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Globalized spaces and localized discourse: selling gated communities in Cairo
Cairo’s entry into the 21st century has been marked by the unprecedented mushrooming of exclusive privatized public spaces, such as shopping malls, upscale hotels, private clubs, and luxury and gated residential communities. Luxury residential communities of different types are rapidly being planned and constructed in clusters around larger developments or new desert towns in the vicinity of Cairo. From smaller apartment buildings, set in a pleasant park atmosphere, to large and lavish villas, situated in an abundance of greenery, different residential schemes offer varying degrees of exclusivity, material comforts and symbolic distance from the city’s crowds, noises and pollution. Addressing upscale material demands, elite quests for social distinction, sentiments of fear, obsessions with security, and upper middle and upper class pocket books, the new communities promise safe and healthy homes, and like-minded neighbors. Some promise ease and comfort of living, quiet and safe family apartments at relatively affordable rates and a reasonable distance to the city, while others emphasize luxurious lifestyles, guaranteed privacy, strict rules to maintain residential peace and harmony, and advanced security technologies.
In this paper, I examine aspects of the design and marketing of a number of gated communities in Cairo and try to analyze them in the context of global urban transformations. My specific interest is in how designers and real estate companies situate these communities on a global map of urban cultural and spatial forms. Do promotional materials make conscious attempts to ex-territorialize new communities in that they situate them on a global map of similar exclusive communities, or are new developments advertised as locally embedded, or is it a specific articulation of the two?
If the latter, how do these materials articulate global models and local realities? Are concerns over new forms of spatial governmentality that increasingly dominate urban policy debates in the context of neoliberal global transformations addressed in any form in these materials? Furthermore, in how far do the discourse and images in advertisements and informational materials, duplicate patterns used in other global metropolises, and subsequently, suggest important globalized links and patterns, while neglecting references to local contexts?
Drawing predominantly on promotional materials of real estate companies, I illustrate that the more affordable schemes (consisting predominantly of apartments) are marketed as healthy retreats from the city, which, however, clearly remain within the spatial and cultural orbit of the city. In contrast, the more exclusive communities are marketed in a discreet yet unambiguous manner as situated spatially apart and socially distant from Cairo. Points of reference with regards to architectural, social, and cultural elements are often beyond Cairo, situating communities on a vaguely exterritorial map. Architectural styles, the quest for security, community names, services and amenities link these communities to their global peers. I maintain that this sense of ex-territoriality is an important aspect in the marketing of such communities. While I identify the schemes’ global links, I simultaneously insist that Egyptian gated communities represent a specifically Egyptian response to a particular historical moment. Advertisements in obvious textual references and pictures, and subtle manners, using specific subtexts or locally available euphemisms, address specifically Cairene fears, concerns and demands.
In the context of rapid globalization and the massive spread of neoliberal economic and political models, new spatial ideas and projects, and mechanisms of spatial governance emerged in post-colonial metropolises. For example, Sao Paolo, Buenos Aires, Johannesburg, Jakarta, Manila, Karachi, and Cairo have experienced a recent growth of privatized public spaces and, more specifically, gated communities, along with the implementation of various exclusionary mechanisms of governance. This fortification implies a retreat of the elite from the streets and the public at large, and the creation of a segregated new imaginary public sphere for the chosen few. This retreat produces a number of unrelated, serious consequences. In the context of neoliberal political regimes, existing public spaces and services are no longer granted appropriate funding for maintenance and improvement. Subsequently, they deteriorate physically and, in the worst cases, public spaces become subject to turf violence when new groups claim spatial control as the state retreats. In examining gated communities and mechanisms of spatial governmentality in post-colonial metropolises, it is important to consider local contexts that mediate their construction. While global models play a central role in the massive spread of gated communities in these cities, local articulations and innovations account for the specificities of actual projects. Global trends in styles, fashions and marketing are compelling, but they need to be carefully inserted into local contexts, paying close attention to specific cultural, historical, legal, social and economic conditions.
