Monthly Archives: September 2009

Where Do I Sit?

By | SAM Street, Social, Urban | 6 Comments

William Whyte, in his book ‘The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces’, explains why some public spaces work and others don’t. The example in the previous post of AlRaya made me wonder how we can adapt his ideas for Kuwait. I highly recommend, if you haven’t already, for everyone to see the video. We obviously don’t have the same density as Manhattan, but in a few years Kuwait City will hopefully be a lot denser than it is today. Here is what Whyte had to say:

Crowds:

What attracts people most, it would appear, is other people. If I belabor the point, it is because many urban spaces are being designed as though the opposite were true, and that what people liked best were the places they stay away from. People often do talk along such lines; this is why their responses to questionnaires can be so misleading. How many people would say they like to sit in the middle of a crowd? Instead, they speak of getting away from it all, and use words like “escape”, “oasis”, “retreat”. What people do, however, reveals a different priority.

This is because of both a desire for safety and is a method of peer-approval. People naturally feel safer in crowds. You see the opposite in our public parks. Most of them are fenced off and gated. The intent was to ensure safety and security, but in reality what this does is put people off from going in. It becomes a ‘destination’ instead of an impulse. If the walls weren’t there you’ll start to see kids playing inside, which in turn attracts more kids and families, which attracts more action. It’s sort of counter-intuitive, but the walls actually make the parks less safe. The only people who feel safer because of them are the people hiding inside, doing things they’re not supposed to be doing. I say we tear down the walls. I know, that seems like my solution to every problem.

Benches:

Benches are artifacts the purpose of which is to punctuate architectural photographs. They’re not so good for sitting. There are too few of them; they are too small; they are often isolated from other benches or from whatever action there is on the plaza. Worse yet, architects tend to repeat the same module in plaza after plaza, unaware that it didn’t work very well in the first place.

Benches are useless. They force strangers to sit unnaturally close together. A better solution is to have a long ‘decha’ or built mass all around the space that is easy and comfortable to sit on. The more options people have to organize themselves as a couple, or a group, the more accepting they will be of that space. In Kuwait, as with most places, we see far too many benches that have just been plopped on the edge of the sidewalk, facing the street, and away from the shade. Instead of benches everywhere, why not have trash bins? There are too few of those, and I often find myself needing to throw something but not finding anywhere to put it.

Distrust and “Undesirables”:

Many corporation executives who make the key decisions about the city have surprisingly little acquaintance with the life of its streets and open spaces. … To them, the unknown city is a place of danger. If their building has a plaza, it is likely to be a defensive one that they will rarely use themselves. Few others will either. Places designed with distrust get what they were looking for and it is in them, ironically, that you will most likely find a wino.

The ‘courtyard’ space of AlRaya is a great example of this (though i’ve only rarely seen a wino). The space is so controlled and isolated that it is simply rejected. The fear of ‘letting it go’ and allowing anyone to use it has condemned the space to being cold and neglected (no matter how clean and well maintained it is). There is never anyone there, so people aren’t attracted to it. The fear of attracting laborers or loud youth often sanitizes the space to a point where it becomes boring and forced, like AlRaya.

Guards and Plaza mayors:

…it is characteristic of well-used places to have a “mayor”. He may be a building guard, a newsstand operator, or a food vendor. Watch him, and you’ll notice people checking in during the day. … One of the best mayors I’ve seen is Joe Hardy of the Exxon Building. He is an actor, as well as the building guard, and was originally hired by Rockefeller Center Inc. to play Santa Claus, whom he resembles. Ordinarily, guards are not supposed to initiate conversations, but Joe Hardy is gregarious and curious and has a nice sense of situations. … Joe is quite tolerant of winos and odd people, as long as they don’t bother anybody. He is very quick to spot real trouble, however.

