Cairo Urban Grassroots

Ard El Lewa is an informal settlement in the west of the Cairo metropolis, built up over the past 30 years on agricultural land, its street layout still reflecting filled-in irrigation canals, towered over by concrete-framed multi-story buildings, just over the tracks from what was the old boundary of Cairo. Soon after the revolution, the local community built, to good standard, on and off ramps to the Ring Road (previously completely disconnected from their community), and successfully advocated for a public park on remaining precious open space that was planned for yet more housing. Yes, they built their own highway ramps! (not yet in OpenStreetMap)

Ard El Lewa Map, with images of urban challenges. Credit: unpublished report by Hanna Gad, Cluster

This is the atmosphere of enthusiasm and possibility that opened up at the very local scale in Egypt in the revolution. Across Cairo, “popular committees” organized to maintain security in their neighborhoods; some of these are evolving to “popular coalitions” focused on improving local neighborhoods through grassroots development. Modern Cairo has been a site of heavily centralized planning, large scale development, and lack of representation for local people in decision making. People did actually make many decisions about their living situation, simply by building informally outside a planning system beyond its capacity to handle the needs of a rapidly expanding Cairo, with estimates of 60-70% of Cairo’s population living in officially informal settlements. The pause of authority in the revolution resulted in countless grassroot initiatives, small and large, to remake the collective city and better serve residents. How this energy will be channeled, into politics, into restructered local government, or in something quite new, is a question being worked out right now in what seem to be typical Cairene chaotic ways.

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Murals painted by local children of Ard El Lewa, their faces and their dreams for the future

Into this potent brew, enter us, novices to Cairo (except the first OSM mapping party with Abdelrahman back in 2008). A year ago, Ford Foundation offered travel cover for us to come and share our experiences with urbanists, rights groups, and techonologists, and explore how community mapping and reporting technology could support Cairo’s changing urban life. Well, lots of our life intervened, and then we waited for the right moment, without presidential elections absorbing attention, and not during Ramadan or the heat of summer, and ended up with the right and latest possible moment for arrival here one week ago. That was just a day before this whole stupid mess with the video and embassy protests broke out, which would seem like exactly the wrong time to come. But as it turns out, Cairo is completely and utterly normal (for Cairo), and where we’ve worked at Cluster’s office, just a couple blocks away from Tahrir Square, you’d have no real idea anything was happening worthy (or really unworthy) of global media frothing.

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Cardboard model of downtown Cairo in Cluster’s office

In the quick run up to our trip, we reached out and began email and phone conversations with collaborators Cluster, Takween, Megawra, Arab Digital Expression Foundation, Shadow Ministry of Housing, Cairo from Below, OSM Egypt, Meedan, Egyptian Bloggers, and more and others. Cluster have taken on the role of local host, for workshop space and community introductions; and ADEF are taking the lead on the technical side. Awesome to have the interest and welcome from these folks, especially during our rapid, steep and very much continuing education on urban Cairo. We formed a rough plan around collaborative discussion and design of our previous work, the context in Cairo, and a small pilot demonstration and collaboration with residents of Ard El Lewa in mapping and reporting, with whatever results as raw material for possible adaptation and expansion throughout Cairo. Now, things are constantly taking shape and reshape, and we’ll have plenty more to say soon.

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3 Comments on “Cairo Urban Grassroots”

  1. Zeinab says:

    My god! This is so refreshing! I’m and Egyptian living in Cairo and had no idea this was going on! Nothing about it in the news or social media! Thank you for bringing out a bright spot in our now dismal political arena. It shows that we are going in the right direction, or at least some of us are.

  2. Ebtihal says:

    Hi! This is very interesting. Just heard about it today. So sad because I missed yesterday’s event. I am an urban planner working on a master’s project for a self-built community as well. I am particularly interested as to how you managed to work in groups with the local community and participation tools. I am in that phase now. If it’s possible to do a post on it, that would be great! Thanks a lot.


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