Ask anyone who’s visited Cairo, and they’ll tell you, “great place, love the history, adore the qahwas, hatethe cars.” Cars are to Cairo what clouds are to London and bitchywaiters to Paris — nuisances so endemic to the urban culture, someoneought to build them a monument.
That’s about to change.Cairo announced plans recently to expel cars from downtown as part of abigger scheme to transform the city’s commercial heart into atourist-friendly, pedestrian mecca. As TreeHugger reports, the vision’s still unformed, and nothing dramatic’s expected for 10 to15 years. Nevertheless, it bodes well for this erstwhile Paris of theNear East — a glorious hybrid of European and Neo-Moorish architecturebuilt up at the turn of the century, then left to crumble after a 1952military coup drove out the upper classes — and itmakes you wonder: Can the rest of us learn from Cairo?
Certainly, car-free city centers aren’t new in Europe. Plenty ofstreets 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 MayorMichael 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 outdoorrestaurants, cafes, museums, and art galleries; landscaping; andthrowing up garages on the outskirts of downtown, forcing people towalk 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 energyinto new, unsustainable construction. In 2007, Fast Company designatedCairo a “too-fast city” for developing undemocratically and amidrampant corruption. (You can read the story here.)Those issues haven’t exactly faded, and some observers worry that theoverhaul will be a superficial one — a boon to rich tourists that’lldo 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 ofthe worst smog in theworld. The newpedestrian plan, with its garages fringing the city, won’t actuallyslash the number of vehicles tooling around, it’ll just relegate themto the outskirts — not especially green. But putting incentives in place to get rid of carsaltogether? That would really be monument-worthy.