New Cities are Unsustainable - written by Yahia Shawkat

Of Egypt’s built environment, New Cities are possibly the largest drain on the country's limited energy resources.  Since the seventies our government has been building massive cities in desert locations with the aim of diverting population growth there. However, thirty years and millions of tons of cement, steel and bitumen later, they are either vacant 'ghost towns' or inefficiently utilised. In this article we will look at some of the major inefficiencies and causes for energy concerns that New Cities bring up.

Wrong Locations and a High Carbon Bill for Transportation

 So-called New Cities were planned to be non-contiguous satellites to existing cities. Located 20 to 50 kilometres from the nearest urban centre in order, it was envisaged, to tease population growth outside of the agricultural landscape that the urban centres existed within, and into the vacant desert where urban growth would not threaten cultivatable land.

However, most New Cities have stood vacant since they were built because of their remote locations, lack of a socio-economic plan to populate them, and non-existent mass transit networks to link homes with the closest existing urban centres where jobs usually are. Even a policy to only build factories in specially-designated industrial zones in New Cities such as 6th of October city and 10th of Ramadan, has only exacerbated traffic on roads coming into Cairo from surrounding governorates. This results from the daily commutes of New Cities' residents, as housing there is generally unaffordable to workers and job security is low, so not many have opted to uproot their families and move with their jobs to the close New City.

Indeed the daily scene on the Mehwar - literally meaning axis - that links the New Cities of 6th of October and Sheikh Zayed to the heart of Cairo is a physical paradox with a morning and afternoon traffic jam on each side as hundreds of thousands of people pass each other on their way to work and back, using private bus services, semi-formal microbuses and private cars inefficiently transporting small numbers of people. New Cities have thus become suburbs for the existing cities nearest to them, generating millions of tons of CO2 in inter-city transport alone.

Ultra Low Densities Means Energy is Wasted

New Cities are planned to have a maximum gross density of 60 people per feddan - or 14,300 people per square kilometre. That is about a quarter of the density in existing Egyptian cities, and with high rates of vacancy in New Cities, density is even lower in reality. This means that the cost of installing communal infrastructure in New Cities is relatively high on a per capita basis. When you look at a picture of Greater Cairo at night from space, the older heart of the city, which is home to 97% of the metropolis's residents, uses almost as much street lighting as the New Cities around it do. Except that these New Cities cover the same amount of area – roughly 1,100km2 - and house barely 3% of the population.

Extremely low densities have also meant transport inefficiency, where both inner-city and inter-city public transport have proven to be uneconomical for operators. The government and the formal private sector have been unwilling to extend transport lines between New Cities and existing ones as. New Cities are planned according to a segregated use model where residential, commercial/administrative and leisure facilities are all far removed from each other, meaning long un-walkable distances to travel within the city for jobs, schools and shopping.  Some streets are as wide as 90 metres with little if any pedestrian crossings. Existing local public transportation is scarce, if at all present, and when it is, it usually means long walks to stops, and/or informal microbuses and tuk-tuks. The private car is thus the main form of transport for residents of New Cities to navigate the inhospitable infrastructure.

Low densities and segregated use also mean a higher carbon footprint and use of resources than higher density mixed-use designs. New developments have a maximum percentage of built up area, ranging between 30% and 50% - – there can be up to 70% of empty space which needs filling. This could require either energy and materials to pave large swaths of the landscape that do not have any particular use except that the law states they need to remain empty; or, they are planted up, often as very thirsty lawns and golf courses. This kind of planting is a drain on an already scarce fresh water resource in Egypt, not to mention the massive amount of energy used to treat and pump the water to make it available as drinking water. Even in developments that plan to use treated waste water to water the greens, the high vacancy rates usually mean there is not enough treated sewage, and so main drinking water has to be used.

Speculative Real Estate and the Energy Crisis

Vacant homes on their own represent a significant drain on resources without any meaningful return, except speculative profit. According to CAPMAS, the Egyptian national statistics bureau, there were barely a million people living in Egypt's New Cities in 2013, or about 250,000 families. At the same time, the New Urban Communities Authority states that there are one million homes there. That means that 750 thousand homes are standing empty. Homes that have consumed tonnes of energy in their construction, using energy intensive concrete and steel, not to mention the energy used to transport them, as well as the residual energy used to keep appliances running and on standby for those that have been furnished as second homes.

Climate Change Risks

The vulnerability of low lying coastal zones to sea-level rise, subsidence and storm surges has not deterred the planned investment of billions in the construction of two New Cities on the Nile Delta's north coast.

