They are going to start demolishing all the fences that surround public parks. I’ve asked for this a couple of times (here and here) and it seems their reason for removing them was mainly to stop people abusing the parks for ‘immoral acts’. I can also understand the concerns of parents worried about their kids. I wouldn’t mind child proofing the kids play areas, where there are swings and activities (maybe have a 1m high fence around those areas?) but I also think those fears are exaggerated. The problem parents should concentrate on is trying to find ways to reduce the speed of cars in residential neighborhoods. That’s the real problem and one which I don’t see much effort going towards fixing it. Still, this is a good step towards improving the walkability of Kuwaiti neighborhoods and every step makes it easier to take the next one and get us closer towards safer, healthier and more stimulating neighborhoods.
Category Archives: Qortuba
There’s an strange place in Qortuba, Block 1. It’s a sort of dead space that came as a result of awkward road planning. The space is mostly asphalt now, and has a small two level shopping block and a mosque. The houses adjacent to it have started to use the land as a sort of private, gated gardens and parking.
I think there’s huge potential here. The area is very dense, probably one of the densest residential neighborhoods in Kuwait. Most of the families living there have several generations living in one house. What if we develop this land into a dense, mixed use development?
I can imagine something with massive underground parking and a porous, outdoor ground level that has tree-lined pathways, shops, gardens, a daycare center, etc. The entire ground level is walkable. There are no streets for cars. You enter either by walking to it or driving underneath it to park your car. It would be sort of an old school Kuwaiti neighborhood, with narrow streets and high (three level) buildings for shade.
The idea is that the second and third floors would be apartments for young Kuwaitis. It would provide such a different lifestyle to the one that most are used. You can simply walk out of the house and meander through the lively scene underneath you, go for a walk through the gardens, walk to the mosque, drop your kids off in the daycare center and maybe go to a restaurant owned by a Kuwaiti chef next to the bookshop. There is such a huge demand for these kinds of spaces where young Kuwaitis can feel free to live and work in safe environments that are close to their families.
The image above is a quick 5 minute sketch I made in Photoshop (content aware fill is magic!) and is trying to show the density of the development, so ignore the ‘design’. It’s a huge space, almost 40,000m2. There are so many win-win opportunities in Kuwait, and this is a great example of one of them. There’s demand, the land is there, so why not do it?
I admit that the following exercise is almost comically biased, but I think it serves well to illustrate the point i’m always trying to make. People have become anonymous within their own neighborhoods and mosques have become the only place where a strong sense of community persists. What can we do to change that? Here is what I feel Kuwait could and should be like. Let’s follow two fictional people, Dalal and Faisal, through a Kuwaiti residential neighborhood as it is and how I imagine it could be:
Bad urbanism affects not only the way our neighborhoods look, but it also deeply affects our sociological and environmental well being. We devolved as a society because we stopped caring about the design of our neighborhoods and accepted our built environment as just the way things are. This brutal ignorance has to stop. So what can we do?
- We need to give urban designers and landscape architects a much stronger voice in planning neighborhoods and communities. The people in charge of planning Kuwait City are bored engineers. They might mean well, but they simply don’t have the tools required to understand the needs of life beyond what they already know. We need to replace them with energetic and knowledgeable young urban designers and give them the authority and responsibility to reshape our city.
- To do that we need to graduate lots of urban designers. This profession is different (but related) to architecture. There is a drought of urban design talent in Kuwait and we need to remedy this as soon as possible.
- All residential neighborhoods require a nearby third place to give people someplace to walk to. People who gather there are members of the community, not random people from far away that you find in a mall.
- Walkable communities need to be anchored by a mosque, which would act as the catalyst of pedestrian urban development. A park/mosque/library hybrid should be attempted.
- Trees, trees, trees. Shade and fresh air.
- Sidewalks are more important than street width. If the roads aren’t safe, kids won’t play, and if they do it’s dangerous.
You can find more ideas here. Kuwait has so much potential to be a great place to live. Let’s not waste our resources on mega-projects that benefit a few people while neglecting the immediate environment where we spend most of our time. We deserve better and we should do our best to make it better for ourselves and for our children.
Why are Arab architects and engineers obsessed with fences? There’s always a big fence surrounding every building, usually around the site perimeter. I can understand a fence around a prison, maybe a zoo, but why everywhere? What’s the point?
It don’t think security is a valid reason. It has a false sense of security, sure, but anyone can jump a fence if they want to. The reason why i’m so against the idea is that, by definition, it keeps people out. This limits the usable public space to the leftovers. There’s no gray area, no semi-public space. Urban flow is cut off because there’s always a clear and physical barrier between the areas where you are allowed to be and those where you are not welcome. Architects start getting lazy and design buildings as isolated and independent islands without caring about integrating the project into the existing urban fabric. They can’t, anyway, because the neighbor has a fence.
