Although informality has become an integral part of every major city across the globe, because it is often rendered “invisible,” it is rarely accounted for in conversations around urban growth. It is estimated that, by 2050, 90 percent of urban growth will come from informal areas in African and Asian cities. Mammar, a joint Dutch-Egyptian effort, is looking to tap into this informality in Cairo’s neighborhood of Embaba by working with the community to draw up a plan that uses modular co-design to address the challenges of self-built, community-driven areas.

While informality has been seen as a hindrance by many urbanists in the past, the Mammar team believes that informality can be an asset. The core of Mammar’s project revolves around the inherent informality of Embaba, and how the neighborhood’s future can be different by coupling co-design with modular design. The team’s plan for the redevelopment of Embaba is premised on community-driven, co-designed interventions that maintain the social and cultural makeup of the area.

Modular Design and Embaba

In many ways, the informality of Embaba has hindered the neighborhood’s potential for growth and lowered the overall quality of life. With little access to government resources and years of neglect, Embaba has fallen into disrepair, leaving its residents to come up with alternative modes of living. It is these very alternative modes, however, that the team behind Mammar believes can make Embaba a more refined version of itself.

Embaba, like any other urban neighborhood, is part of Cairo’s city life, or ‘urbanity.’ As early as 1938, cities were not just seen as places where people live, but rather the outcome of wider systems of relations that determine how city residents interact with each other within an urban space. In that sense, Embaba is no exception.

Mammars usage of modular design fits perfectly with this narrative of informality and alternative modes of living. Combining modular design, which maximizes functional opportunities and flexibility, with the stacking of different functions (such as placing a public park on the roof of a school, for example), optimizes limited space. This allows residents of Embaba to make the most out of the scarce land remaining in the area – an estimated 3,140 feddans (3,259 acres).

What is Mammar?


(CC: Dan)

Mammar is a joint effort between Amsterdam-based architecture firm MAAT works and that aims to provide an inspiring and integrated redevelopment model for Embaba. Through a series of interventions on the scarce remaining available land in the area, Mammar hopes to increase access to resources and offer space for economic development for the residents of Embaba.

Mammar (spelled ممر in Arabic) translates into corridor, hallway, or passageway. The project’s name, which is rooted in the Arabic word for ‘to pass,’ in many ways encapsulates the spirit of the project.

Mammar, simply put, aspires to be a site that holds community life. It serves as an outlet for the community and improves access to opportunities. Mammar aspires to become the site where residents of a neighborhood gather, blurring the lines between public and private life.

The idea behind building a structure as a mammar or corridor in Embaba is to enable the free flow of goods, services, ideas, and people in and out of the area. In order to make this possible, the Mammar team is using community-driven, co-design and modular design.

Mammar will engage city- and space-makers to study the community’s needs and habits in order to create a useful site that lends itself to different functions. These functions will ideally provide services that the community currently lacks, such as co-working spaces, sports facilities, schools, a library, cultural spaces, and community centers, among others. Up until recently, Embaba had few spaces such as these – although, in May of this year, a USAID-funded center for women was built in the neighborhood.

What lies ahead for Embaba and Mammar?


(CC: Davidlohr Buseo)

Shortly after the January Revolution of 2011 in Egypt, a film series called “Slums? No sir, these are self-built communities,” was started to document the challenges faced in informal areas across Cairo.

What the film series exhibits, however, is not just governmental oversight, but, also, the modes that residents of informal areas have developed to claim their livelihoods. These modes allow for micro-economies to emerge, and unconventional, albeit practical, electrical and sewage infrastructure to be developed to keep daily life in motion.

Today, Embaba lacks three main things: sustainability, walkability, and livability. In the absence of a complete overhaul of Embaba (which might not be desirable for its residents), the neighborhood can be reconfigured to achieve these aspects of urban life.

Mammar wants to make use of the scarce remaining land that exists in the dense area of Embaba by utilizing a modular design approach. By carving out space in a neighorhood that desperately needs it while respecting the self-built community, the project aims to transform the neighborhood into a livable, lightweight, and adaptive residential area.

Other models elsewhere in the world are being applied to informal areas wherein they are turned into ‘microcities,’ which transform slums into semi-autonomous mini-cities. The goal of this model is to centralize governance and provide more efficient access to healthcare and other services.

Both Mammar’s approach and that of the ‘microcity’ resort to modular design to provide solutions for challenges faced in informal areas. For Embaba, which barely has any free land for redevelopment, modular design can augment Embaba’s growth.

Another critical aspect of Mammar’s plans for Embaba is the inclusion of students and other community stakeholders in the design of the modular structures. By engaging students and the community in the process, the team hopes to achieve a more creative reimagining of the neighborhood. The inclusion of urban planning and architecture students provides a meeting point of theory and the real-life challenges of informality, while making the new generation aware of different approaches when designing for informality.

There have been numerous plans for Embaba and other informal areas in Cairo that have either been scrapped or have never come to fruition. But what Mammar is keen on is ensuring that residents of Embaba are engaged in the plans for redevelopment. By bringing urban planners to the table with students, professionals, and residents, Mammar emphasizes the importance of community-driven co-design and the potential benefits of such an approach to the redevelopment of an area like Embaba.


This content is generously supported by Creative Industries Fund NL.