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Informal Cities

Towards Comprehensive Interventions in Informal Settlements
Cairo as a Case Study

by Dr Ahmed Sedky - Urban Development Consultant: Ahmed Sedky Consultants



Informal Settlements is certainly the biggest challenge all over the Third World countries. In the first context especially during the times of upheavals and political turmoil challenges are doubled. In the case of Egypt we have witnessed severe escalations in what is used to be defined by the government as encroachments and violations, which complicate the legal aspects of the problem as well as to some strategic planning in the country. Nevertheless, the struggle between those striving for their basic human right for housing against those in charge or drafting the nation development plans and types of housing has reflected much negligence of the informal settlements overall phenomena, physical as well as socio- economic. Hence the vicious circle of neglect victimizing those unfairly defined as violators and urban parasites proceed.

A different paradigm of thought is essentially needed. Not only planners but also even politicians and sociologists and even media leaders need to adopt a different approach to exclude rather than segregate such an augmented segments. Changing perspective is a must with a closer look that overcomes the common long adopted synchronic type of analysis of such an urban phenomenon. A more comprehensive model and a paradigm of thinking is essential from the diagnosing phase up to the drafted regeneration strategies and implementation level is a must.

The major challenge is the dichotomy between the above complex challenges and the available resources, mainly the intellectual responsible for guiding the national planning orders and development strategies to fulfil such a basic human right. Therefore, and based on successful cooperative development efforts the author suggest a world cooperative entities, a bowl of knowledge for exchanged shared experiences and capacity building on the 'informal' side (people side) to enable them and enforce contextual understanding and critical evaluation as well as encourage responsive initiatives vs. the common unbalanced official interventions.


The Problem:

Informal settlements are certainly urban expressions of an ever growing and continuing deficiencies in various aspects from a social and cultural to economic and governing and even political aspects. The common paradox of the poor types of problems necessitate having quality, expensive planning and design calibre, which is not accessible to hem due to limited resources. They are rather available for formal and investment developments and schemes that can afford them, a dilemma of (1) socio-cultural, (2) economic, (3) political and (4) technical dimensions.

Another type of problem common in informal settlement interventions is lacking the comprehensive perspective, whither due to conflict or missing coordination among different stakeholders. This is either by imbalanced responsibility matrix due to the domination of a party over the other/s, e.g., imposed sponsor’s funding themes over the actual priority of the context under development. The need to stretch a link with the local communities to answer their actual needs as well as providing them with rather contextual cultural sensitive interventions is certainly another great challenge not effectively met.



Since a shared concern is to realize a contextual, culturally sensitive model for interventions to confront imbalanced environment characterizing the urban phenomena the subject of the present paper, a comprehensive approach is adopted. This is achieved through exploring the above four dimensions envisaged through most important stakeholders: Government (the responsible authorities and official planners, G); the Society (the larger community occupying the formal planed areas neighboring the studied urban phenomena and the technical communities and technical bodies such as NGOs and planning and sociologist and anthropologists involved in or even consulted by the G group for the development and upgrading of informal settlements, S); International Communities involved in capacity building and mainly funding such as foreign aid entities and UN Habitat, IC); and Local Communities (in the present research refers to community based entities/ societies and individuals, LC).

Hence, the following model (G, S, IC & LC) is adopted to explore each group’s positive and negative impacts along the above four dimensions. This is to assemble the mosaic of wide range of inputs contributing to the overall studied phenomena for a comprehensive view and interventions for balanced urban environmental phenomena.

The cases discussed are borrowed from the Egyptian and more precisely Cairene context, yet it certainly shares much with other regions that share severe extent of political complications, deteriorated economy and poverty. It is also an attempt to benefit from the richness of the Egyptian context and its complex problems.


