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New Ecocity Study Finds Urban Metabolism Approach May Contribute to Quality of Life in Informal Areas

Written by Sven Eberlein

Cairo University Professor Dr. Sahar Attia and Associate Professor Dr. Heba Allah E. Khalil have just released their most recent research (Urban Metabolism and Quality of Life in Informal Areas) on using the urban metabolism methodology not only as a quantifying, analyzing tool to measure material flows in informal urban areas but as a more far-reaching tool to assess overall quality of life or well-being, which is increasingly recognized by UN agencies as the pivotal factor in measuring a city’s ecological health. What makes Dr. Attia and Dr. Khalil’s findings so meaningful is that their study is supported by findings from on-the-ground engagement through the Ecocitizen World Map Project with the community of Imbaba, one of Cairo’s largest districts to have grown out of an informal unplanned pattern.

I recommend reading the entire paper, but would like to share a summary of the study’s process and outcomes.

Measuring Urban Health

qualityoflifeThe authors provide a good overview of existing and proposed quality of life indices that go beyond GDP to score and rate cities and countries, as well as a number of Green rating indices such as the Green City Index, the Sustainability Cities Index, or City Prosperity Index. However, they point out that an important aspect is still missing: most Quality of Life indices fail to account for how resource-intensive the respective levels are and whether they can be sustained for future generations.

In the same vein, Green Building indices are currently not yet suited to meet the growing demand for tools to evaluate measures and activities on the scale of a city or society as a whole. Although still under development, the International Ecocity Framework & Standards, comprised of 15 universal conditions for healthy cities and a civilization in balance with earth systems, is the index closest to a holistic assessment that the authors use in their quality of life questionnaire with Imbaba residents.

The authors also give extensive background on the history of urban metabolism studies, including Life Cycle assessment, but make a vital note that most of the studies of urban metabolism have focused on the material flows with few or no integration of social or cultural capital.

Including Informal Areas

The importance of this shortcoming becomes clear when held up to the fact that more than 60% of Cairo’s settlements are informal, reflecting the dominating pattern of environmentally and socially unstable growth in the urbanization process all over the developing world. The city may be productive overall but its resources are far from being allocated equitably, emphasizing the need for a more in-depth, neighborhood-to-neighborhood quality of life assessment.

And yet, while quality of life in Imbaba scores low in a number of indicators (high traffic, pollution, lack of open space), according to Dr. Khalil, informal areas possess many aspects defined by sustainable urbanism theories. For example, they are compact with high densities, thus providing a perfect setting for walkability and energy efficiency. Buildings are stacked together with usually only one free façade, which minimizes thermal loads, maximizes space use and enhances energy efficiency. The diversity and community driven development pattern adds to the area’s sense of place, as opposed to the identical blocks in publicly developed projects. Homegrown services are usually within less than 10 minutes walking distance. Secondary streets act as recreational spaces where children play due to the prevailing sense of security.


Crowdmapping citizen surveys

To get a clearer and more inclusive picture of how these informal areas fit into the complete urban organism, the authors join with the Ecocitizen World Map Project (EWMP), using new concepts of crowdsourcing and crowd mapping. They conduct citizen-led urban surveys and produce GIS maps of land use, building heights, building conditions, construction materials and building age, followed by parcel audits based on identifying the existing archetypes in order to aggregate the results into a single Sankey (MetaFlow) diagram that shows the water flow into the area.

In order to complete the water flow study, the students along with the CBOs have investigated water quality and flow from upstream, the potable water facility with its intake from the Nile, and the downstream where wastewater goes through the water treatment facility and, in most cases, back to the Nile. A complete Sankey diagram was developed based on the complete information collected. After finishing the data analysis, another workshop and presentation was conducted on the street to demonstrate the study findings to local residents and ensure project transparency.

However, the aim is not only to calculate the ecological footprint and the urban metabolism of Imbaba, but to encourage residents to participate in data gathering with the help of the team and local Community Based Organizations (CBOs). Viewed through the lens of research justice, the pedagogy of EWMP is geared towards breaking down existing structural barriers between the researcher and the researched, including a training-of-trainers (TOT) methodology to support capacity-building among students and citizens.



The citizen-led participatory surveys yielded not only very specific insights into the problems facing the Imbaba community (lack of health care services and recycling stations, inefficient energy use) but many collective ideas for solutions. Especially with regard to water use and conservation, one of the biggest issues in the world’s largest desert city, the engagement with the community yielded invaluable insights.

The Sankey diagram produced for the water flow in the area presented citizens with visual guides to suggest areas for conservation (e.g. minimizing use in cooking), efficiency (e.g. low-flow shower heads), cascading (e.g. grey water use for rooftop gardens), and advocating for municipal upgrades of infrastructure upstream (e.g. retrofitting crumbling concrete plumbing with more enduring materials to minimize water loss). A series of printed materials and awareness events, organized by El-Balad CBO and the students, disseminated the pilot study results and ensured transparent flow of data to the local community.

Therefore, a number of interventions have been proposed which are divided into three groups. First, on the neighbourhood level, changing the water network in the area, which is rather a governmental responsibility. Second, on the buildings and units’ level, replacing deteriorated water pipes, adding water filter and installing grey water system. Third, on the individual level, promoting efficient use of water through behavioural awareness and education.


Dr. Attia and Dr. Heba Khalil sum up the potential of the urban metabolism field to contribute to more responsive and vibrant communities that address local needs and foster better quality of life:

imbaba-urban-metabolismUrban metabolism is becoming not only a quantifying, or analyzing tool, it has the potential to influence the sustainability of districts an neighborhoods. It can expand to reach multiple parameters such as mobility, employment, education, and many others that could bring innovation in the field of urban systems. This would definitely imply new approaches, methodologies, and techniques while dealing with new factors that were not tackled in the current state of the art. The study in Imbaba demonstrated the moderate living conditions in informal areas which mainly suffer from lack of health services, entertainment opportunities and green spaces. There is big problem in consumption of resources, mainly water in the case of Imbaba. This necessitates a prompt response from various stakeholders on different levels. Water scarcity is a growing global problem, but it accentuated in Egypt given its limited water resources and diminishing share of the Nile water. If the results of the field study are aggregated to encompass informal areas in Cairo, the water consumption/depletion would be alarming. There is a need to address this issue both on the policy level and on the local level of district plans. Personal behaviour is vital in this issue, where common practices of water over consumption and illegal encroachment on the water network should be reconsidered. The problem was easily communicated through the tools used including GIS, UMIS and the produced maps, charts and Sankey diagrams. Moreover, the partnership between different stakeholders can provide an adequate platform for promoting the methodology and the results onto tailoring locally appropriate solutions that are both affordable and require minimum technological capacities for maintenance and upkeeping. The study of other resources would also provide insights to minimize consumption and promote looping and cascading to maximise the value added of limited available resources, guiding autorities, NGOs and the citizens themselves since it does not rely on predictions, it reflects facts in daily life, behavioural patterns, and related societal norms that affect the form and function of the built environment. Studies in urban metabolism would also assist in providing design and planning guidelines for developing more responsive vibrant communities that address local needs and foster better quality of life.

About the author

Sven Eberlein

Sven Eberlein is a writer, musician and activist living in San Francisco with roots in Germany. In addition to his work with Ecocity Builders, Sven is a contributing writer at Yes! Magazine and Shareable. His focus is on sustainable cities, zero waste, ecological design, clean energy, green and sharing economy, post growth, and conscious evolution.