Architecture and the Territory: Cairos informal settlements and community networks with Diane Singerman

Last week’s Aga Khan lecture, the first in Harvard’s Graduate School of Design spring lecture series, explored the interaction between globalization, resistance, space and urban design in Cairo. Hosted by Dean and Alexander and Victoria Wiley Professor of Design, Mohsen Mostafavi, Diane Singerman, professor at the American University, presented her work on Cairo’s informal settlements and the challenges presented by a lack of accountable local governance in Cairo.

Formal versus Informal Settlements

Egypt’s 2011 revolution led many to believe there would be democratization, an end to crony capitalism and the “fortress architecture” of Mubarak-era elite gated communities. This has not necessarily been the case, argued Professor Singerman, who emphasized the continuation of exclusionary formal planning at the expense of Cairo’s vast informal settlements, the inhabitants of which continue to be demonized by ruling elites. This background led to the founding of Tadamun, an urbanist think tank arguing for the right to the city for citizens of these informal areas.

Local Governance and Public Space

Tadamun aims to empower people at the local level and argues for representative local government in Cairo, where there is a lack of local governance after the disbanding of Local People’s Councils in 2011. Professor Singerman noted the success of local-level political movements in countries such as Brazil, and in particular noted the efforts of the Aga Khan Foundation’s Historic Cities Program, which transformed an area of wasteland into the public Azhar Park. This transformation of public spaces, as well as a push for accountable local governance, is at the heart of Professor Singerman’s work with Tadamun.

Loeb Fellow Shahria Fahmy responded to Professor Singerman’s presentation, echoing the challenges that people in informal settlements face. “There are people in informal settlements who every single day are reinventing everything in their lives, nothing is formalized,” said Fahmy, who is originally from Cairo.

Joining the panel was Abdelbaseer Abdelraheem Mohammed El Sayed, a Carnegie Fellow at the American University and also from Cairo, who emphasized the complexity of Egypt’s post-revolutionary governance and the complexity of Cairo’s current system, saying, “A complicated issue requires a complicated approach.” From the debates raised in the evening’s discussion, Cairo’s confluence of formal and informal spaces with the persisting uncertainty of Egypt’s governance implies there will continue to be an intricate interaction between formal and informal spaces, politics and urban design.