If you’ve been following the urban scene in Egypt –Cairo specifically- then you must have read here or there about people’s opinions of Heliopolis bridges such as El-Merghany bridge. People were divided between those who support the idea and say that it made driving through much easier, faster and got rid of the traffic jams in the area. The other opinion totally disagrees saying; the streets that were once calm with green spaces in between turned into a highway.
But besides this dispute, these urban interventions led to the appearance of new urban activity using the spaces under the bridges. The “Heliopolis Passage” under El-Merghany bridge is an example of it. Turning the empty space into a pedestrian path with cafes on both sides.
So we decided to make our own survey to find out what people think about this new approach. We have collected opinions from interviews with users in the passage, the opinions of professionals with an architectural and urban development background, and finally my own experience in the place, so here you go:
Interviews with users of the space
Two male users, Heliopolis residents, 23-26 years old:
“Before the project, it was just a wide sidewalk with no use at all, and there were only cars all around. It is not our first time here, we knew about the place from a friend, and we started coming here a lot. It is a nice open space with a shade over our heads. The cars and the horns don’t bother us at all, we actually like it! It makes the place more alive. If I want a quiet place I’ll go to one. But here it is different.”
Group of female users, Heliopolis residents, 23-26 years old
“Some of us came here before and recommended the place to the rest. It is a nice experience, but it is very noisy because of the cars, and there is no enough parking area around. We come mainly for the food, if the food is good we’ll come again. Food comes first!”
Female user, Heliopolis resident, 50+ years old
“It’s not my first time here. The place needs more organizing, and the area for each café should be clear, they are all intertwined, and sometimes conflicts happen between them. There should also be some security in the place because sometimes the youth fight with each other. It also needs more cleaning and maintenance, because it is open to the street so a lot of dust and car exhaust cause the place to be unclean. The place is also very noisy. Nevertheless, I come to this restaurant because I like their food.”
Nermin Dessouky, Ph.d. Candidate, Urban Geography, University of California Davis
“I would like to say that there is a bit of inequity in terms of celebrating these spaces as creative and planned in Heliopolis and bulldozing them as encroachments in poorer areas. In Saft El Laban, the community there also opened coffee shops under the highway. However, they are continuously threatened to be bulldozed because they are deemed unsafe and informal. So I was just wondering why are coffee shops under the bridge in Heliopolis accepted while the same idea in Saft El Laban rejected Also, there is a question of maintenance, I saw a truck washing the green walls multiple times. I think the green walls look nice but need a lot of maintenance. I have noticed the interaction in the space under El-Merghany bridge, and I think it is popular. Lots of people are sitting in the coffee shops. It does add something to space. I actually think leaving them unused turns them into dark creepy spaces for waste dumbing so it is an efficient use of space but it could have been an interesting shaded public space instead of commercializing it.”
Mohamed Radwan, Chief Architect and Design Manager:
“Well, it is kind of a necessity due to the illogical expansion in building highway bridges which goes against the norms of planning worldwide! Put in mind that some of these spaces were gardens before they became “under the bridge”!
On the upside, they did introduce new uses to a space that otherwise is neglected and is used as a parking or garbage dump or worse…
On the downside, they are mostly cafes done in bad taste and will introduce visual and noise pollution to these neighborhoods. Not to mention that their mere existence is due to the fact of the top-down planning approach with no participatory influence from the citizens of these neighborhoods.
Hussayn Hilal, Holding a masters in Urban development
“ Although I haven’t been there or seen any in Cairo yet I find it a terrible idea. Firstly, it’s inevitable cafes won’t be restricted to their designated limits, and road obstructions will occur. Secondly, I would be concerned about health hazards as well as safety for both people and structures. Thirdly, opportunity cost. Is this the best and most imminent utilization for space? Not greenery? Not parking?”
Dr. Afaf Badran, Consultant in Architecture, Environmental Design and Planning
“In Nasr City, they are using the space under the bridges to park the many cars that have no place to park, whether it be for shop owners, clients, or office and bank employees or residents of buildings on both sides of the road. Parking lots are crucial in Nasr City due to the population density and the least amount of villas, low-rise buildings, and open spaces like gardens and parks. Also, most multi-floor buildings 10+ floors do not have a garage beneath. Most basements are rented to shops and businesses!”
At first glance from the outside, visually you get the feeling that there is something not right. As if El-Merghany bridge was placed randomly over the cafés. But upon entering you actually find it as an “okay” area. It is very noisy because of the cars. The air quality isn’t that bad, it is regular.
The place is interactive. There are people of different ages, and mostly at night, there will be more. It is targeting a certain social class, all the restaurants and cafes have an “upper-middle and high” price range. The bridge might not look good from outside architecturally, but when you’re sitting inside it is not bothering as much, it gives shade. It was a bit cold under it because there was no sun entering, only indirect light, which might not be the best thing health-wise.
The noisy atmosphere might be alright for a takeaway restaurant or café as the turnover rate of customers is high. It is not suitable for long intimate outings, but it works well for fast food. It is not that different in its noisy atmosphere from the normal traditional cafes, and young people are already used to sitting in noisy places.
In short, we might say that it’s not a “happy” or “cheerful” experience, but it was okay. It is a place to enter if I’m passing by in the middle of my busy day. But if I’m going out, mostly it won’t be my first choice.
We tried to paint the whole picture from different perspectives, and points of view. And we might also add that you should go have your experience and decide for yourself, that is the whole point of designing an urban environment, “The user experience” isn’t it?
Want to read more about urban design? check more of our Urban design articles here on Linesmag!