We sort of have those in Kuwait, but in the private malls. They’re those serious guys in dishdashas with the walkie talkies. I think the way they usually go about their job is counterproductive as they seem more interested in breaking up groups than in creating a pleasant atmosphere. Their primary job should be to facilitate a free, happy and safe environment. Every major public space should also have it’s own little mayor. They’re not really police, but a cross between security and a tour guide. The best ones are those that feel a sense of pride, ownership and responsibility for the place that they control. They should also have authority to demand that shop owners and such are well regulated and everything is clean and tidy. They will also be held responsible if things aren’t safe, clean and busy. It should be a well paid job, because the results are very important and the only way to ensure accountability is if the person is well compensated.

Megastructures:

The ultimate development in the flight from the street is the urban fortress. In the form of megastructures more and more of these things are being put up – huge, multipurpose complexes combining offices, hotels, and shops… Their distinguishing characteristic is self-containment. While they are supposed to be the salvation of downtown, they are often some distance from the center of downtown, and in any event tend to be quite independent of their surroundings, which are most usually parking lots. The megastructures are wholly internalized environments, with their own life-support systems. Their enclosing walls are blank, windowless, and to the street they turn an almost solid face of concrete or brick.

Again, AlRaya is a perfect example of this, but almost every other mall is guilty of the same sin. The only exception is probably Marina Mall. They attempt a sort of public space at the Salem alMubarak end, but the lack of any real pedestrian activity softens the impact. Hopefully once Salmiya Park is finished (and isn’t fenced) things will be different. Marina Crescent is very successful. It’s a great example of a public (kind of) space that works really well. There just aren’t enough places to sit (where you’re not expected to buy something). I don’t know how comfortable those giant bumps are, but they seem pretty useless. The point is that successful projects are not the inward-looking ‘megastructures’, but the ones that engage and interact with their context. There really isn’t anything to fear, and if done right, all parties benefit; the developer, the city and the citizens.

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coluombo- Flickr

AlRaya

By | Other | 23 Comments

The image below is of the street face of AlRaya. I’m certain that many of you have had this same thought; why have the developers of AlRaya completely wasted this wonderful opportunity? The pavement, which is actually of great quality and well maintained, is yearning for action. There are shops, cafes and restaurants right on the other side of that wall that would benefit immensely if only that wall did not exist. What happened?

AlRaya

Looking through one of those windows you notice that directly behind the wall is a service corridor. Imagine that; the best and most expensive potential real estate of the entire building has been wasted on a service corridor. I tried to get in there to have a look. As you’d expect, it was being used as secondary storage and waste removal for the shop owners. I don’t think that having a service corridor is such a critical element that it should be a priority even in a side alley, let alone along one of the most important pedestrian roads in Kuwait. What makes this worse is that this is on the north face of the building, meaning that the mass of AlRaya would actually block the sun and the outdoor space would mostly be in shade during the afternoon. That would be an advantage during winter, but even today at night the weather was beautiful and I can easily imagine it being filled with hip and trendy outdoor activities (or just boring but profitable cafes). It would benefit AlRaya by getting in more pedestrian traffic and increasing the rent for those street facing shops, while benefiting the city by adding more activity and enriching the pedestrian lifestyle.

AlRaya1

I really don’t understand how this decision was made. What would be the advantage to the way it’s set up now? Other than the pointless service corridor there isn’t any reason for this. I’m inclined to suggest that the architect simply had this preconceived notion that AlRaya would be an introspective mall that is just totally sealed off from its site. The irony is that on the other side of the building, between the parking structure and the mall, AlRaya are trying their best to achieve that same kind of outdoor pedestrian activity that can happen at the front but failed miserably. That space is always dead, even though it’s shaded and clean. It’s just a dumb, wasteful and frankly arrogant decision. It’s not too late to tear that wall down. I have a sledgehammer they can borrow.

The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

By | Other | 18 Comments

Kuwait has forgotten the value of a good public space. The built environment of Kuwait City does not reflect the inherent character and tradition of its citizens. Kuwaitis are a very social people, yet the city has no truly public space. This spatial void has been filled with private malls and developments which have corrupted the Kuwaiti culture. Why have historical public spaces, which have been integral to urban life, now become obsolete? What are some solutions for regeneration and spatial evolution that can revive the forgotten idea of a public space?

