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,
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.