashwa’iyyat by adopting some of their impressive methods of supporting and representing vibrant human communities.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.
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