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Nour El Nawawi, Urban Economic Planner in Cairo, Egypt

This interview features in the April 2016 edition of The Planner as a part of a series of interviews with RTPI members working around the world. 


Nour El Nawawi _v2

Name: Nour El Nawawi

Job title: Urban Economic Planner

Employer: Dar Al-Handasah

Location: Cairo, Egypt


What do you currently do?

I work in the Planning and Urban Design Department in Dar Al-Handasah (part of the Dar Group), a multinational engineering consultancy with offices based in Cairo, Beirut, London and many more. My role as an urban economist/urban planner is a slightly odd one. With most of the others working as urban designers, my role is to bridge between the physical design and the socio-economic initiatives for any project. So, depending on the scale of the project, this could mean I would help with developing social enterprise frameworks, social infrastructure planning, regional development analysis, packaging investment projects for municipalities or basic master planning exercises. Essentially, I translate the planning or design work towards the economics teams to make sure both sides get the idea correctly in their own realm.

Cairo Credit -cg 2_v2

Image: Cairo skyline. Credit: cg2/pixabay

What are your working hours?

I work Sunday-Thursday, 8-5 (Friday and Saturday are weekends in Egypt). Usually, I leave way past 5, especially during intense projects.


What attracted you to the profession?

Having been born and raised in Cairo, I discovered that many day-to-day issues arise from a lack of integrated, well-developed, planning and design. I found the design and planning process exciting as you get to work with many different people and my role differs greatly from project to project.


What are the three biggest issues in the built environment where you live?

1. On a regional level, the development pressure on Cairo is immense. Other cities do not compete in terms of the opportunities they provide and so there is a constant influx of people from the country side. This means that the built environment has developed so rapidly - too rapidly - for things like the existing infrastructure to handle. Power cuts, water shortage, inaccessible transport systems, and congestion are some issues.

2. Informal development has been a solution to housing but leaves large parts of the city haphazardly built, so the designs of streets and access for main utilities and basic services is impossible.

3. Cairo is sprawling to the East and the West and investment in those areas has led to gated communities and extensive commutes for most people. It has made the downtown areas deteriorate.

Cairo Credit -Simon _v2

Image: Cairo skyline. Credit: Simon/Pixabay


What three aspects of the planning system would you change?

1. Even after the revolution in 2011, the planning process is still extremely bureaucratic and inflexible. Most people cannot take charge of their neighborhoods in a way that is formally recognised (read about an area called Maspero to see what it takes for citizens to instill change). This also means that it is more convenient for land owners to build informally because of their financial incentive than go through a formal process.

2. I would reduce the reliance on old-school planning regulations: setback distances, strict land uses, and inflexible tenure systems.

3. Integrate informal developments within the city in a formal way. They are not considered part of the city (even though they exist in the downtown core) by the public planning bodies, so its important to take their roles into consideration and help them develop; especially since they are not the minority in terms of housing.


What is the best part of where you live?

Cairo is packed with hidden gems and pockets of untouched cultural activities. Even as an Egyptian, I still discover events and activities - both traditional and modern - that range from live music to local movies to physical exercise. Having a city that has not changed much in the older parts means that a lot of history has been preserved, so its always a nice change to be exposed to that kind of environment.


If I could change one thing about where I live…

I would change the transport system. I am a huge advocate for public transport, but its not possible to use consistently in the areas I live and work. I would require to take a bus, a microbus (informal transit), a metro and a taxi to get to work.


If you could change one thing about the planning profession what would it be?

I would try and change its close association with architecture. Planning is holistic. Even here it is considered in the scope of engineering but it is much more than that. Aspects of public policy, health, transport, design, economics and entertainment all come into scope and i think people just tie it in with design and physical space.


Is there anything else you think UK planners should know about planning where you live?

Cairo Credit -barbadu

I think UK planners should look at the role of grass-roots movements more closely. In a system like in Cairo, where everything is top-down and nothing works, almost all change - effective or not - comes from the people. That kind of change is important for planners to be aware of, much like the Coin Street social enterprise.


Image: Cairo. Credit: babadu/pixabay


Is there anything useful the RTPI assists you with in your role? 

The networks are helpful sometimes, but I think the RTPI resources are too focused on local cases. There is an excessive amount of information on problem solving from all around the globe and I am not sure the RTPI takes full advantage of that in practice.


Any favourite foods?

The most uncommon food would be Coshary, a traditional Egyptian dish with rice, lentils, pasta, fried onions, and ground hot peppers (sometimes a meat sauce) or moussaka, which is an eggplant casserole with meat and tomato sauce.