Q&A with Dan Ringelstein of SOM, the urban designers behind The Capital Cairo project

As soon as the plan to develop a new city called The Capital Cairo was announced at the economic conference last weekend, social media was buzzing with strong reactions.

Some were quite celebratory, welcoming the mega-scale development plan, dazzled by the glimmering skyscrapers and green spaces in pictures of the city’s scale model displayed at the conference. Others voiced criticism regarding “moving the capital” and what this might do to the essence of downtown Cairo as we know it. 

In a widely shared opinion piece, Khaled Fahmy writes, “I just wonder what will happen to Cairo, Egypt’s capital for more than a thousand years? What will happen to the metropolis that is home to close to 20 million inhabitants? Where do they fit in the government’s plans for the new capital?”

Announced as an administrative and business center of the future, the project is expected to cost a whopping US$45 billion to be designed and constructed from the ground up, essentially in the middle of the desert. To say that this is an ambitious endeavor would be a gross understatement. However, it is not the viability of the project that is causing contention, as much as it is the project’s grand vision: Is it meant to be a new capital that replaces the current capital? Is it a much needed expansion of Greater Cairo? Who will it be accessible to? Who is it meant for?

Mada Masr spoke with Dan Ringelstein, director of urban planning and design at US-based architectural, urban planning and engineering firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). Ringelstein was in Sharm el-Sheikh for the conference and answered some of the questions that have been raised since the project was announced.

The project will be spearheaded by Egypt’s Housing Ministry and Capital City Partners, a UAE-based “private real estate investment fund by global investors focused on investment and development partnerships in high-growth international markets.” The Emirati Mohamed Alabbar leads the fund as well as sitting on the board of property developer Emaar, which has a significant presence in Egypt.

Capital City Partners was behind King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia and Emaar was behind Dubai’s famous Burj Khalifa. Both of these were planned by SOM, which has worked on an array of projects in the region and outside of it, including on the new World Trade Center in New York City.

In a press statement, the US firm says that The Capital Cairo is “approximately 700 square kilometers in area, with 200 square kilometers of preserved natural areas and one of the largest city park systems in the world,” adding that it will “be linked to historic Cairo through extensive public transit links.”

According to the developers, the city of five million people will have its own airport, house 21 residential districts, a 5.6 square km business district, 1,250 religious buildings, 40,000 hotel rooms, a four square km theme park, energy farms spanning 91 square km and 490 square km of land available for development.

Below are edited excerpts from Mada Masr’s Q&A with Ringelstein.

Have you ever spent time in Cairo before? As an urban planner, I’m sure a million thoughts run through your head as you make your way around a city.

We know Cairo very well and we are quite enamored by its incredible atmosphere. Cairo has a vibrancy and unique urban form. When designing the new capital project, we took inspiration from central Cairo. It has its challenges and congestion, and issues with connectivity and the movement of people. But in terms of a place in the Middle East — I can’t think of a more vibrant city. It’s a really urban, mixed and diverse city.

Almost every president has wanted to “relocate” Cairo or modernize the existing downtown capital, but these plans have fallen through. People feel very strongly about this city and its history, and these plans have always faced resistance. Given this context, explain to me the vision behind Capital Cairo, at least as far as you were briefed.

We tried to make sure that whatever we do, the new city is completely connected to central Cairo, obviously through transport links, but more importantly in terms of character. We are trying to build a city for the future. As we were researching Egypt’s demographics and population growth, we realized that this is really about a city for the young. We have to interject vibrancy and modernity.

We did so by looking at the history of Egypt and Cairo, but also by looking to the future. It is really a bridge between the past and the future.

But some have valid critiques; they feel it is a way to avoid dealing with Cairo’s endemic problems of traffic, pollution, poor planning and maintenance. Also, at first glance, some design aspects are very similar to Dubai or NYC, and not everyone finds that appealing. What do you say to that?

That’s exactly the kind of feedback we’re looking to hear. We’ve had little engagement so far, and we’re looking forward to more on that level. We are definitely hoping to have a dialogue with as many people as we can: designers, architects, the younger generations, and obviously the government is integral to this process. We are still in the very early stages of this whole process, and we’ll have to find a structure for these dialogues. Maybe some kind of symposium … But we are eager to get feedback and integrate it in our plans.

We wanted to come up with something that doesn’t feel like it is flown in from outer space or another region of the world. It has to be part of the Egyptian way of life. We understand that the impetus for the capital was already set in place by the Ministry of Housing, and it is meant to be an extension of greater Cairo, part of its natural progression to the east. It is not meant to replace it.

