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What Doxiadis got wrong in Riyadh

What Doxiadis got wrong in Riyadh

Markus Appenzeller

and how to fix it

I have to make a disclaimer upfront: I am a great admirer of Constantinos Doxiadis, a Greek urban planner that has literally groundbreaking work in city planning in the 50s, 60s and 70s of the last century. Like no other colleague, he has put his focus on what was back then seen as the ‘Third World’. Until today, Islamabad, Dhaka, Rio de Janeiro, Baghdad, Tema and Saigon are enjoying the physical results of his work.

The planner also designed a masterplan for Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, in 1972. Like in many other projects before, Doxiadis divided the future city fabric into neighbourhoods, with a public space and infrastructure for the local community right in the centre. In that way, this space was easy to reach by all the locals, and it was kept away from through traffic that did not have to enter the neighbourhood at all. Those not looking for a destination in a neighbourhood could use the network of arterial roads laid out in a grid along the edges of each neighbourhood. Doxiadis was not the only one to use this concept, and it has been used in many planned city extensions until today, since it proves to be a simple and relatively easy to establish system that provides an answer to mobility needs and the desire to create local communities. I have been to a number of places Doxiadis planned and in many places this setup until today works remarkably well, but it does not work equally well in Riyadh.

Riyadh Streetscape – image source: wikipedia.org

But what is different here in comparison to all the other cities? I believe it has to do with three factors:

A key problem are dimensions. While in other places the roads around the neighbourhoods are of a human scale – not wider than 4 lanes with a middle isle, in Riyadh they are often 6 or 8 lanes wide, plus another zone of cars parked perpendicular to the street. The fact that the climate does not encourage a great deal of other activities and that green in streets naturally is scarce adds to this perception as does the fact that no square of park borders these streets, leading to a relative visual monotony.

A second factor is the amount of car traffic. While when the plan was designed, car traffic still seemed moderate, today the sheer amount of cars on these streets turns the neighbourhoods surrounded by them for pedestrians into almost unreachable islands and that in turn leads to more car traffic since a culture of walking is discouraged.

The third critical aspect is the geometry of this grid and the introduction of King Fahd Road as a formal axis. Laid out as rectangles with long and straight streets the grid tends to lead to higher car speeds and the big axis that exclusively is dedicated to car traffic further enhances the feeling that the whole city is a big system of motorways.

Slow movement and walkability net overlaid in Doxiadis’ masterplan for Riyadh

But what can be done to avoid that neighbourhoods in Riyadh are caught in this sea of car traffic forever? It is worthwhile to understand how other cities have established their slow movement networks in recent decades. London, Paris, Amsterdam and many other cities that have seen a renaissance of slow traffic did not establish the pedestrian and cycling friendly streetscapes along the main roads to start with. London’s bike lanes were placed in side streets. Paris removed a motorway along the city’s Seine river and turned that into a pedestrian route. And Amsterdam established most of its cycling network away from the busiest streets of the city or at least with sufficient separation. In these examples one can see that streets for fast moving cars are not the most pleasant environments to walk and cycle. Small alleys and narrow streets with little vehicular traffic are much better environments for slow movement to thrive.

In Riyadh, with its systemic layout, this could also be established by creating another grid shifted by half a mega block. In this way, the central public spaces in the heart of each city block could be connected by a slow movement network. Where this new, human-friendlier and potentially also greener grid meets the big roads, either a dedicated pedestrian crossing or – when traffic loads are too high – a pedestrian over- or underpass could deliver the necessary connectivity.

Not everything would have to be delivered at once. Connecting could become a program that grows over time with the positive side effect, that it can evolve and develop different identities across the urban fabric over the years and help to overcome the relative uniformity of Doxiadis’ grid. It would also be a unique opportunity to include the local communities in shaping this slow movement network and complementing it with functions and open spaces local communities would desire.

As cranes dot the skyline and construction echoes through the streets, and ambitious public infrastructure like Riyadh Metro or King Salman Park, the planned city extensions and all the Mega Projects are under way, the debate surrounding the existing urban fabric built based on Doxiadis’ masterplan takes greater significance. What role with the already existing city play in this? Will old Riyadh simply remain what it is now and slowly fall into decay in the shadow of all the newness surrounding it? Or will this be the opportunity to reimagine its streets as lively and people-centric spaces? Currently, it is not clear what direction the city is heading for but a decision seems imminent.

But with the size and reach of a program described above, it literally would be a megaproject in its own right – improving the lives of millions of Riyadhi and millions more in generations to come.

by Markus Appenzeller
cover image: wikipedia

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