Living Pedestrian Bridge in Cairo Competition: Why being pedestrian-friendly is necessary for cities

Living Pedestrian Bridge over the Nile River
Registration Deadline
1 November, 2020
Submissions Deadline
1 November, 2020

In light of this year’s Rifat Chadirji Prize, Egyptian architect Waleed Arafa highlights why being pedestrian-friendly should be a priority for cities all over the world.

This year’s Rifat Chadirji Prize, an annual thematic competition run by Tamayouz Excellence Award, calls on participants to submit designs for a living pedestrian bridge over the Nile River in Cairo, Egypt. According to the competition brief, the bridge should connect Midan Al-Tahrir to Al Zamalek, and re-imagine the public space of the Nile’s east bank. The solution should “offer a seed for new ways of life across Cairo,” it says, “and potentially other megalopolises across the world”.

With the submissions deadline for the competition coming up on 1 November, 2020, Round City speaks with Egyptian architect, Waleed Arafa, about the importance for cities to be pedestrian friendly. He also discusses what urban issues a new pedestrian bridge in Cairo should aptly address.

Read the brief for the Rifat Chadirji Prize 2020 here.

Why is it important for cities to have pedestrian bridges?
Allow me to rephrase this question to: how important is it for a city to be pedestrian-friendly?

If we agree that pedestrian mobility is a high priority in cities, villages or any kind of human settlements, then having pedestrian bridges would be intuitively essential to having holistic pedestrian mobility solutions. So why is it important to have pedestrian solutions, whether they include bridges or any other components? In my opinion, the answer is quite clear, especially in light of the problematic record of every city in the world which has not given first priority to its pedestrians. This clarity is further proven by observing the positive impact exclusive to cities that enjoy the existence of thoughtful, safe and smart pedestrian mobility networks, including pedestrian bridges.

Cities that boast the highest rankings in surveys conducted to measure the quality of living are mostly cities that also rank highest in terms of their pedestrian-friendliness. It is very clear that solutions for pedestrians are key to the quality of life and hence, pedestrian bridges are a necessity for the continuity and safe flow of pedestrian networks, especially when they intersect with obstacles such as rivers, sudden changes of contour or motorised highways.

Read more about the Living Pedestrian Bridge Competition theme.

What impacts have such bridges generally had on their urban contexts?
Pedestrian bridges designed with great sensitivity to the human scale and pace are but suspended oases of tranquillity in the midst of the noise and air pollution caused by motorised vehicles. They are stress-free zones where humans need not worry about their safety or their own velocity. The different tempo made possible by pedestrian bridges facilitates a diversity of human interactions, activities and modes of existence. The fact that the maximum speed possible on pedestrian bridges are naturally limited by human capability means that the gap between the maximum speed of someone running to catch an appointment and someone who is just looking out of the bridge and gazing into a beautiful sunrise is not too sharp, allowing for peaceful coexistence between different states of being.

Pedestrian bridges are focal spatial zones where a diversity of activities is welcome, as if they are longitudinal piazzas with two ends and a middle allowing for vistas, viewpoints and alternative modes of observing the city, which would not be possible otherwise.

Bridges over the Nile River

What makes a bridge ‘living’?
Simply, it is the ability to entice and attract the citizens of any given city to interact with it in creative, productive, fun, flexible and sustainable ways. The design and execution should be based on a deep understanding of the “genius loci” of the given bridge and the most pressing needs of its users, as well as their potential needs and future aspirations. It starts with identifying the right programme, functions, modes of expression and aesthetics, while also securing the right strategies for identifying the most suitable structural systems, materials and the minutest architectural details.

‘Living’ further entails flexibility and the ability for growth and change. The careful design considerations should not be misunderstood as straight-jacketing the user into the limitations of the designer’s current state of imagination; rather, it should allow for many blank spaces that can be filled by future users, all while answering the immediate, obvious and standard requirements of any bridge.

What urban issues do you believe a new pedestrian bridge in Cairo should address?
Any pedestrian bridge in Cairo needs to offer answers to two main groups of concerns: challenges and opportunities.

The challenges include pollution of all sorts, especially noise, air and light; as well as health and safety issues. These challenges should be addressed on a macroscale by offering hints towards a complete separation of pedestrian and motorised networks, as well as the continuity and seamlessness of the former.

Pedestrian bridges in their potentially iconic existence should serve as catalysts for a stronger commitment to and a higher priority for pedestrian mobility, rather than limiting them to isolated accidental oases. On a microscale, they should address problems like accessibility for all types of users, waste collection and maintenance.

The opportunities could be summed up in realising and emphasising the long forgotten and overseen privileges of different locations in need of pedestrian bridges in Cairo, especially those that cross the Nile. Every crossing point is overloaded with historical and conceptual legacies that must be resolved in the design of any bridge that links them.

Competition site for the Rifat Chadirji Prize 2020. Image courtesy of Tamayouz Excellence Award

How could a pedestrian bridge improve the city experience in this part of Cairo?
This particular place in Cairo is laden with meaning, history, significant current events, natural beauty, rare green areas and cultural buildings. The problem is that everything is fragmented and dismembered, and one’s experience of all of these different attractions and meanings is often interrupted and isolated. A pedestrian bridge designed as a catalyst for a coherent, continuous and seamless experience would help users simultaneously experience many layers of the city in the most profound and direct manners.

The bridge could be the missing link completing a pedestrian path on both banks of the river; an arena with the Nile in the middle. People could sit around, stroll, walk or jog in a full loop that starts at an east bank piazza with an exhibition where the former NDP building used to stand, as well as the old Egyptian Museum. Passing through, people can engage with art performance stands, and gazing and fishing platforms on the actual bridge as they reach the west bank with its lush greenery (a rarity in Cairo) and the Qasr El-Nil bridge, before looping back to the east bank.

How do you think locals would respond to an activated pedestrian bridge?
Very positively! Existing bridges, like the 6th of October Bridge, were not designed with pedestrians in mind. However, even such a brutally utilitarian bridge created for the motorised vehicle was conquered and colonised by the locals in the most spontaneous, creative and life-loving ways. The old and young sit calmly and patiently with their fishing rods dangling down from incredible heights, while newlyweds disembark from their vehicles to pose for pictures with the Nile in the background. At the same time, sweet potato carts and fresh juice and flower vendors are just a few more examples of where the Caireans’ hearts are.

This clash between a design deaf to pedestrian needs and the incredible resilience of the Caireans results in a few schisms and glitches. Now let us imagine that the design is on the same side as the pedestrian needs, and the results could be amazingly positive. This is an opportunity for the people, designers and users alike to learn about their real potential and pass on their experiences to more citizens in Cairo and elsewhere around the world.

Register for the Rifat Chadirji Prize 2020.