In terms of symbolism and what it means to build essentially a new capital, we understand the sensitivities and we will be aware of that. Central Cairo will remain the symbolic heart of the country forever, we are not trying to transplant that at all. It is the administrative aspects moving to this new development we are creating.

We think about this [in the conceptualization]: How does this plan bring in new development opportunities? How can we regenerate central Cairo in terms of investment? This [new] city can help preserve central Cairo as well as improve it by allowing growth to happen elsewhere.

How will this city integrate all income levels? How can everyone commute to and from there? Can they really afford to live there? The problems with even so-called low housing communities that have been built here is that they’re too far from central Cairo. 

We are just beginning and this is only a simple concept, we still have a lot of work to do, and this is a critical point. Our client is championing and really ringing the bell to everybody that this has to be a city for all Egyptian people.

It is true that Cairo’s middle class is growing and this has to be affordable, we have to find places for affordable housing and integrate that as well. We are planning new cities elsewhere where this is also a key component. It’s not only about housing for low-income families, but it’s also about finding employment. We need a strategy that is diverse, that also allows for knowledge generation and improving people’s skills so that this new city can provide an opportunity to improve lives. We will have to create a wide range of jobs.

How does the design integrate aspects of the area’s natural setting, as it says on the website? There’s a lot of green space and most people will definitely appreciate that. Talk to me about the ecological aspects, such as water usage.

Even for this very quick concept that we pulled together in two months, we established a team of experts that are professional friends who have worked with us for 10-15 years, so we’ve developed a good methodology as a team. One of the core components of our process is to look at the topography of the land and that needs to inform where to build and where not to build, things that can be enhanced, and this helps define the unique character of the place. Before modern building techniques, cities followed the natural context they were in. We still need to do more land surveys and site visits, but the idea is to take the natural terrain — it’s not exactly mountainous, but there are amazing landforms that we want to respect and preserve.

Step two is identifying the natural landscape wadis that will fill up with water when it rains, we have to maintain these. If we use the natural landscape for water, it saves on costs. But, also for the new parks and this adds development value.

It’s also about being responsible. Our site drains into the Red Sea from one side but also the Nile Delta, so we have to understand the geological dynamics. We now have a high level understanding and need more details, but it’s about letting the more interesting topographics dictate where you build and don’t build.

Can you explain the difference between medium and high density areas, as mentioned on the Capital Cairo website?

Cairo is very dense, which is fantastic for creating walkable neighborhoods and creating public transportation. We want to move away from a city dominated by the car — create mixed use neighborhoods so people can walk — by looking at the density of central Cairo and how people live on the land, primarily its European scale. It’s not a high-rise world at all, there are tight streets and shaded alleys. We’re looking to maintain that urban aesthetic. There will be buildings, like there are currently on the Nile, but the majority will be low scale, medium and high density — think Barcelona, where there are high rise buildings but only on the water.

How do you feel about the timeline that’s been set? President Sisi was firm with Sheikh al-Maktoum about completing this all in five years, not 10 or seven, and said even that’s too long …

Well, the nature in which it was all announced … had to be quite like this. But now we need to be open.

There was some confusion with that. The issue is there is a series of projects that the developer had to commit to — if you build just some things, the city will not be a success in getting people to want to move there. The developer was saying that it takes more time to make it vibrant.

It has to feel complete and energized with people on the street. [When he said 10 years] it was about the first whole phase that we would recognize as a vibrant city, not the first stages of delivery.

We are definitely accelerating the delivery of many aspects of this project now. There are no roads yet, we have to get utilities up, but we can begin to have some catalyst projects that we can get off the ground. Still, we are being realistic, so it will take time.

How was SOM chosen for this project? Was there a bidding process or were you chosen based on your past portfolio in the region?

All of the above. The client selected us through an ‘ideas’ competition, and also based on our City Design Practice’s extensive international experience in delivering large scale national, regional and city planning initiatives including: The Great Lakes Century vision; the national plan for the Kingdom of Bahrain; the city plan for Al Duqm in Oman; the city plan for King Abdullah Economic City north of Jeddah; the vision for Chongming Island near Shanghai; and the vision for Saigon South in Vietnam, to name a few.

We also have a longtime relationship with the client, which helps keep the process efficient and moving forward. SOM has been working in the Middle East and Egypt for over 40 years so we know the region extremely well.

Amira Salah-Ahmed 

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