Monthly Archives: October 2010

Bneid alGar

By | Metro, Urban | No Comments

There is a great opportunity for the metro to revive Bneid alGar into a sort of transit oriented corridor. The area is very linear and you can walk the width of it without a problem, meaning that a metro stop at the Fahaheel Expressway side of it will be accessible by everyone living near it.

The only problem is that there is such little room between the highway and the buildings. A quick look at a typical station in Dubai shows that their development allowed for a lot more room on either side of the highway, which made it easy to build an above grade metro. I don’t think we have this luxury in Kuwait.

The obvious advantage of having lots of stops along this dense area of Kuwait is that it will link workers to the city and where they work and has the potential to encourage investment in the area, which is actually very strategically located and has the potential to be very valuable. Transit oriented development (TOD) also reduces transportation costs of the low income residents that live there. This frees up income that can be used on food, education, etc. The main reason, though, is to allow a continued development of highly dense areas without having to suffer from crippling parking scarcity and traffic gridlock. You can do that if you can pack more people into a dense area without requiring most of them to own cars, and this is the great value of transit oriented development.

Ushahidi

By | Social | 3 Comments

I was just watching Clay Shirky’s recent TED talk and he talked about the Ushahidi project, which is a free, open-source platform that allows people to set up websites that can collect and aggregate data sent in by people using their mobile phones with SMS messages and pictures. This is the perfect way to structure what I talked about earlier in the crowdsourced activism post.

I’m not a programmer, so I would have no idea how to set it up, but if there is anybody in Kuwait who has the passion and the time to use the free platform that Ushahidi provides to build the website then I will do everything I can to help. The way I imagine it working is that the website will be using the Ushahidi platform to collect data sent in by people in Kuwait who would photograph things and places they feel need fixing. The genius of the platform is that doesn’t need a human being to physically collate and map the data, it all happens automatically. Someone posts a picture of a neglected, overflowing garbage dump and the system would use the GPS tag in the image to place it on the interactive map.

At first, it will just be a map of images, but it can be used as both a shaming device that would spur the government into action as well as a wonderful tool to know more about the city in general, and get a feel of what places look like that you don’t normally hang around in.

A less ambitious project would be to use their simpler ‘Crowdmap’ service to do basically the same thing, without having to program anything or host it on a web server. Maybe that’s a better idea for what we need…

What if?

By | Other | 15 Comments

What would happen if it costs 18KD to fill up your SUV? Would your life be ruined? I don’t think so. What will happen is that you will adjust your lifestyle to meet this new reality. You might reconsider buying a new SUV, and maybe get a car with better mileage. People might decide not to buy a car at all, and you’ll find that there’s less traffic on the street because people who can’t afford to drive are now willing to carpool and use public transportation. 18KD is a reasonable amount to pay because that’s the true price of the petrol.

What if you had to pay over 1000KD every year to pay for you electricity consumption? What would change? You would obviously think twice about leaving the air conditioning on all the time even when no one is home. You will think about how much a house consumes energy before buying it. You decide that maybe a small house with a bigger garden makes more sense than a three floor mansion. We might find that we don’t have blackouts anymore. The KOC will be able to sell more oil instead of burning it to make more electricity for Kuwait.

What if water cost you 50KD a month? Will you stand idly by as your driver sprays you car with a hose to clean it, when a sponge will do the same thing for a fraction of the water? Will you decide against a lawn and maybe plant more appropriate landscaping for the region?

If resources are priced according to their true value, without subsidies or manipulation, then human behavior will revert to a mode of living that is both efficient and ‘sustainable’. People will never change because of morality and the desire to feel ‘green’. That’s bullshit. The only way we can ever change is if it hurts us in our wallets if we don’t change. We’re not pricing in what’s called the negative externalities; the unpriced cost of traffic, pollution, blackouts and wasted finite resources.

This might seem politically impossible in Kuwait, but what if there was a way to make it work? What if all the savings and revenue generated was given back to Kuwaitis as a form of energy rebate? That way we can reward good behavior while we punish wasteful people by punching them with the invisible hand. We can have our cake and eat it too.

