Canals and lakes of Cairo: Influence of traditional water system on the development of urban form

Stuart P. Echols, Hala F. Nassar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Cairo's medieval urban form cannot be separated from the history of water resource management in the Nile Basin. The city evolved based on a symbiotic relationship to flood management, agriculture, and enrichment of urban life. The system of constructed canals and lakes (birkas) that developed in Cairo fostered a unique perspective on sustainable city planning that grew out of a civilization highly dependent on and inimitably responsive to natural aquatic systems. These processes resulted in a planned ephemeral system of lakes and canals in a city that annually changed its physical form, urban structure, and social character. In the first half of the 19th century, however, changes in political and social outlooks resulted in the infill of these canals, lakes, and ponds, which completely transformed Cairo's landscape. As a result, Cairo's urban pleasures of spending nights on or near waterways, strolling the promenades, listening to musicians, being entertained by dancers or celebrating the cutting of the dykes (khalig) with feast and fireworks can only be imagined by current city dwellers. This paper explains how hydrologic and urban planning were inextricably linked playing a pivotal role in the design and daily life of Cairo, and examines this unique attitude to water planning and city design, including philosophical underpinnings, centralized planning objectives, and societal and cultural contexts that were linked to this process. Implications for current land planning and design are derived from the case study of Cairo and the unique design solutions that evolved from symbiotic interactions between the built environment and natural ecosystems. This paper suggests that a rich body of knowledge can be gained by examining the processes that led to this intricate design symbiosis and that there are many opportunities in contemporary urban design to combine water resources management with city planning that could enrich city life, protect property, reduce municipal infrastructure cost, and preserve natural aquatic environments. This paper discusses: How and why Cairo's hydrologic management system was developed. The influence of this system on Cairo's urban form. How the cultural life in Cairo responding to this system. The implications of subsequent canal and lake in filling on Cairo's urban form. Lessons learned from the successes of the former system and possibilities for its adaptation to contemporary urban design.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)203-212
Number of pages10
JournalUrban Design International
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - Sep 2006

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Urban Studies


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