I bet this is all a big fence-maker conspiracy to sell more products.
I shot that video today walking through the park. It’s just as filthy as when I last saw it. It’s a shame, because the park itself is pretty decent. You can hear the birds and the trees are healthy. What would it take for the park to be successful? First of all, how would we define success? I think it has to be a place full of kids and families, a place that they feel safe going to and enjoy being in. No litter and graffiti. The park has to be well lit at night, not with stupid floodlights that blind people who look in their direction, but with subtle lighting that does its job without being irritating.
It really wouldn’t take much of an effort to make that all happen. I still think the Facebook page idea is a good one and is the best way to get the community involved and ‘own’ the park for themselves. It’s a very achievable goal. I’ll probably do the Facebook page myself in a few weeks and I hope it turns out as well as I think it will. Any ideas?
Things we can do to fix it:
- Clean-up program with local kids (litter removal and painting over graffiti)
- More rubbish bins (one near every BBQ grill and seating area, people want to throw stuff in bins but they’re too far away or full)
- Cover the sand around the playground and wherever there’s sand with mulch. It’s safer and stores the nutrients in the soil. Mulch can be anything, but I suggest rubber mulch.
- Take out all of the stupid floodlights. They ruin the atmosphere and blind people who look near them. They’re the wrong choice.
- Install ground lighting around the running track and lights under every bench. The seating areas have to be individually lit from within as well as the circulation that leads to them. No dark spaces, but no annoying mega-lights either.
- Hire a maintenance guy and a security guy. The facility is there and it needs to be fixed. This is critical.
- Change the boring and unimaginative signs outside the park. They’re not inviting.
- This is a personal preference, and I understand the reason for having it, but I would demolish the wall and slowly expand the park outwards filling up all the dead space that surrounds it.
- The Facebook page.
- Plant a much wider variety of plants and flowers. There’s too much of the same thing and variety attracts more birds and is visually appealing.
Edit – I know i’m dancing around the topic, but I would LOVE to redesign the park…
Note: Please ignore the actual design, the image is mainly to illustrate the point and to show the potential program that can be in place.
A wonderfully simple video about efforts to retrofit suburbia. There are a few things we can take that apply to Kuwait. We don’t have the problem of having to ‘fill in’ the gaps, because most of our suburbs are very densely packed. The thing I found most appealing in the video is the notion of the ‘third place’.
The first two places are your home and workplace. The third place is where you go to hang out and is very important for a younger generation (like ours). We have lots of third places, coffee shops, restaurants, etc. The problem is that they’re usually really far away from where we live.
I’ll use Qortuba again as an example of an opportunity to create something. Here it is again:
In the middle is Block 5, a service block which has the shopping center, park, a couple of schools and some other services. On the corner, though, there’s a dead space. It’s huge, but it’s been deserted forever. Sometimes we have Eid Prayer there, but not last year, so we can cope without it. What can we do with this dead space?
The best opportunity is to expand the park to fill up all the sand. We can’t move the big boxes, as they’re power transformers and such, but we can still use them. We should build small boutiques and selected restaurants, all anchored by a large, outdoor fruit and vegetable market. These would all be attached to the existing walls of the power buildings.
The feel of the place would be one of ‘healthy living’. You go there for the health related shops, to enjoy the green space and nature, to run in the track (the brown thing) or just hang around in one of the coffee shops. You can take your kids out for a walk and to enjoy the playground in the park. The point isn’t that this stuff can’t be found in Kuwait. Places like this exist, but they’re too far away. I want people to walk to here. There’s lots of parking, anyway, but I still want people to walk.
The co-op would make money renting out the space and the residents will enjoy the new ‘third place’ in their lives instead of staring at the dusty nothing that was there before. What would it take to make something like this happen? The land is already zoned for commercial use (I think). Who owns the land?
Edit- I took a few photos of the site:
Click to embiggen
I was strolling through Qortuba Public Park this afternoon. The place is actually pretty decent, there’s a fair amount of benches and lots of trees and grass. The problem is that it was filthy. There was litter everywhere. The bathrooms were disgraceful. The security guard quarters were abandoned (I don’t think a security guard works there anymore). Graffiti was on every surface and half the lights weren’t working.
I thought about what we could do to fix things and I realized the answer was internet social media; Facebook.
I propose that we create a ‘Qortuba Public Park’ Facebook page. The purpose of this page is to do two things:
- To act as a bulletin-board for activities that residents of Qortuba would initiate; fostering a stronger sense of community and being a safe place for young kids to meet new friends and play.
