Sep 25, 2013

Livable Cairo!?

I was born and raised in the city of the victorious, an ancient city full of pride. A welcoming city that never sleeps. Cairo was founded as a city in the 10th century but the region it occupies was settled at least a millennia prior to its foundation. It is a city with lots of character and an aging soul. The problem is, this city could probably be the worst managed city in the world. 

Over the last few decades city planners have been almost non-existent. As the populations doubled and doubled again there has been so much strain on the city's infrastructure. Now combine that with an ancient (yet young) population that continues to struggle with aligning their values with a rapidly modernizing world. This all results in a confused and, at times, a very hostile city. 

There are 10s of criterions used to rate and assess cities; these are usually grouped around stability, security, infrastructure, education, economic potential, culture, entertainment, healthcare and security. The Economist Intelligence Unit and Mercer run the most exhaustive surveys of city livability. With the former ranking Cairo at 122nd most livable City and Mercer ranking us at a very generous 141st. I personally didn't know there were that many cities in the world. Seriously though, the low ranking of Cairo should not come as a surprise to anyone, so the big question is can Cairo improve?  Given the criteria, I really don't see Cairo improving as a city anytime soon. The realities of Cairo, make it just very difficult to develop. 

Cairo is a city governorate; the Egyptian president appoints its governor. The governor here is actually the mayor, but their main job is to maintain the status quo, all while not being given the finances, tools or the authority to innovate and shape the future of the city. Furthermore, having the Government of Egypt operate in Cairo makes the governors role invisible to many citizens. The governorate is really seen as an extension to the central government and therefore is not held accountable by Cairens. Important also to note, that Cairo is one of the most developed areas in Egypt and is usually not on the top of the government’s priority list. 

The sheer size, both geographical and in number of population, make it quite expensive to accomplish any visible and impactful change to the realities of the city. The biggest facelift Cairo will soon see is the completion of a 3rd metro line. Complete of such initiatives take over 10 years to finish and in many cases it only has a regional impact. Furthermore, the huge disparities in income across the city, results in very different, and in most cases competing, investment priorities across neighborhoods. 

I personally think the only way to improve Cairo and its livability is to get Cairens to govern their own city. By adopting a form of local governance within, not even on a city level but rather on a neighborhood level, we will empower citizens to be involved in the improvement of their own local community. They will be able to set priorities that are relevant to their own needs. At the same time the central and governorate level authorities will be tackling projects that are more ambitious or involving multiple governorates. To enable the success of local governments we need to empower them by giving them the authority to raise funds and finance itself via local taxes, fees and levies.  

This is a great opportunity for Egypt to enhance its cities and communities, if we take this opportunity of re-writing our constitution and allow for some decentralization. We will have probably created an opportunity to improve the quality of life of most Egyptians, all while improving the livability of our cities. Most importantly by adopting a more decentralized approach of governance, we would have removed a lot of the clutter on the desks of the central government. 

Update: A friend recommended a relevant read on Cairo, an essay collection issued by the AUC's Urban Studies department. Cairo Contested: Governance, Urban Space, and Global Modernity