The first instances of exclusive residential communities in Egypt appeared in the 1980s. Holiday villages for the Egyptian elite were built in rapid succession along the Mediterranean Coast. Advertisements for exclusive resort communities for Egyptians stress the peace and quiet they can offer to prospective buyers, implying that the latter are largely absent in Cairo. In recent years the knowledge that one is able to leave the city for a peaceful weekend retreat, has no longer provided the peace of mind it once did for some members of the Cairene elite. Having experienced a serious earthquake in 1992 that exposed alarming structural and political cracks in the cityscape and shattered some trust in high rise apartments; repeated rounds of militant Islamic activism; ongoing political crisis in the region; horrific pollution; a considerable urban noise level; very high population density; never-ending traffic jams, and other disquieting side effects of a post-colonial 17 million metropolis, some wealthy Cairenes started to search for more permanent escapes from the city, and more fortified spaces within the city.
Coinciding with the disillusionment with the city were neoliberal economic schemes. Implemented as a response to a particular Egyptian economic “crisis” and duplicating global patterns of deregulation, these schemes opened up new avenues of investment and profiteering. One central element was the deregulation of some government land, which accommodated the massive transfer of desert land surrounding Cairo from public to private ownership. In the fast scramble for land that followed in the 1990s, developers secured considerable stretches of prime real estate at relative proximity to Cairo. To cash in on their investments, most developers opted for luxury housing and communities. Cairo’s desert surrounding emerged as a perfect location for luxury communities, situated at a spatial and social distance to the city. From the beginning, distance from the city was advertised as a guarantor for new communities’ safe and exclusive nature.
Cairo’s new desert communities and their marketing tell a number of global and local tales. First, there is the tale of a growing elite sector of society that wants to spatially remove itself from an overwhelming post-colonial metropolis, and simultaneously distinguish itself by means of material possessions. This duplicates current global patterns. Beyond issues of luxurious lifestyles, age-old elite fears of the masses and the streets linger in aspects of the new projects. Nonetheless, in Cairo, fear of crime, while definitely emerging, does not play the same role as in Los Angeles, Sao Paolo or Johannesburg. Instead, incidents of militant activism led to the realization of at least a certain vulnerability among the elite and prompted a proliferation of guards and security devises. Since the early 1990s, fear of militant attacks, while only rarely mentioned as such, has become a new force in Cairo's spatial dynamics. Unnamed fears of "terrorism" play a role in urban planning that has similarities to the role of "crime" in the US or Brazilian contexts, except that it does not have the same urgency. Unlike some other crimes, incidents of militant activism are more unpredictable, and as such fade in and out of the popular and political consciousness. Subsequently their weight in urban processes over time is harder to estimate and analyze, but no less present.
Cairo’s new desert developments and gated communities all promise an escape from the frustrations, pollution, density, political tension and noise of Cairo. They do so, however, in very different ways. Marketing for more modest communities emphasizes quality living and community living that largely duplicates that of the city, just in a greener, healthier and less dense environment. Points of reference for future residents remain in the context of Cairo. Such quarters are marketed as better versions of Cairo, just a bit wealthier and healthier. They are remakes of existing upper middle class neighborhoods with the globalized touch of a segregated new town. As such it represents the globalization of the local. For the more exclusive developments, references to community and a sense of togetherness have been replaced by the insistence on the highly select nature of communities. Privacy, security and exclusive life styles are defining features of these communities. While the proximity to Cairo remains an important factor or necessity for residents’ professional life, the community’s advertisements might soon be the only one. Almost all other aspects of life can be enjoyed in the community in the esteemed company of one’s peers, at a safe distance to the city. Conceived for the well-traveled and globalized Cairene elite, these projects, in contrast to the more modest schemes are localized version of global models. These communities represent the localization of the global, where one’s neighbors – in the larger sense of co-urban dwellers – no longer are possibly disturbing members of different classes. Ideally, one’s symbolic neighbors now are residents of the gated communities of Southern California, Sao Paolo and Jakarta.