- To serve as a forum to identify and act on negligence on behalf of the authorities. If you see litter in the park, you can access the page to find the telephone number of the people responsible for cleaning and you can complain. If enough people do that they will fix things. If you see graffiti you can photograph it and upload it to the page and demand they paint over it. It’s basically a way for local constituents to reach the people responsible and is a way for us to be empowered.
(photos taken a few months ago, when the park was much cleaner)
On the page we would have the contact numbers of all the people responsible for the maintenance and security of the park; specifically the names and telephone numbers of the local government of Qortuba, and the people responsible for them in the Baladiya (in case they don’t answer the phone), as well as the numbers (and photographs of) the actual workers who work on the park.
Once a large enough number of people sign up to the Facebook page, the first event would be a mass clean-up/education event held in the park. Families would be invited to join in and paint the walls, clear up all the litter and then celebrate with games for the kids to get to know each other. This would help teach the kids about responsibility and get them to develop a sense of ownership towards the park. It becomes theirs.
After that anyone can then propose an event on the page, and there’d be a schedule of things to do. For example, I could schedule a football tournament for boys aged 8-12, with teams from every block competing, and I could referee. People want to be involved in their communities, but there was never a viable medium to spread information to people quickly and spontaneously. Facebook changes that. With one quick invite, you could create an event and get it together without much hassle. Spontaneous book swaps, art events, bake sales, you name it. The park becomes the heart of the community. I hope and have a feeling that young mothers would really get into this and make it work. It has to happen naturally and in small clusters where people feel responsible to each other and to the park itself.
Of course, this would be replicated for every area in Kuwait. People always complain about the government, but this is a way for us to combine and focus all of our voices to do something good one small step at a time. I would love it if someone would take this idea and run with it, but I wouldn’t mind doing it myself for Qortuba first.
I’m going to try a quick redesign of Qortuba Block 2. First, here it is as is:
I’m going to restrict myself into not altering the inlets to Qortuba, and leave the institutional buildings on the main road as they are. What I can change are the street layouts and the density and location of the residential plots. The goal is to turn it into a self-sustaining, livable and walkable area while still having a similar number of homes as before, which is about 750 villas. Right in the middle of Block 2 is a strange little island of commercial properties along with a large Kindergarten that I attended as a kid. The first thing I would do is take that island out and spread it in a linear fashion along the perimeter, where the heavy traffic is. It doesn’t make sense to hide it the way it is now.
I’d also expand the green belt that surrounds the block further in, and restrict the residential block to a squarish element that runs parallel to the main roads of Qortuba. The commercial strip would have ample parking at the front and back. I’d imagine a long line of cafes, grocery shops, hair dressers, laundry, daycare centers and lots of other stuff that you need close to home. Most people will be able to walk to these from where they live. The green belt would have lots and lots of trees (it already does!) and would be open to the public. This means that it’s no longer considered an ‘irtidaad’ the way it is now. There would be a long well lit place to run, maybe a caged football pitch and lots of benches.
Now this is where it gets tricky. I would design two different street widths. The main perimeter streets are two-way, while the interior streets are one-way. The point here is that since streets take up so much space, having them be one-way means that you save half the space. The interior streets would alternate directions, with odd number streets being one direction and even numbers in the other. This means that every home is only accessible from one direction, but I think this is an inconvenience worth having for the sake of saving space.
The slices are pedestrian streets. They will chop up the boring boxes into weird little triangles. These ‘in-between’ spaces are what gives each neighborhood its own distinct character. This is how people would walk to the commercial strip or to the green belt. The slices sometimes create an awkward space. This doesn’t go to waste. It can turn into a simple playground, or if it’s big enough, a mosque or a library. The purpose is to layer a pedestrian network over the street, so that people don’t always feel as if they’re subservient to cars. In order for this to work there has to be a reason to go out to walk and place to walk to; the green belt, the commercial strip and the little things to do in the awkward spaces.
The homes themselves would be very dense and they would all be attached to each other, separated only when a pedestrian street slices through them. This would further intensify and direct people into the pedestrian streets as it’s easy to identify them. The reason why I want the house to be attached is because you save lots of space and they shade each other.
We talked about varied urban densities in a previous post, but what would those look like? Most residential neighborhoods in Kuwait have lost all sense of character and have become glorified parking lots for bigger and bigger houses. Cars fill the sidewalk entirely. People are now sometimes forced to walk on the street.
There is simply no public space anymore, no invitation to linger and stroll. Neighbors have become anonymous to each other as there is no shared space for them to meet and for their children to play. Better rules and enforceable regulations can help us get back to a more livable and rich urban space. It’s really not that hard, but we do have to sacrifice something in return.