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/5298850 w=500&h=333]

This is a wonderful video called ‘The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces’ and is the companion film to the book of the same name. It is a revolutionary study of the urban plazas of New York. I would recommend anyone wanting to understand the value of the public urban spaces and life that is missing from Kuwait to watch it. It attempts to show how basic human nature and intuition perceives and judges how good a public space is. The closest thing we have to this are the densely packed cafes of certain malls and the outdoor space of AlSalhiya. Are there any other spaces which can be considered to be successful small urban spaces? What kind of social life do they allow to happen? Which spaces in Kuwait City have the potential to become successful and what kind of intervention would be needed?

Picture-3

I personally think that the linear plaza between the end of 4th ring road and Salem alMubarak street is ripe for renewal. There is a very large amount of pedestrian traffic and the narrowness of the site allows for plenty of shading. Of course, it would be transformed into a pedestrian only promenade. Instead of the jam-packed parking scene, I would design a long, linear park that would incorporate plenty of seating and shading. The shops would benefit from this renewal even though the cars are no longer there. Once a pedestrian culture is initiated, this linearity would begin to extend further down Salem alMubarak street and become part of Marina Mall and Salmiya Park.

Dubai Metro vs Kuwait Metro

By | Metro | 16 Comments

Today, 09.09.09, is the day the Dubai Metro was promised to have been launched. The project is 75% over budget (SkyNews) and with only a small portion of only one line active from the first day, but it will be up and running as promised without delay. Will it be good for Dubai? We all hope so, but it is a very risky experiment. Kuwait and Dubai have very different urban structures. What can we learn from the Dubai Metro?

“The buzz in all major and minor circles today is hovering over just one topic & one topic alone: Dubai Metro. No one can help but agree that a lot is riding on its success. …With one million registered vehicles in Dubai and more than 1.3 million vehicles seen on the roads of Dubai, the general prevailing sentiment is: “Better late than never.” Many residents believe that it’s about time a convenient and diffused mode of public transport is available for the common citizen for various purposes: saving commuting costs, reducing traffic related stress levels, reaching work on time, getting daily chores done, etc.”

“The Dubai Road and Transport Authority adds: “Dubai Metro is bound to have a lasting effect on the mobility habits of visitors and inhabitants of the city. …This will ultimately impact the lifestyle of people. [W]e will be heading towards an enhanced version of mobility habits that looks pretty similar to the European model.” (Road and Transport Authority)”

Glass House

I really don’t care that the project has launched on schedule. The date, 09.09.09, was a cheap marketing gimmick that is fairly arbitrary in the grand scheme of things. To think that they rushed the completion, paying huge overtime and premiums, is unfortunate. I found this comment from the RTA in Dubai to be very foolish:

“When you talk about Dubai you talk about the seven-star hotel – the Burj Al Arab – or the Palm Island – the first man-made island – or the tallest building in the world – the Burj Dubai. We want the Metro to become a new icon and to connect all of these icons.”

That’s just incredibly stupid. I hope that wasn’t the real motivation behind the project. A metro shouldn’t link buildings together, it should connect walkable networks of urban spaces. This sensationalist marketing and branding of the city looks great on magazines and brochures, but will it really make your life better?

Logo_dubai_metro

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The main problem I have with the Dubai Metro is that Dubai is such a frustratingly linear city. You can see that reflected in the map. The Red Line starts at the airport and then just goes in a straight line, passing all of the Dubai ‘icons’, all the way towards Jebel Ali. This means that if you live along that line (and within walking distance to a station) then you can go up and down Sheikh Zayed road without worries. If you don’t live that close (and the vast majority of people don’t) then you will have to drive to a station. You can take a bus and then take the train, and most people will do that. But if you’re already in the bus, why can’t you take that all the way to your destination?

The metro will no doubt make that journey better, but was that really worth more than KD2 billion? A successful metro allows a commuter to walk comfortably to a station, take as few trains as possible, and then exit and walk to their destination. The Red Line will provide that experience to only a small minority of its passengers. The Green Line makes a lot more sense as it wraps around a very dense part of the city that is already well established and walkable. I don’t think the Purple Line makes any sense, and the Blue Line will never be built.


