Recent high-level U.S. diplomatic activity seems aimed at addressing a sense of grievance Gulf capitals harbor.
On March 18, Riyadh announced the launch of a series of megaprojects with the stated aim of beautifying the city and aligning its urban development goals with the ambitious Vision 2030. According to official releases these projects “will significantly improve the lives of its citizens, transform the city into an attractive destination and make it one of the world’s most livable cities.” The projects are expected to cost $23 billion, create tens of thousands of jobs, and provide new leisure opportunities in a city that lacks many such amenities. According to the Saudi government, the projects are not just reliant on public funds but also provide opportunities for $15 billion in private sector financing. They encompass urban parks and boulevards, cultural venues, and residential and leisure spaces, and are part of an effort to “open up Saudis’ cloistered lifestyles, encourage physical activity and make life more fun in the conservative kingdom.”
There are four projects: King Salman Park; a Sports Boulevard bisecting the city of Riyadh from east to west; Riyadh Art, introducing art installations, including more than a thousand art works, into various city sites; and Green Riyadh, planting 7.5 million trees and increasing the share of green space per capita more than six-fold.
The focus of these announcements on issues pertaining to quality of life represents a shift in the Gulf region’s urban development paradigm. Typically, projects have tended to focus on spectacular aspects, with emphasis placed on branding and the degree to which they would attract investment, thus fueling real estate speculation and commercial development. While this is to some extent present in some of the announced initiatives, the clear emphasis is on people, the provision of green space, and places for exercise and enjoyment. The paradigm shift is not just evident in relation to the broader Gulf Arab context, it also represents a departure from Riyadh’s planning direction, which was predicated on car movement and real estate speculation resulting in an expanding city and the inevitable urban sprawl.
Riyadh – the name is the plural of garden, or rawda, in Arabic – is a city that has not lived up to its namesake, many officials say when talking about its urban environment. Saudi historian and scholar Saleh al-Hathloul notes that modernization started in the 1950s under the reign of King Saud bin Abdulaziz who introduced modern architecture to the city and transferred ministries from Mecca to Riyadh thus cementing its position as capital. This led to a series of developments including the creation of neighborhoods such as Malaz and the introduction of the stand-alone villa as a building type. This would become a de facto housing model for the vast majority of the population. In the late 1960s and ‘70s the city was guided by a masterplan prepared by Greek planner Doxiadis; he proposed that the city grow along a north-south axis, and that its urban form be structured through a modular grid that would allow for expansion. His plan relied on private motorized transportation and did not take into consideration public transit. In the 1970s, as a result of the oil boom, the city grew significantly, and the population increased making the Doxiadis plan unsuitable. A French consultancy was brought on board and it further built on the original masterplan but also suggested the construction of a series of ring roads. All of these efforts resulted in massive urban sprawl and the domination of commercial uses alongside these highways, which significantly impacted life in the various neighborhoods. At the same time the continuous expansion and subdivision of land enabled a form of real estate speculation that produced an environment dominated by standalone villas and the absence of walkable streets and green areas.
As a result, Riyadh is cited among the world’s cities with the lowest percentages of green spaces per capita. But while there are numerous parks and open recreational spaces spread throughout the city – many initiated under the Humanization Program introduced by Riyadh’s former mayor, urban planner Abdulaziz bin Ayyaf Al Muqrin – more needs to be done. Indeed, one of the notable aspects of its current built form is the difficulty of navigation on foot; this lack of walkability makes it quite harsh in many ways. The humanization initiative aimed to mitigate this through the provision of walking paths and the redevelopment of streets to cater to pedestrians. The success of these municipal projects showed that there is an increasingly receptive environment and a desire by Riyadh residents to interact in public spaces and engage in various outdoor leisure activities – which is reflected in the removal of social barriers to mixed-gender activities that is part of the reforms associated with Vision 2030, as noted. As such the recently announced megaprojects aim to capitalize on these initiatives and enhance the city’s environment to respond to notions of urban livability.
Two projects in particular stand out given their size and location within the city: King Salman Park and the Sports Boulevard. King Salman Park is planned to be over 5 square miles – which would make it the largest city park in the world. Its design calls for facilities dedicated to art, culture, sports, and entertainment. The chosen consultant – Riyadh based Omrania – notes that the park will bring back “human life.” Indeed, the park’s central location – the site of the city’s former air base – makes it easily accessible. “King Salman Park will change the very nature of Riyadh,” Bassem Alshihabi of Omrania stated. “It will actually fulfill the meaning of Al-Riyadh: The green land.”
The Sports Boulevard is a massive urban development scheme that is meant to link Riyadh’s two valleys: Wadi Hanifa in the west and Wadi Sulay in the east. Wadi Hanifa has been successful in attracting a multitude of Riyadh residents. It also was a recipient of the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Islamic architecture for providing “a comprehensive development strategy, a programme of works that aims to restore and develop Wadi Hanifa as an environmental, recreational and tourism resource.” Linking these two natural formations is a utility corridor, or major highway, formerly known as Saud bin Muqrin Road, which has recently been renamed after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The over 18-mile road bisects the city, passing alongside residential communities and also the King Abdullah Financial District. Two metro stations are set to open toward the eastern part of the road. The project aims to transform this utilitarian stretch of the city into “safe, green pathways for pedestrians.” It will additionally include biking and horse-riding routes as well as sites for other activities – a sports tower and a high-rise building with courts for different indoor sports. Significantly, traffic patterns will be changed to put less emphasis on cars by eliminating service roads and reducing the number of car lanes, thus providing incentive for people to use public transportation. In addition to these open venues and public spaces, the development will include a mix of residential and office spaces offering opportunity for private investment so that the project will be self-sufficient in terms of cost.
The King Salman Park and Sports Boulevard projects are notable because of their sheer ambition and scale. Putting people front and center is at the heart of contemporary urban developments and the degree to which Riyadh is adopting this can set a model for the region. Yet in its drive and ambition to embrace such projects the city needs to be mindful of not succumbing to the allure of the “Dubai model.” The need for the involvement of the private sector is important yet it runs the danger of overly relying on real estate speculation to generate income. The pitfalls of such an approach are evident in the case of Dubai, which is subject to the inherent instability and fluctuation of financial and real estate markets. Indeed, the city has been generating headlines just in the last few months over the limitations of the “build it and they will come approach”; the substantive slowdown in economic growth; warnings about a multi-billion-dollar debt crisis; and concerns about collapsing property prices.
It is therefore vital to consider issues pertaining to community development and scale, and, perhaps most importantly, a balanced approach that seeks to accommodate both public and private interests. In that way Riyadh has the potential to offer a unique model of urbanity that can be a counterpoint to the more speculative trends pervasive in the region.
is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. He previously served as a visiting scholar at AGSIW and is the author of “Temporary Cities: Resisting Transience in Arabia” (Routledge, 2019).
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