Streets are mostly designed by traffic engineers, which is evident in the lack of consideration for anything other than the automobile. If density was lower, a 2 meter sidewalk extension could be added everywhere. The sidewalk has to be continuous and allow for wheelchair access and bicycles; meaning no random changes in material and height. This would allow people to have the option to park their cars outside their house and still have enough room for people to walk comfortably and for trees to be planted to shade the street and filter the air. The trees are crucial. They, of course, shade the street and sidewalk, filter the air from dust and also provide some privacy for the upper floors of houses. There are lots of drought tolerant varieties that are adapted to Kuwait and I don’t think anyone would disapprove if every street in Kuwait was lined with trees.
Having a grass filled sidewalk would also cool the space significantly as the albedo (heat absorption and reflectance) of grass is different from that of concrete and asphalt. Heat is absorbed by asphalt but is mostly reflected by grass, and this reduces the ‘urban heat island’ effect. The difference in perceived temperature can be as much as 20 degrees between a sun exposed asphalt surface and a tree-shaded grass area.
It’s hard (but not impossible) to retrofit these ideas onto the more cramped residential neighborhoods, but it can be easily done on a lot of the older streets with big sidewalks and should be done on all new developments. I can imagine lots of people running and exercising, kids riding bicycles, couples out on walks pushing a baby stroller. Lots of people drive all the way to the Avenues to have a comfortable walk and exercise. That’s a sad indictment of the state of our neighborhood design and planning. We can do much better than this but we have to demand change from the people in charge and renew one street at a time.
Our neighborhoods have gradually evolved to become almost exclusively dominated by the automobile. A neighborhood is more than a random collection of houses. We should strive to create rich, safe and healthy places to live. We need to create a strong framework that can help develop a robust social fabric and restore the feeling of a proud community.
8. Streets within the neighborhood form a connected network, which disperses traffic by providing a variety of pedestrian and vehicular routes to any destination.
I’m not sure how this can be retro-fit into our existing neighborhoods. Most of our inner streets are branches off a main 1st street that wraps around the neighborhood. The problem is that there is no overlaying pedestrian network to augment the streets.
People just don’t walk anymore. This means that there’s very little chance for an accidental meeting with neighbors. The space outside our homes used to be a lively social place, but now it’s an architectural afterthought; a place for mechanical process and service. There is no life outside the boundaries of our homes anymore. People have become anonymous strangers in their own neighborhoods because there is nothing that connects them with each other. The space between the home and street is where we can reintroduce this framework.
9. The streets are relatively narrow and shaded by rows of trees. This slows traffic, creating an environment suitable for pedestrians and bicycles.
I think we should experiment with the idea of a shared space; meaning a street that has none of the traditional means of dividing up the road into pedestrian/vehicle areas (no curb, only road markers). This seems counter-intuitive, but wherever it’s implemented it has improved pedestrian safety by slowing down cars. Of course, this might be asking too much of Kuwaitis, but it might be feasible in areas within the neighborhood center which might have a schedule whereby driving could be prohibited at weekends.
10. Buildings in the neighborhood center are placed close to the street, creating a well-defined outdoor room.
This is all about shading and creating a pleasant micro-climate. The courtyard cooling effect is our main weapon here; trapping a pool of cool air that is further cooled through mechanical and passive means. The center should have lots of seating and fountains. It’s the heart of the community and where the main mosque of the neighborhood is located where Friday, Qiam and Eid prayers are held.
11. Parking lots and garage doors rarely front the street. Parking is relegated to the rear of buildings, usually accessed by alleys.
This, of course, is a major part of the problem. Even when a pavement exists, it is usually filled entirely with cars. This forces people to walk on the street, which either makes them decide not to walk or exposes them to avoidable danger. This has to stop. There has to be a mechanism for punishing people for having more cars than they can handle. I would much rather have cars park on the street than on the sidewalk, actually. That would be a better solution, as it means that there is always a safe place to walk. To make this happen, new legislation would decree that a 2-3m wide sidewalk adjacent to the street on both sides of the road is public property and all cars parked on it will be fined.
Of course, you can still park your car on the street. Instead of having shading devices that used to cover the parked cars, we should plant trees that line every street. This looks a lot better than shades, and also filters dust from the air.
In places where the road is way too big, we could simply increase the size of the sidewalk so that you can both park your car and walk comfortably at the same time. I’m not sure if its feasible to have street fronts that are completely devoid of cars, but the current situation should not continue.
-A rare side alley in a Kuwaiti neighborhood