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Kuwait City has evolved in entirely different way from Dubai. The high density of parts of the city are well suited for a public transportation network. The goal of Kuwait Metro is to link the three main walkable urban centers together, those being the City, Hawalli/Salmiya and the Farwaniya area.

It is critical that in each of these zones for the metro network to be highly dense. Everyone living in Salmiya/Hawalli and Farwaniya and working in the City should be within walking distance to a station. In addition to this, a complete overhaul of the pedestrian culture in the city is needed; meaning more tree-shaded walkways, more benches and many more secure, clean sidewalks.

KuwaitMetroDiagram

Once the three networks are linked, people living and working within them will find that a car becomes optional for life. This is the whole point of creating the metro. The density of the City, Hawalli, Salmiya and Farwaniya will continue to increase rapidly, but there will be fewer cars on the road. There will also be a lot less stress in terms of finding parking spaces and also more room to walk and cleaner air to breathe.

People always use the excuse that few or no Kuwaitis will use the thing. I disagree on that point, seeing as how the plan makes sure that all major universities and malls are included. Even if the majority of them don’t use it, they will still benefit immensely from the reduction in traffic and the wonderful new walkable urban spaces that will emerge.

Dubai never really needed a metro. It will help for sure, but it is definitely not worth the cost and effort. Kuwait desperately needs one, and the city will benefit greatly for generations to come. This is an investment worth fighting for and getting right.

Bollards in Kuwait

By | Urban | 14 Comments

Mark from 248am posted this image of bollards being installed outside his office building. They are spread out wide enough to allow for bicycles and pedestrians to pass through, but not cars. Ostensibly, the reason for that would be to discourage parking on the side walks and encourage pedestrian traffic. That seems to be a good enough reason to install these, however it does raise a lot more questions which should have been answered before the bollards were installed.

bollards_kuwait

  1. Are there sufficient parking spaces for cars in the area for visitors and employees? Are they within walking distance?
  2. Is it comfortable to walk in the new sidewalk on a hot afternoon? If not, are they installing shading devices and benches to alleviate the stress?
  3. How would emergency services reach the building? Will they be forced to stop in the middle of the road, blocking traffic? Is there a gap in the bollards for them to get inside?
  4. If this is a government initiative and is to be implemented throughout the city has a tender for the project been presented? Who has decided on the aesthetic of the bollards and why have they chosen a Victorian look that has no historical reference in Kuwait? Are will still affected by colonialism? Why not a simple, timeless, stainless steel rod?
  5. Based on the image, the installation seems to be very imprecise. It looks like they’re already bolted down, but they don’t look straight to me. I’m also curious to see how they articulate the detailing between the bollard base and the rest of the concrete pavement. I hope they don’t just leave it naked like that. Also, in the image the pavement is actually raised above the street level, which makes it highly unlikely that it’s being abused for parking anyway, unless there is a little ramp somewhere out of view.

It is always a good idea to have bollards protecting sensitive areas of a building and high value targets; embassies, jewelery shops, banks, etc. However, I must question the logic of employing this technique around every congested street in Kuwait. Where will all the cars go? Unless this is part of a comprehensive solution which addresses pedestrian comfort, parking availability, aesthetics and emergency services then I suggest that they stop with whatever they have already installed and use it as an experiment. After a year the problems that will undoubtedly arise will become clear and if they can be resolved then the experiment can expand further. Retractable bollards should be part of the experiment, maybe to allow for parking at night and weekends, or for emergency situations. We should not force this initiative on a large scale and live with the consequences. It can be a good thing if we do it right, otherwise it’s only a way for certain people to make some money.

Update: Mark sent us these images. Wow, this is just too stupid. The pavement of the entire block is raised above the ground, so there’s really no point in installing these. This just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. The whole point of raising the pavement was to separate it from the street. These things are a redundant eyesore. I don’t think anyone can argue that they look good. If you have a budget to clean up and beautify the place why not just replace the broken pavement, add benches and shading, plant some trees or whatever. This is just wrong. I want to break them. Thanks for sharing this, Mark.