(1) Socio-Cultural Dimension:

Informal settlements are old urban environmental phenomena. In Egypt it started as early as 1940s to accommodate some in ‘Izbit Al-Hagana in Eastern Cairo to accommodate the families of some boarder troops from outside Cairo. Rural immigrants however represented the main and almost only social segment of informal settlements. Most of the economical housing was distributed in nearby quarter, the traditional degraded in social standards to be public quarters serving the newly, modern quarters that had been introduced to Cairo since late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. By mid 20th century in Imbaba, where some warehouses had been established there giving which its labour-quarter character, on the western bank of the River Nile bordering some rural area witnessed some governmental interventions to provide labour housing scheme towards the end of the Farouk 1st Reign (1936-1952). This is the common governmental approach (G group), which had continued even until the Nasserite period in 1950s and 1960s though public housing blocks.

Nevertheless, that was not sufficient to answer the ever-growing need for housing in a very centralized system and economy sequencing great influx of rural immigrants who sought refuges in the typical catachrestic spots of informal settlers, e.g., topographic challenging spots (under cliff or unsafe zone etc.), rural-urban fringes etc. The government however ignored that growing demands. With time and less planning sporadic outcomes occurred with a mutual suspicion from both the G group and the local communities (LG). G group perceived these areas as a burden and a nesting spot of outlaws and LG regarded the G as a threat that might deprive them from their only housing mean.

On the other hand, the other social groups in the city, S group, have common negative perspectives of such zones of the city. The least negative is the environmental one, having such areas perceived as environmental hazard being intensely congested and below average urban environmental standards. Consequently, S group would also perceive them as a burden on the traffic system as well as other amenities and infrastructure. The most negative perspective of the S group about these areas is being potential social upheavals spot thanks to media and opera soap, which contribute to the cultural and social segregation of the local community (LC) of these areas.

International communities (IC group), as defined above, have regarded such areas and LC group as the perfect beneficiary of IC group’s development programs and funding. However, such IC normally acts in coordination with professional society of S group and concerned authorities of G group due to the sensitive political context, which contribute to the complexity of the problem.

Local communities (LC group) have developed varied perspectives towards their larger community. Older informal settlements though still below urban environmental standards yet have reached to rather culturally balanced environmental qualities. A relatively well-defined social system has been reached that contributed to more efficient informal governance and urban management. Such a system is based on local cultural institutions and regional customary rules (‘urf), e.g., the role of the community leader and his authoritative commands. The religious and the social customs carried along from the rural land of origin. This contributes to the well being of such zones being perceived positively as rather ‘slums of hope’ rather than crime zones, at least by its LC members. Such qualities enabling the LC of such areas to be relatively more integrated, being perceived as public LC of public/ traditional quarters, as compared to new informal areas.

On the other hand, new informal settlements and transit LC of some more degraded unsettled zones, such as risk zones, railway premises etc. such areas are the poorest with worst housing configurations, hovels and tin houses. LC members of these areas are even segregated not only from the overall city community but also from their nearby older informal settlements. The represent a critical humanitarian case that demands socio-cultural rehabilitation shoulder to shoulder with any urban upgrading.


(2) Economic Dimension:

G had funded housing demands as mentioned above mainly during the 1950s and 1960s. The 1970s witnessed a shift in economic paradigm in Egypt being converted, rapidly and without considerable preparation or enabling the vulnerable community groups, from socialism into a capitalist system, which was known then by the open door economy. Privatization of the remaining public sector in the following decades spearheaded by Mubarak system to adopt a rather more Neo-Liberalism economic system. The government failed to answer the ever-growing demands for housing especially for LC group. LC group housing stock provided by G was very limited compared to economical housing schemes provided for newly graduates and youth and other upper housing standard stock. LC group housing stock was provided by G for a predominantly political reasons illustrated below. Rather, and since Sadat (r. 19701981) G has turned its back to LC. Hence, individual contractors took over completely. They answered the LC needs maximizing their investment returns compromising the urban qualities and standards thanks to the slack regulations and G’s negligence of LC.

A complete economic gap between the S and LC maintained the development of the informal settlements. The fragile economy and lacking urban taxation system all over the city (city council tax or some sort of a social responsibility tax to upgrade existing informal settlements) created a financial gap between S and LC groups. This left LC to individual investors and IC technical and funding support. Not until recently, we started to see some social funds raised from S groups, after 25th Jan. 2011, with a political rather than social or technical motivation.

