Zhu Jiayue
Re-imagining the “Garbage City”: Alleviating the Zabaleen Community

Thesis Supervisor: Dr. Cho Im Sik

Site: Ezbet El Zabaleen, Manshiet Nasser, Cairo, Egypt

This thesis is a narrative that circulates around Cairo and its informal waste management system situated in the slum settlement at Manshiet Nasser, while exploring an alternative “Garbage City”, with particular focus on Egypt’s informal waste collector community. Cairo is one of the cities facing the most serious waste management issues, resulting in severe environmental damages over the past years. This is further compounded by threats of privatisation and eviction of the community that deprives them of their work. It is time for the situation of marginalised community to be brought front stage and design measures implemented to reinvent Cairo’s “Garbage City”. 

The design intent aims to address the aforementioned dilemma through the empowerment of the principal actors, the Zabaleen, and their engagement with other related agents in a newly interpreted system, that integrates its existing culture with modern and non-intrusive design strategies, such as waste-to-energy solutions. The thesis also aims to end the narrative with the empowerment of the Zabaleen community and their continued sustainability through the existing waste management system and culture, reimagined in modernised and diversified manifestations of design, in order to alleviate the socio-economic inequalities present in Cairo’s present waste management system. 


The project is centred around the neighbourhood Ezbet El Zabaleen within Manshiet Nasser, the area most prominently featured for its prevalent garbage spread across the roofscapes and streetscapes of the settlement, and where the Zabaleen reside in. Ezbet El Zabaleen has an area size of 54600 m², and currently houses 5000 slum dwellers, which estimates to 1000 households in average. 

Design Framework

The overarching system of the design intervention comprises of three scales, ranging from Micro to Macro scale,addressing the issues and vested interested of different actors as shown. The system features not only the built architectural design but also the introduction of farming systems to close the biophilic loop of the waste recycling process, which will be explained in detail in the following sections below.


Micro Scale

The premise of the built design intervention starts from the Open Building concept, which breaks down the prototypical structure of one building to two main elements: the base building, which is the permament structure with the staircases and cores, and the fit-out, which are the flexible spaces controlled by the inhabitants, and are inter-changeable over the period of inhabitation.

This is aimed to convert obsolete buildings into flexible use, viewing architecture and construction as one of reuse and not of replacement and abolishment.. The design proposal for the Zabaleen neighbourhood pushes the idea further to constitute both prefabricated volumetric and panel units slowly replacing the existing building structure from top to bottom.


The Plastic Recycling Cluster shows the typical cluster of the neighbourhood with its specialised waste recycling processes happening within the cluster.

Meso Scale

The concept of the Open Building design intervention is then brought over to the meso scale, whereby the micro units gradually form a combined circulatory path over the roofscapes of the existing buildings in each cluster. 

Over time, the additional meso units are nestled in within the circulatory paths, providing for recreational and leisure activities such as a Communal Kitchen for the Zabaleen community and an Educational Centre for the younger generation. 

Macro Scale

The design intervention of the Ezbet El Zabaleen neighbourhood takes place across six design phases, within the span of three years.  In the macro scale, additional systems are also put into place to complete the waste management process.

Various programmes and cultural activities will be either implemented or retained across the neighbourhood site. They include existing pigeon towers, waste collection centres, animal farm, crop plantations, and superadobe playground.

Section Cut
Across Central Heart
of Neighbourhood

The section cut across the central heart of the neighbourhood  depicts the integration between the horizontal biophilic elements and the vertical waste management process, with the animal farm and the crop plantations closing the biophilic loop and supplying sustenance to the community.

The vertical process within the collaboration cluster in the centre of the neighbourhood shows the full integration between existing and new work programmes, with the usual workshop processes taking place within the lower levels,  leading up to the workshop facilities and collaboration spaces, before going through the connector belt to the prefabrication centre for manufactoring of micro units.