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Qortuba 2.0

By | Architecture, Energy, Qortuba, Social, Urban | 17 Comments

I’ve lived in Qortuba all my life. There is something very wrong in the way it has evolved. Like all modern Kuwait, it’s a planned residential development. First, the government divided up the land and laid roads and power lines. People built their homes on plots that range from 500m2 to 1000m2. With time, land began to subdivide into even smaller plots, with people living relatively densely.  The priority given to automobiles and the lack of rules that govern parking spaces and car ownership has resulted in a serious problem. There is no room to walk! People have no choice but to use their cars and drive, even if they can walk and the weather is fine. Today is ‘girgai’aan’ in Kuwait and it was heartbreaking to see children being driven from house to house collecting candy.

qortuba_street

Current number of homes in Qortuba:

Block 1: 466
Block 2: 750
Block 3: 535
Block 4: 636

Total: 2387 homes in Qortuba

If we assume that each residence is home to 6 people, that would mean approximately 14,322 people live in Qortuba, which has an area of 2.7km2 giving it a urban density of 5304 people per square km. This is comparable to that of Madrid and London (source). There is no lack of urban density in Kuwait’s residential areas. This is a good thing, as suburban sprawl is a crippling problem in lots of major developed countries, specifically in the United States. Are we really utilizing this density in beneficial ways? It seems to me that we are building densely yet living in a delusional suburban fantasy. We are taking the worst of both worlds and not getting anything good in return.

Dense Urbanism:

Advantage:

  • Walkable neighborhoods.
  • Social awareness and strong community values.
  • More people living closer together because of expensive land value
  • Public transportation
  • Mixed use neighborhoods
  • Closer to the city

Disadvantage:

  • Noise
  • No room for children to play outside
  • Smaller homes

Suburbanism:

Advantage:

  • Larger homes
  • Private front garden
  • Wonderful views and peaceful environment
  • Cheap land

Disadvantage:

  • Long commute
  • No community
  • Single use zoning (shopping far away)
  • Drive to go anywhere

Qortuba:

Advantage:

  • Close to the city

Disadvantage:

  • No community
  • Single use zoning (shopping far away)
  • Drive to go anywhere
  • Noise
  • No room for children to play outside
  • Smaller homes

roads

The residential model of pre-oil Kuwait was far more successful in providing better advantages than what we enjoy in our current urban condition. The automobile is an essential part of modern life but we have to stop giving it complete priority in urban design. I find it very disturbing that the first decision made in ‘planning’ Qortuba (or any other area) was not creating a walkable ‘fireej’ with a mosque as the community anchor, or a series of mixed use nodes that would allow for residential neighborhoods to organically emerge based on topography and microclimates. No, the first thing they did was to create a nice, symmetrical street plan. I don’t mind having streets alongside every house, what I do mind is that it all seems so arbitrary. I can imagine a lonely planner sitting in a dusty government office sketching those street plans 40 years ago, not knowing that his decisions will have an negative impact on the lives of thousands of people. What are the alternatives?

qortuba

Qortuba, Kuwait

florence

Florence, Italy

Florence, Italy is one of Kuwait City’s official sister cities. They, like most of Europe, have a program to limit the number of cars inside their dense neighborhoods. This leaves more room for gardens and space to walk. Looking closer, Masdar City seems like a good place to start. What if Qortuba was a car-free zone? How could that work? What if pedestrian priority and a Fireej mindset were the most important elements? We have to create walkable islands, each with a local mosque and all the essential amenities within walking distance (groceries shopping, daycare, beauty shops, etc). No central ‘jam’iyah’, or shopping co-op. We have to decentralize the idea of a central shopping building as it simply doesn’t make any sense.

It would be a self-sustaining town with courtyards at both scales, green roofs, grey-water recycling, smart metering and localized energy production (solar and wind). Kids would bicycle to school and couples would walk to restaurants and cafes. Teenagers would play in football pitches and basketball courts which are visible to all pedestrians.

We are trapped in a way of life that is not Kuwaiti or modern. To break free, we have to know ourselves first and agree on what we truly believe in as a community and as a country. Only then will we ever truly progress.