A growing global environmental awareness of the need for sustainable developments has emerged since the Earth Summit in 1992. Many First World Countries as well as other international organizations and funds, such as IMF and UN Habitat as well as NA and EC aid organizations (IC group), designated technical/ consultation and financial aid to LC groups for social and urban development. Yet, that was subjected to political considerations that determined the extent and type of permitted developments.

LC has varied economic role in more successful, well-established or rather older informal settlements. LC members might invest in more affordable unit or even as contractors who provide the built units. LC members of these areas varied in terms of social standards and level of education and income. They totally dismantle the conception of the informal settlements as the city zone accommodating rural immigrants. It is rather an economical, affordable answer to the high demands to hosing within a rapid social mobility in an ever-changing urban economy. LC of these areas demands a definition different fro that introduced in the previous section (1). They should not necessarily perceived as LCs but rather seekers of housing stock away from the G’s umbrella (basic environmental standards and regulations), a group at prioritize affordability.

Others, mainly degraded environmental quality, risk zones and areas referred to above as more economic and socially segregated, are more typical recipients of G’s and IC’s interventions and financial aids. Unlike the previous LC group that is more integrated in the city economy and society, this group is more of casual workers or even those with very humble income. This type of a more degraded environmental and segregated group might prioritize financial gain to any other consideration. They won’t be able to contribute or invest in enhancing their environmental due to their very limited finance. They might even compromise their chances for better housing selling the units they would be reallocated to by the governorate and return back to their below standards units. They thus compromise their chances for better amenities and living conditions due to sever poverty.


(3) Political Dimension:

Except for pre-election days, G has turned its back to LC for decades. Before elections potential parliament senates and to-be localities representatives show up with election promises that are normally never fulfilled. Except for election bribes of small cash and / or nutrition materials politicians normally never sacrifice more. They normally focus on short-run gains to reach their end, being appointed. Only one area, Zinhom, where a public housing scheme and an area regeneration scheme were applied few years ago financed by the Egyptian Red Crescent, led by Mrs. Mubarak while Mubarak (r.1981-2011) was still in office a few years ago (fig.1). The people of Zinhom represent great voting segment for Dr. Sorour, the head of the Egyptian Parliament for more than 3 decades, as well as one of the major pillars for Mubarak system. Some housing schemes were provided by the governorate after the 25th Jan. uprising to confront the growing anger and protesting characterizing the political plateau erupting all over Egypt. The beneficiaries (LC) were in Manshiyet Naser represented potential voters targeted by those competing for the parliamentary and presidential elections.

Moreover, G and mainly its security forces breed militias of thugs and those of dangerous criminal records in informal settlements. They have been used especially during election time against Mubarak’s opponents, a tradition still in use until today for some of the Ekhwan, Muslim Brothers, are still using to creat chaos on streets nowadays. This contributes to the critical, negative perspective of these areas contributing more to their segregation.

G security forces also envisage suspiciously any interventions whither from local entities (CBOs or NGOs) or international (IC), e.g., the scandal of foreign aid sources erupting in Egypt in 2012. On the other hand IC group has been initiated based on political reasons to strengthen political relations between the granting/ aiding country and the recipient. This can be also a pressing political tool in some cases; e.g., the American government exercises some influence on the Egyptian government though the threat to withdrew their annual grant. Furthermore, IC calibre might focus more on fulfilling their organizations’ agenda prioritizing channelling their efforts and funds to meet the aiding themes decided in North America, Europe or UN organizations to the actual needs of some suffering informal areas with special pressing problems.

Except for some cases from Latin America, LC is a politically vulnerable in third world countries especially in MENA region due to the state centered less democratic political model. Even today, individual and vulnerable communities still not prioritized or even properly recognized by the regime. The LC interests are not considered. The unnecessary extermination of the complete swine stock, not just the sick swine, of the Christian Copts LC few years ago reflects the extent of how politically incapable and vulnerable LC is (fig 2). It also reflects G’s brutal policies and unawareness, or rather insensitiveness to, of the economic values of the LC in the case above.