East Port Said is a so-called 4th Generation New City, or ‘Million Person City’ with an initial capacity of 3-4 million people. Construction there has already started even though the designated location, close to the ruins of the ancient town of Pelusium, is a highly unstable region of salt pans with parts half a meter below sea level. An objection to the planned development was made by a committee of local urban planners in 2010, citing threat of sea level rise and the high cost of structural engineering to build on its unstable soil. The objection was noted, though the sites' boundaries have only been marginally changed as a result.

The other New City's location, New Mansura, has recently been finalised. It will be built on a 22km stretch of low lying coast-line just west of the town of Gamasa. One million people will live and EGP 60 Bn (EUR 6 Bn) will be invested in the very spot where in the winter of 2013, a strong storm with winds of up to 160 kmh ripped through Gamasa, uprooting high voltage towers, factory roofs and trees.

Even though various studies have outlined the projected threat of sea level rise on the Nile Delta, and freak storms increase the threat of storm surges, the New Urban Communities Authority has ignored all the evidence. To survive these threats East Port Said and New Mansura will require massive investments in wave breakers to defend the developments from sea level rise and steadily worsening storms. The breakers also carry a very high embodied carbon footprint as they are made from reinforced concrete. But is the cost of building these New Cities in such vulnerable and unstable locations really worth it?

Social Justice, Sustainable Planning, or Bankruptcy

Egypt has reached a point where we could either continue down the same path of redirecting scarce resources to New Cities, away from the existing cities and villages that are home to the overwhelming majority of Egyptians, until both an energy crisis and a water crisis are upon us. Or, we throw the entire New Cities manual out the window and start afresh.

In order to do that, all work on planned new New Cities should cease until both the capacity in existing ones is being met, and a sustainable integrated planning manual is written. Attention should also be directed at the New Cities that have already been built. These New Cities have the potential to realise leaps in efficiency and large cuts in energy use, and where lessons learned in increasing their efficiency, can be later applied to new extensions, or even further cities that may be needed once existing ones are full.

The first priority should to be to bring the large stock of already built but still vacant homes to the market, as it will relieve the pressure on energy and resources used to build new homes, but will also play a strong role in making financial sense of mass transit solutions, further reducing transport related energy use and emissions. 

Market regulation in the form of monitoring of house prices, real estate taxes and rental cooperatives should be used to curb speculative construction, thus reducing the energy wasted on new units that will not be used, whilst also incentivising existing home owners to bring the vacant units on the market, whether by selling them or renting them out. Market regulation should also work to make housing more affordable and inclusive for all segments of society, especially where industrial zones are located.

Public transportation systems should be designed to have maximum benefit at the lowest cost. NNatural-gas powered bus for rapid transit inter-city links would be more appropriate than over-ground light rail, or underground metro lines which have proven very costly and very slow to implement so far.

Inner-city transport plans should be made to provide affordable mass-transit, as well as support pedestrian and cycle-friendliness. For this to work, mixed-use development should be encouraged, where residential units on main streets can be transformed to appropriate commercial and office use as demand dictates.

Ultimately, all of these are management solutions which also need an overhaul of current management practices that have led to the dire situation we now find ourselves in. The current undemocratic management structure of New Cities must be restructured to include an elected Mayor and Council running the city to enable residents to pursue their needs without needing to accept unreasonable compromises.

At the point when demand outstrips supply and new homes are actually needed, expansion should be vertical rather than horizontal. Vertical expansion increases density, but as most buildings in New Cities are two or three stories high, the capacity of existing cities could be doubled. This could be done using only private money, saving the Treasury billions in new roads, trunk infrastructure and topographical manipulation.

Short of this planning revolution, New Cities will continue to be an increasing burden on an energy scarce and middle-income country such as Egypt, where these cities will function only at the expense of the many for an entitled few.

Short of this planning revolution, New Cities will continue to be an increasing burden on an energy scarce and middle-income country such as Egypt, where these cities will function only at the expense of the many for an entitled few.



Yahia Shawkat works on built environment mapping and policy research and is co-founder and research coordinator of 10 Tooba | Applied Research on the Built Environment.

Yahia's work includes the infographic book; Social Justice and the Built environment | A Map of Egypt (Ar), and the Right to Housing Initiative documentaries . He has also written a number of papers and policy notes on housing policy and mapped the building collapse phenomena in Egypt, building the first database on collapses.

Yahia has been Housing Rights Officer at EIPR and consulted on housing and built environment policy for the World Bank watchdog, BIC among others. He regularly contributes to local and foreign press, and blogs on