Graduate Colloquium: "An International, Green, Connected City: The Politics of Aspirational City Planning in Cairo"

Tuesday, April 16, 2013 - 9:30am
Location: McNeil Building Room 130 - The Urban Studies Office

Please join us for the next Urban Studies Graduate Student colloquium, with coffee, croissants and conversation on Tuesday March 19, 9:30-11am, in the Urban Studies Office, McNeil Building Room 130. The series provides a way for graduate students who are or have been a part of the Urban Studies Certificate program to come together to share their work.

Author: Jon Argaman, Political Science   

Dr. Farha Ghannam, Swarthmore College, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Acting Chair Sociology & Anthropology  

The notion that by building a particular kind of city, it becomes possible to cultivate a particular kind of citizen, that in Lewis Mumford's words, "the form of the city [is] the form of its social order, and that to remold one it is necessary to introduce appropriate changes to the other", has a long pedigree. This paper examines a recent series of planning exercises conducted for Cairo, Egypt, and their relationship to a particular globalized notion of modernity. Underlying these exercises is the notion that building - the act of making places - is socially and politically transformative, that by building new, modern spaces from scratch, and by renovating existing urban areas in a modern style, Egypt itself can be made modern.

This paper makes two interconnected main arguments: First, while the particulars of the articulation of modernity found in Cairo's recent planning exercises seem very of-the-moment in their emphasis on environmental sustainability, connection to the information economy, and provision of global brands and consumer experiences, they also reflect a notion of modernity whose genealogy is associated with control and state power, in which technological expertise can effectively shape and reshape space and people; that by drawing lines on maps, technocrats will be able to re-channel urban growth, formalize informal arrangements, and move large numbers of people to from-scratch planned communities in the desert. Second, the paper argues that this attempt to make a country modern by making the city modern is best understood not as high-handed technocratic omnipotence but rather as relative weakness. In that context, the schematics, elaborate concept drawings, and planning exercises represent a fantasy of modernity and control. The paper then presents a brief reading of Cairo's planning exercises not as technical projects but as powerfully constitutive political fantasy and polemic.