Due to the above G’s negligence IC remains the predominant supporters for LC. Hence, some community based organizations (CBOs) or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from LC or even professional societies, e.g.: local development consultancies, excelled in producing grant proposals. Sometimes they even tailor their application to fit in the granting source (LC) given theme rather than being more expressive responding to actual urban environmental or social problems of the LC, subject of grant application. Taking into consideration the very restrictive G’s rules for NGOs and development grants and corruption, LC or other local entities might turn into grant hunters minimizing the efficiency of their environmental interventions (social or urban). Priority is given to budgetary reports as well as other activities recommended by IC.


(4) Technical Dimension:

G group was the only player for decades via public housing schemes for LC. This has been resumed in the case of Zinhom above and recently via some housing blocks in Al-Nahda area for LC groups enduring hardships and compulsory evection from risk areas such as Al-Duwiqa, where its LC suffered a ground collapse of its lime soil causing tragic outcomes, and the like areas. However, regardless the long experience of the G providing this type of housing for LC yet it is obvious that the problem was not only in the limited number of units available of this type of housing, public housing, or in its provision mechanism but also in the provided units, design. The urban and architectural design qualities were questionable. This is best illustrated in the amount of appropriations made both externally as can be witnessed via re-landscape and added protrusions and internally. Furthermore, G provides almost only a single housing typology, blocks of flat. Just recently we started to witness the expandable family courtyard house, but mostly in very remote settlements.

The above is due to being less sensitive to the socio-cultural as well as the special economic nature of the LC dealt with. Hence, there is a strong need to adopt Post Occupancy Evolution (POE) analysis to turn the previous experiences into a gold mine of knowledge to guide future supply of housing. In fact, there is some quality research by some research centers in G and IC but not yet implemented or integrated with the current applied policies. This might be due to the absence of an overall framework that draft the strategy for this kind of development in the current and even previous political atmosphere that never prioritize individual’s rights in general not only LC. Moreover, Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is almost absent from the given schemes and G’s interventions in general. G acts in a reactionist it mood as almost all Third World Countries, very common and expected especially with not empowered LC and not aware of its needs and its basic environmental qualities and standards.

The professional societies, e.g.: syndicates and technical S groups and NGOs, are highly monitored by G and would work as part of G or coordinate with to get commissioned as a G consultant or even apply together for a grant from IC. Even the interventions provided by professional S groups can be criticized for being not responsive enough. Any technical individual from the professional S group, a planner or an architect, might have a different range of priorities and qualities not responding to the actual demands or pressing needs of the LC dealt with. For example, for the LC, architectural aesthetics might come at the bottom of the list if compared with some environmental behavioral considerations for urban design or the functionality and cultural aspects characterizing a very LC community. Professional S then should be aware to give up the conventional, typical academic approach to design houses that might fit for any other formal settlement or an average integrated (recognized by S and G) community.

On a more profound level unconventional construction methods and building technologies as potential technical alternatives have never been properly considered nor applied by G, professional S or IC. For example, foam concrete as cheap construction materials that minimize effectively the cost of built housing units has never been considered as a proper alternative (fig 3). This could be due to the corrupted system during Muabrak's regain that prioritized the profits of some figures monopolizing steel and cement manufacturing and trade in Egypt. Those figures, played a leading role in the Egyptian economy and politics and were commissioned by G for major housing schemes.

On the other hand, IC groups have invested well in research with LC and professional S. Nevertheless, the outcomes are still blueprints in the form of reports and recommendations to G, very expected due to IC sensitive political nature. However, thanks to IC many effective planning techniques that increase the efficiency of the sought development schemes were introduced, mainly to G calibre and professional S and to a very rare extent to LC bodies (CBOs) and individuals (community leaders) such as participatory approaches as well as capacity building.

This, the main beneficiary/ end user (LC) is still not empowered. LC is still denied its right to monitor and question the efficiency or else for all the above efforts. Just recently LC was invited via participatory planning techniques and activities, such as public hearing and community surveys etc., invited by IC and professional S.



