Cairo's Ramses Square at night: Public space that cries out to be rescued from cars. (photo via www.urbanharmony.org)
After noise levels in Cairo have gotten so out of control that one study compared life in the city center to living inside an industrial factory, things in Africa's biggest metropolis may soon be headed in a new direction.
Egypt's Ministry of Culture is sponsoring an international design competition to reconceptualize the city's Ramses Square. Once a central public space in the ultra-frenetic city, Ramses Square is today a major transportation crossroads and a gigantic source of pollution.
The competition is open to architects, planners and urban designers, and is offering the colossal sum of $100,000 for the entry that proposes the best solution for the square's "traffic problems, confusion of uses and all types of pollution (audio, visual and environmental)."Ramses Square, built in the mid-1800's, functions today as a point of intersection between different modes of transportation in the city. Elevated roads that snake through the square date back to the 1970's. With 280,000 pedestrians and 2 million vehicles passing through it every eight hours, the square is rumored to be one of the most polluted spots in all of Egypt.
Dena Rashed, of Egypt's Al-Ahram newspaper, describes the pedestrian's experience in the square:
The roads are not straight, the obstacles are annoying and as you finally manage to escape the square's mazes, you are both exhausted and irritated In all, trying to cross Ramses Street is like getting from one side of a river to the other -- without the aid of a boat.
Traffic policemen hold the metal gates that they close and open... Crossing has to be fast and with no stopping, because if you do, you inevitably get caught in the middle of the hurricane of traffic. If the gatekeepers decide to close, it could be on you, if you are not swift enough to jump onto the pavement.
In 2006, Egyptian authorities took the unusual step of removing a 3,200 year old granite statue of Pharaoh Ramses II from the square to prevent it from being damaged by exhaust fumes and vibrations. The ancient monument's entire 10-hour move, to a new spot not far from the pyramids, was broadcast live on Egyptian TV.
Cairenes are skeptical of urban design proposals, and rightly so. In 2007, a parking garage was built in front of the square's train station. The new $5.8 million structure was later torn down, and to date no one has been held accountable for the waste of public funds.
The square in 1954. (image via Al-Ahram)
Another issue designers will have to take into account is the presence of numerous informal street vendors, who make their living from the square's foot traffic, but tend to quickly take over pedestrian spaces when they are reclaimed from traffic. One vendor told Rashed of Al-Ahram: "Do you think you could ask in your article that they take us into consideration when they are re-planning the square? Perhaps they could set up little booths for us?"
The design competition for Ramses Square was organized by the National Organization for Urban Harmony and the Cairo Governorate, under the auspices of the International Union of Architects. Egypt's National Organization for Urban Harmony was set up by the Ministry of Culture in 2004. According to its website, the organization seeks to establish "the values of beauty all over the Egyptian urban space including streets, squares, gardens, public spaces and valuable public buildings."
The new design for Ramses Square is part of a new comprehensive vision for the revitalization of central Cairo. The competition will be judged by an international jury of architects and academics. Results will be announced in August 2009.
More urban design in the Middle East:
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Israeli New Urbanists: Density Will Make Our Cities Better Places to Live
Yom Kippur = Carfree Day in Tel Aviv (A Photo Essay)