Masdar City

By | Energy, Urban | 6 Comments

Masdar City is a planned, zero-carbon, zero-waste development designed by Foster + Partners currently under construction in Abu Dhabi. A city of 50,000 people with no cars and no pollution. The project sits in stark contrast to the rest of the ecologically unaware developments of the region, but is it really what it claims to be?

Masdar City 5

“The principle of the Masdar development is a dense walled city to be constructed in an energy efficient two-stage phasing that relies on the creation of a large photovoltaic power plant, which later becomes the site for the city’s second phase, allowing for urban growth yet avoiding low density sprawl. Strategically located for Abu Dhabi’s principal transport infrastructure, Masdar will be linked to surrounding communities, as well as the centre of Abu Dhabi and the international airport, by a network of existing road and new rail and public transport routes.

Rooted in a carbon neutral ambition, the city itself is car free. With a maximum distance of 200m to the nearest transport link and amenities, the compact network of streets encourages walking and is complemented by a personalised rapid transport system. The shaded walkways and narrow streets will create a pedestrian-friendly environment in the context of Abu Dhabi’s extreme climate. It also articulates the tightly planned, compact nature of traditional walled cities. With expansion carefully planned, the surrounding land will contain wind, photovoltaic farms, research fields and plantations, so that the city will be entirely self-sustaining.”

Emphasis is mine. Masdar will employ a variety of renewable energy sources; solar photovoltaic modules on rooftops, wind farms and even geothermal power. Also, there are plans to build the worlds largest hydrogen power plant. Water management is an important part of the design, with a solar-powered desalination plant providing the city’s water needs. Through efficient appliances and plumbing they predict a 60% reduction water use compared with similarly sized communities. A greywater system will recycle nearly all of the waste-water using it for irrigation and flushing.Biological waste will be treated and used as fertilizer, and some may also be utilized through waste incineration as an additional power source. It’s just a great place for eco-tech. It has all that good stuff.

The most interesting aspect for me is the fact that it’s a car-free city. You move around by walking, bicycle or using ‘rapid transport pods’. People can’t park their cars outside their homes anymore, but I think that the health and lifestyle advantages make that a price worth paying. The residential areas are densely packed together for shared shading and insulation. I have no complaints regarding the technological innovations or the alternative urban lifestyle envisioned in the city. What I find disturbing is the motive behind the project.

Masdar City

Looking at Masdar City within the larger Abu Dhabi context, I ask myself who are they trying to impress? It can’t be seen as an example to the locals. They will no doubt be confused being so close to Saadiyat Island which is an orgasmic explosion of architectural excess. Which message is to be followed? The two ideals are comically divergent, akin to ordering a Diet Pepsi to go with your super-sized Big Mac meal. I can understand the need to experiment with an idea such as Masdar City, however I can’t help but be very skeptical at the motive behind the project. If the Abu Dhabi government really wants to reduce waste and increase efficiency then there are far better and less costly ways of doing so. Building an entire city just to prove an extravagant point seems awfully childish to me, especially as the rules and regulations that govern Masdar City will not have any effect on the rest of Abu Dhabi.

Masdar City 3

My greatest fear for this project is that it will set unrealistic expectations for the rest of the region. If successful, it will prove that a walkable city is very feasible in our climate, and that a zero-carbon, zero-waste city will lower costs and pollution. Yet what will happen is that people will assume that such progress will only occur with massive projects that take decades and cost billions to build. If the project fails and becomes a white elephant, cynics will use it as an example that such a lifestyle is unattainable and unfeasible. We will lose our chance at providing an example of an alternative, car-free lifestyle in the Gulf.

I still have hope that if this project is taken seriously, and if the Abu Dhabi government see’s it not as a sideshow to deflect criticisms of wasteful spending but as an example for the entire region to follow, then it can be incredibly successful. A city that is self-sufficient, encourages a healthy lifestyle and belongs in our climatic, cultural, religious and urban fabric. It seems like a distant dream, but they’re building it not far away.

Masdar City 4