What does fixing city streets mean when the government can't, or won't, do it? In the United States, DIY interventions might be relatively subtle—maybe someone sneaking onto a road at night to fill a pothole, that drivers may or may not notice the next day. But in post-revolution Egypt, DIY street fixes are happening on an entirely different scale. As Michael Kimmelman recently reported in The New York Times:
After the revolution two years ago, working-class residents of that vast informal neighborhood, tired of having no direct access to the 45-mile-long Ring Road, took matters into their own hands. In the absence of functioning government, they built ramps from dirt, sand and trash. Then they invited the police to open a kiosk at the interchange.
In some ways, Kimmelman explains, some guerilla construction has been happening in Egypt for years, as poor families have illegally built homes on farmland. But it's never happened quite like this before. Though there's a struggle now for control, and a certain amount of chaos, there's also hope. Before, Egyptians didn't have the freedom to walk or sit where they wanted, or say what they wanted in the streets; now, the streets are finally a public space.
And so Egyptians are fighting over the rules of the road. Progressive young architects and planners may be needed here, but there are a few starting to demand the right things, talking not about demolishing informal areas but about learning from those neighborhoods, seeing them as resources and solutions—collaborating with residents, tinkering with construction methods and materials to allow for more light and air in apartments, wider streets to accommodate emergency vehicles. These forward-thinking Egyptians view the neighborhoods not as endless slums but complex cities in themselves, home to entrepreneurs, government officials and many young educated Cairenes; and they recognize that the future of Cairo will require grass-roots organization.
Though there's an obvious role for a well-functioning government, what would it mean for other cities if citizens were this involved in urban design?