Urban Crossroads #9

Riyadh's most recently constructed high-rise buildings: The Kingdom Center in the foreground and Al Faysaliyya in the background. (Mohammad al-Asad)

Riyadh's most recently constructed high-rise buildings: The Kingdom Center in the foreground and Al Faysaliyya in the background. (Mohammad al-Asad)

Our region is one of tremendous urban diversity. A recent first-time visit to Riyadh further confirmed this view. Clearly, a single short visit to a city provides a very selective impression of it, and there is much more to Riyadh than what is provided in the following lines.

Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, is a large city. It has a population of almost 5 million people. Like Amman, it was only a small town of a few thousand inhabitants during the early twentieth century, but has grown at a spectacular rate since then, specially during the past three decades. Even today, Riyadh is growing at a rate of 8 - 10% a year, which is considerably higher than Saudi Arabia's natural growth rate of about 3.5% a year. Saudi Arabia is unique in the Arab East in that it does not have a dominant urban center, but includes a number of sizable, vibrant cities such as Jeddah, Mecca, Medina, and Dammam. Still, Riyadh is growing at a faster rate than these other urban centers and has greatly surpassed them in size. Planners in Saudi Arabia are concerned about the city's fast growth, and consider it neither healthy for Riyadh nor for the country as a whole. Officials at the Saudi Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs consequently have developed a strategy that encourages growth in the other cities of the country. They therefore coordinate policies with various governmental organizations to encourage new institutions and economic projects, such as universities or industrial estates, to locate in cities other than Riyadh, specially in cities that may benefit from additional growth.

Riyadh is an automobile dominated city. The driving there is unnerving (I yet have to see a city in this region where driving habits generally are responsible and courteous). However, because of the types of fuel used in Riyadh and/or good vehicle maintenance habits, one at least does not have to worry there about being stuck behind vehicles emitting black smoke, a problem we unfortunately continue to face in Amman.

Riyadh is not a pedestrian friendly city. Amongst other things, its sidewalks are uninviting and barely used. The municipality of Riyadh therefore has initiated a pilot project that aims at creating pedestrian zones in the city. They already have implemented two such zones. These have consisted of widening the sidewalks and providing them with attractive paving, street furniture, and trees. In both cases, the results have been very successful, and those pedestrian zones are bustling with people in the evenings and nights. In one of these zones, which is located along a busy commercial street, a good number of street cafés have sprung along it after its rehabilitation.

The city is organized according to a clear grid system. The grids mark city blocks that contain relatively low buildings. The streets of Riyadh are wide, with a good number of them accommodating five lanes in each direction. Recently, two high-rise buildings have been constructed in the city, the Kingdom Center and al-Faysaliyya. Although they tower over the rest of the city's buildings, these two elegant structures actually work well within the urban context. Since they are located at opposite ends of the same street, they create a north-south visual axis that cuts through a good part of Riyadh, thus giving a sense of direction to its directionless grid.

A spectacular but little known natural feature of the Riyadh area is Wadi Hanifah. This valley extends over 120 kilometers in length, along a southeastern route, and has a width that ranges from 100 to 1000 meters. It runs along Riyadh from the west, and a part of it even crosses the city. The limited rainfall in a vast area of about 4000 kilometers collects in the valley, making it a green fertile enclave in an arid region. It therefore has been an agricultural center that supported life along it for centuries, and a number of attractive historical towns and villages developed along the valley. It also contains pleasant farms with extensive orchards of palm trees.

In the area where the valley crosses the city, the city's main water treatment plant discharges over 450,000 cubic meters of treated water every day. This has provided a continuous flow of water in the valley, and has created year-round lakes in its southern parts. Unfortunately, a great deal of environmental damage also has affected the valley during the past few decades, specially in its middle and southern sections, because of the discharging of polluted effluents, and also of dumping garbage and debris, as well as stone quarrying. The Riyadh Development Authority consequently has started implementing an ambitious project that aims at rehabilitating Wadi Hanifah, and at developing it as a sustainable area for tourism and recreation, as well as a natural and historical preserve. The project has the potential of providing an important model of how a natural and historical area may interact positively with a modern urban center to enhance the quality of life for urban populations.

Mohammad al-Asad

June 17, 2004