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The state of urban play in Saudi Arabia

The state of urban play in Saudi Arabia

Markus Appenzeller

The world is part baffled, part outright dismissive of the projects that are all over the media. They present an urban vision that starkly contrasts with conventional expectations, challenging preconceived notions of a nation by many still perceived as a Middle Age kingdom reliant solely on oil.

These shiny urban wonderlands embrace an idea of city that is alien to many, especially when they have socialized in organically growing cities in Europe or the Americas. They embrace a model that is the exact opposite: something that is created in an instant at the scale beyond comparison. It remains to be seen, if the promises and high hopes materialize in these projects, but so far I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

But Saudi Arabia consists of more than the ‘Line’ or ‘Mukaab’, the 400-meter-high, long and wide cube. Saudi Arabia, unlike the Emirates or Qatar, has a sizable native population living in big cities. They already exist and while the international attention almost exclusively is on the Mega projects, in the shadow of them an urban transformation and improvement program has started. Alone, the latter proves to be a lot more complicated than building virgin projects on virgin land.

The urban gap: A collection of projects is not a city – yet!
Delivery of urban spaces in whatever form is carried out in the form of projects, and individual development agencies are tasked with planning and delivering them. This leads to an urbanism that does not look beyond the plot boundary. Everything that needs to be delivered in the project is delivered on site. Typically, this results in ‘shopping mall urbanism’ where the program to be delivered is embedded in a sea of infrastructure and parking lots – even if the program is a CBD, a park or a housing development. Comfortably, they can only be reached by car. What makes a city good – the integration between different land uses and the ability to walk between them – is almost entirely absent. As is the understanding that urban transformation is much more process than project: there is existing city substance that needs to be integrated and respected, there are people that call a place their home that want to be heard and involved and there is a society that itself is undergoing profound changes. All aspects that do not allow for a simple project approach.

The integration gap: A city is like an orchestra – it only is good if all play together.
The division in plan is also reflected in the division in the delivery of urban space. There if little to no integration between different government bodies when implementing projects. When a new metro line is built, the stations appear to land in the urban fabric accidentally. Access routes and spaces around the stations are not designed to accommodate pedestrian flow, use the increased accessibility or provide convenient transfer between modes of transportation. Open spaces are not integrated within the urban fabric, but often only serve as show green in between motorway junctions. Streets are not designed also with pedestrians in mind, and there is little to no climate conscious public space design with sufficient shadow or other cooling measures. But it does not have to be like that. The many outdoor shopping malls show, how a pleasant and walkable outdoor environment can be created if an integrated approach is not only adopted for commercial development but for the city as a whole.

The capacity gap: Transformation is place and process driven by people
Saudi Arabia has been propelling itself to warp urban development speed in no time. The Vision 2030 the country has given itself sets high ambitions that are hard to achieve in less than a decade. This is especially visible in the capacity gap this has led to. Conservative estimates see the demand for urban planners currently at around two thousand experts, but there are only five hundred of them in the whole country – many of them only have little experience. Add to that that a big part of them is consumed by the big mega projects or centred in Riyadh, the county’s capital, then the problem becomes even more apparent. And this is only the shortage of planners, not mentioning all the other disciplines also short in supply.

This triple gap already is a problem now and there is real risk that it will only become worse in the years to come – certainly with World Expo, Football Asian Cup and World Cup on the horizon. What to do? I believe the solution lies in three actions plus one action.

– Removing red lines on projects and creating zones of overlap between two pieces of city would require parties on both sides to coordinate their goals and ambitions, find synergies and help to deliver the spatial integration and the processes that characterize great cities.

– Any urban space or infrastructural system should not be delivered in isolation. Instead, integrated teams having all relevant expertise ‘in one room’ should be tasked with the delivery. This not only would change the quality of delivery but also help to overcome the typical ‘silo’ structure that characterizes many public administrations.

– A capacity building and development program should help resolve the shortage of expertise in urban development. This concerns professionals already working in the field, people with relevant expertise from other fields, and the education of new generations of urban experts.

However, meeting and talking to many relevant parties in the Kingdom lead me to the conclusion that these traditional actions should be supercharged by something that speaks out of all plans and programs the country has been embracing: risk taking ambition and moving beyond global best practice. Before implementing them, the questions should be asked: how can we do it better than others did in the past? Thanks to the dynamic urban evolution any innovation can be tested quickly, the results can be evaluated and tools adjusted and improved continuously. I believe this rapid prototyping and learning can lead to surprising new ways of evolving Saudi cities and the people tasked with improving them. That might not be as iconic as a mile high tower, but it will leave a lasting legacy for everyday life in the cities on the Arab peninsula.

text / photos by Markus Appenzeller

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