Informal settlements are complex urban environmental phenomena. Hence the above was just an attempt to explore them through a comprehensive perspective. Different dimensions (1-4) are used exploring the influences and impacts of each dimension as from most important stakeholders (G, S, IC & CL) to grasp an overall view of such a problematic phenomena. Nevertheless, the above method was just an attempt to explore different sides of this paper subject via a simplified and theoretical model. Each of the above dimension never impacts on any case alone. For example the political dimension by G group influences the socio-cultural perspective of the S group that limit the last’s investments in housing for LC group that contributing to the segregation of the LC group (chain of action, problem chain). This segregation kept the development in informal settlements away from any standards, urban regulations decided by G and professional S groups.

Therefore, it is obvious that the above dimensions and the impact of different stakeholders are very integrated with cross relations thus cannot be studied separately from each other. Therefore the dimensions and the inputs of the stakeholders above should be explored as a whole for they represent an overall system of the studied urban environmental phenomena. This can be an open framework, a model to assemble incorporating the above inputs and any immersing factors/ dimensions based on our exploration, experience and cumulative knowledge for better understanding and decision making for effective interventions.

On the other hand, the role of the LC must be augmented. Such a group demands more empowerments via knowledge as well as politically. Such vulnerable groups with special economic nature as well as socio-cultural structure and demands are the best to engineer any development intended for them. The question is how this can be achieved for such groups (LC) with their limited education and humble economic resources is a dilemma. This can be realized trough spreading awareness and enabling LC leaders spreading the culture of environmental qualities and standards and LC members’ legal rights for housing and better living environment, a major axis (axis 1) for essential, effective development to dismantle the above dilemma.

Another major axis (axis 2) is to enhance the role of the professional S group (planners and architects and social workers etc.). Instead of being just commissioned by G or IC to implement certain non-contextual, imported or imposed plan or being grant hunters, professional S should explore profoundly the actual needs of LC groups and be made more aware of their contextual considerations. They should think outside the box, be more creative in their proposed interventions (fig.4).

Unconventional solutions and interventions is a must when the conventional ones have already proven inefficient. In fact the conventional planning methods and community development and urban development have not even slowed down the expansion of the informal settlements nor enabled which to be integrated in its wider community and urban system, city. To change the paradigm of how we perceive informal settlements from just slums into congested districts yet recognized parts of our cities. They are of special urban needs to reach a balanced, functioning overall city a perspective that can be only realized if we worked on both axes 1 & 2.

A people based and prioritized for framework that shall function as a mixed bowl of knowledge on social and cultural approach to community and urban development based on local initiatives mainly by LC leaders and community members, institutions and organizations as well as national consultants/ experts (professional S). Inspired by the cooperative social initiative (gam‘iya) characterizing informal communities, when a certain group collect money to benefit a certain individual or a family, this is a call to establish a Cooperative World Entity sharing those nongovernmental non-officials LC and Professional S groups and entities all over the World to document knowledge and experiences as well as responsive technologies and methods developed mainly by LC as a mine of knowledge and experiences. Such an entity is meant to work on both axes above (1&2). This entity shall act as a responsive body of consultants and capacity building/ training. It shall also acts as the owner representative for any LC undergone urban and community development advocating its rights and supplying which with necessary technical advice as well as coordinate, upon request, on its behalf with other stakeholders, e.g., involved G and IC groups. This proposed entity is now a notion if considered well it shall be the organized well-structured world technical body that is to be founded by and for the actual, normally marginalized, targeted communities.


Fig. 1 Zenhom Area Regeneration Scheme.


Fig. 2 A campaign to kill swine in Egypt neglecting the economic interests of the poor breeders

Fig. 3 unconventional construction materials and techniques of foam concrete and cement fibers.


Fig. 4 some unconventional planning solution in some congested cities, e.g.: open social spaces and vegetable roof gardens and integrated suspended community gathering and activities spaces.


Dr Ahmed Sedky

Architectural and urban design, development and heritage management

Urban Development Consultant: Ahmed Sedky Consultants

Read more about Dr Sedky and his view on being a futurist.



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