Ask anyone who's visited Cairo, and they'll tell you, "great place, love the history, adore the qahwas, hate the cars." Cars are to Cairo what clouds are to London and bitchy waiters to Paris -- nuisances so endemic to the urban culture, someone ought to build them a monument.
That's about to change. Cairo announced plans recently to expel cars from downtown as part of a bigger scheme to transform the city's commercial heart into a tourist-friendly, pedestrian mecca. As TreeHugger reports, the vision's still unformed, and nothing dramatic's expected for 10 to 15 years. Nevertheless, it bodes well for this erstwhile Paris of the Near East -- a glorious hybrid of European and Neo-Moorish architecture built up at the turn of the century, then left to crumble after a 1952 military coup drove out the upper classes -- and it makes you wonder: Can the rest of us learn from Cairo?
Certainly, car-free city centers aren't new in Europe. Plenty of streets in Copenhagen restrict vehicles. Same story in Siena, Italy, and Freiburg, Germany. But in the United States, where earmarking a few feet of concrete to pedestrians turns you into an eco-hero (as NYC'S Mayor Michael Bloomberg will happily tell you), Cairo's idea sounds almost revolutionary.
The city has already prohibited cars in several areas during the day. The long-term revitalization scheme, which the Web site Al-Masry Al-Youm outlined last week, involves littering the place with outdoor restaurants, cafes, museums, and art galleries; landscaping; and throwing up garages on the outskirts of downtown, forcing people to walk or take public transit into the city center. (An earlier, decidedly less realistic plan would've buried a complex network of garages underground.)
It's a refreshing dispatch from a city that has put outsize energy into new, unsustainable construction. In 2007, Fast Company designated Cairo a "too-fast city" for developing undemocratically and amid rampant corruption. (You can read the story here.) Those issues haven't exactly faded, and some observers worry that the overhaul will be a superficial one -- a boon to rich tourists that'll do little to hack away at the city's vast social and economic problems.
There are other shortcomings. Cars, geography, and human negligence have conspired against Cairo's air, producing some of the worst smog in the world. The new pedestrian plan, with its garages fringing the city, won't actually slash the number of vehicles tooling around, it'll just relegate them to the outskirts -- not especially green. But putting incentives in place to get rid of cars altogether? That would really be monument-worthy.