Last Friday in the coastal Sinai resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, during a development and foreign investment conference entitled "Egypt the Future," Egyptian Minister of Housing Mostafa Madbouly unveiled the details of a plan to build a new national capital between the current seat of Cairo and the Suez Canal. A $45 billion project to be led by the Emirati real estate investment firm Capital City Partners (headed by the man behind the Burj Khalifa), the as-of-yet unnamed and supposedly smart and sustainable metropolis aims to house Egypt's governmental and diplomatic buildings, as well as 5 million residents, on 270 square miles of land. All of this, said Madbouly, will go up within five to seven years, ideally (although some officials estimate that 12 years may be more realistic).
The main stated impetus behind the project is a desire to take the pressure of population growth off of the already overcrowded Cairo. A megacity of 18 to 20 million people set to double in size within the next 40 years, officials want to siphon traffic and pollution into a better organized and more easily maintained environment, giving the ancient lynchpin of the nation space to breathe. Many also see the new city as an element in a larger bid to boost the nation's stalled economy, foundering since the 2011 Arab Spring, using construction jobs and new shops and government gigs to ease unemployment and fuel the goal of achieving 6 percent growth in the next five years.
Yet there's clearly an element of zealous spectacle at work in the new city, which in addition to 663 health centers, 1,250 churches and mosques, and 1.1 million homes split across more than 20 districts, claims it will boast a green space twice the size of Central Park and an amusement park four times the size of Disneyland, not to mention an airport equal to London's Heathrow. Many suspect that this city is as much an honest bid to resolve economic and urban planning woes as it is a monument to the vision of renewal promoted by coup leader-turned-president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who aims to ameliorate years of economic, political, and social crisis. Madbouly seemed to confirm as much when he explained of the city, as quoted in The Guardian:
"Egypt has more wonders than any other country in the world, and provides more works that defy description. This is why it is necessary for us as Egyptians to enrich this picture—and to add to it something that our grandchildren will be able to say enhances Egypt's characteristics."
Given the history of purpose-built cities, raised up from nothing to suit the ideological or practical ends of a state, there's plenty of cause to be skeptical about Egypt's new project.
Up until a couple of centuries ago, creating administrative centers from scratch was commonplace for new countries or regimes. (They were especially popular in the utopian-imperialist land grabs of 19th century North America.) Eager to either find the best spot from which to defend and control, establish a neutral zone between cultures and factions, or distance themselves from old elites and create new symbols and icons, leaders often built up magnificent yet originally small and contained administrative centers. That's how Cairo got its start, built in 969 AD by the invading Fatimids as al-Qahira, which roughly translates to The Victorious. Some of these planned cities, like St. Petersburg (circa 1703), Washington, D.C. (circa 1800), or Ottawa (circa 1857), by virtue of the money lavished into their contained and well-populated nuclei, naturally and organically evolved into more formidable mega cities and commercial hubs.
Yet today purpose-built capitals and communities have developed a bad reputation, thanks to a slew of pop-up cities, often built at great expense and for poor reasons, that now sit half-empty, half-finished, or entirely soulless after exceptionally long construction periods. China's Caofeidian, a city built for one million, attracted just a few thousand, while the unfinished Emirati smart city of Masdar, a moderate community of 50,000, has only attracted a few hundred residents. Sejong City and Songdo in South Korea remain half-completed and desolate after over a decade of work each.
Egypt actually has a particularly bad reputation for unlivable and desolate developments. In Egypt's Desert Dreams: Development or Disaster?, ironically released the week of Madbouly's speech, urban planner David Sims outlines the history of at least 22 attempts in the modern nation to lure Egyptians out of the cities and into purpose-built suburbs. In every case, Sims explains, a lack of jobs, transit, or amenities for largely poor and coerced residents led to the rapid abandonment of the settlements, which now have less than a million collective residents.
"Governments think they can just move people to new areas," Simick Arese, an Oxford University urban anthropologist, recently told The Guardian summarizing the failure of modern pop-up cities. "But actually people go where they want to go."
Yet there are success stories. Astana, the new capital of Kazakhstan, which took the reins of power in 1997 as a more central, less earthquake-prone, and less ethnically homogenous site than the old seat of Almaty, seems to be developing a stable and satisfied population. Brazil's Brasília and Nigeria's Abuja (inaugurated in 1960 and 1991, respectively), although not universally beloved and much smaller than Rio de Janeiro or Lagos, respectively, still have loyal supporters who see them as legitimate, livable, and pleasant towns. And smaller settlements like Adelaide in Australia or Milton Keynes in the UK now feel just like everyday (if starkly gridded) cities.
Although every city has its own story (Naypyidaw's connection to a cruel military junta obsessed with astrology and repression or Brasília's beloved and inventive architecture) contributing to their success or failure, there are a few common lessons to be drawn from them as a whole.
"The most important thing anyone designing a new city has to bear in mind is not striking architecture or smart technologies," P.D. Smith, author of 2012's acclaimed City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age, told VICE, "but the people who are going to live there."
"The new city needs to reflect what we are and what we want in our lives if it is to be successful … Will the new Cairo have great parks and squares? Places where people and communities can express themselves? That's fundamental. Otherwise all you've got is a collection of buildings."
On paper, it looks like the new Egyptian megacity is drawing on the best lessons from purpose-built cities of the past. Focusing on mixed-use structures and envisioned as a trade hub hooking into concurrent expansions of the Suez Canal industrial zone, Madbouly and company believe the city will create 1.5 million new jobs, providing the right economic incentives to draw people out of Cairo naturally. They've also obviously gone overboard with entertainment venues and public greenways. And with plans to build the city right on the eastern edge of Cairo, connecting it with rail and roads, the new settlement should not be isolated like old Egyptian desert towns.
Whether these jobs materialize and how well people like the public spaces is hard to predict. Smith suspects that the political climate may limit the form and potential of parks, for instance:
"The chances of a new Tahrir Square being created [as a place for self-expression] in this new Egyptian capital are looking slim," he says. "That's tragic and doesn't augur well."
Yet that's a wait-and-see concern. Right now the more pressing question is whether Egypt can even pull off such a massive project in such a short amount of time. After all, Brasília and Islamabad, which took more than half a decade to inaugurate and continued construction for ages, even now consist of only 2.8 and 1.8 million people, respectively. Many suspect that Madbouly's five-to-seven-year timeline is unfeasible, setting Egypt up for a shoddy ghost town.
However the project isn't impossible.
"[It] sounds manageable [in terms of size and population density]," says Smith. "The timescale sounds ambitious to me! [But] mind you, China manages to build infrastructure and cities at an astonishing rate. Even so, Masdar City is a much smaller project and it's taken, what, ten years?"
Madbouly claims that, all doubts aside, the government has raised the money to built the first 40 square miles of the city, featuring key government offices, diplomatic missions, housing centers, universities, technology and innovation parks, and over 6,000 miles of roads—the military has already begun a road from Cairo to the construction site. Officials also say that the project will not cost them a cent, supposedly because they're scoring billions in support from Gulf countries (explaining why at least one development will be named after a crown prince of Abu Dhabi).
"We are committed for the first phase," Madbouly recently told The Guardian. "We have already a very clear plan [sic]."