Kuwait Metro: Progress

By | Metro | 8 Comments

Kuwait signed an $8 million contract with Ernst and Young to provide “consultancy services” for the Metro project. It’s weird, because E&Y are an auditor, as far as I know, and they’re not really the first name one thinks of for master-planning expertise and designing mega-infrastructure projects. Anyway, the press release for the signing ceremony, which was held last Thursday, had some interesting bits of information:

KUWAIT, Oct 21 (KUNA) — Kuwait signed on Thursday a KD 2.280 million contract with a renowned international company for consultancy services for the planned state mega project , the metro.

The signing ceremony, involving the national technical agency for studying development projects and initiatives and Ernst and Young Company, held at the Finance Ministry headquarters, was attended by Minister Mustafa Al-Shimali, Minister of Communications and Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs Dr. Mohammad Al-Busairi, and Minister of State of Municipal Affairs Dr. Fahdel Safar.

Speaking on sidelines of the ceremony, Dr. Safar said the metro project had been approved after extensive consultations with international agencies, adding that the service would be linked up with the buses’ transports, covering dense residential regions and minimizing usage of personal vehicles. The air-conditioned metro will run on “green energy,” he added.

For his part, Al-Busairi revealed that the cabinet legal affairs committee has recently discussed establishment of a public transportation authority to supervise establishment of a single network, combining the metro and bus services. Adding, he stressed the necessity of ensuring integration of this sector’s services. He also indicated that an aspired project would also incorporate the railway network, the telephone and post services. Adel Al-Roumi, the head of the technical agency, said the metro project would be a grand development accomplishment.

The project is designed to link up the southern and northern regions of the country and resolve the traffic congestion problem that worsens during the winter season. – Kuna

Having the bus service and Metro be under one authority is a great idea. That way they can easily coordinate with each other towards a single vision for public transportation. It seems they’re going to follow Dubai’s lead in having hard to access but dense areas be funneled by buses, which would collect all the people and basically deliver them to the nearest Metro station. That worries me a bit because it seems to indicate that the Metro would just follow the highways, as with Dubai, and not really provide a catalyst for urban development and walkability. I hope i’m wrong. There’s an advantage to it following the highways, obviously (it’s easier and cheaper), but that kind of misses the point and the unique opportunities that a rapid transit system can offer.

Twitter

By | Other | No Comments

re:kuwait is now on Twitter.

You can follow me by clicking on the link in the sidebar. The most recent tweets will be on there as well. I’m not sure how it will be used eventually, but it seems like a great tool for quick thoughts and updates. I tried to do this with Google Buzz, but that service ended up being a complete failure. I’ll see if I can get Amenah and Jassem to have their Twitter thing up as well.

Also, we’ve added an email signup so people can get new posts directly. That seems like a great way to keep in touch, so I hope you sign up if you find any of the stuff we write mildly interesting. Thanks a lot and we really appreciate it.

Old Salhiya

By | Social | 9 Comments

In a recent post, Dr. Thomas Modeen talks about his observations of old Salhiya. He describes its ambience and says that because the place is truly cosmopolitan and free that you can just be yourself there:

“It’s the only urban locale in Kuwait that, at least for me, sounds, smells, feels like a city. A place for casual conversations, people-watching, a quick cup of tea or Turkish-coffee, that do not necessitate one to adapt ones mannerism to the more regimented social confines set by the persnickety establishments around the corner.”

He goes on to say that places like old Salhiya really can’t be designed and simply emerge because of the density and demands of a city. I can’t argue that old Salhiya really does embody that spirit of a city and is probably one of the few places in Kuwait that does so. The charm of the place comes from the fact that it’s so messy and people from all walks of life are there, but that same freedom also bring with it a certain level of danger.

People, and especially women and girls, feel more comfortable in shopping malls because that privacy offers a basic level of safety. I think that’s a critical issue for public space and the reason why most fail is because they lack security and order. Women who aren’t covered from head to toe will be leered at and made uncomfortable. The question then becomes how can we provide this level of security and public safety while still maintaining that spirit of freedom that makes the public space so enthralling in the first place.

Desert Architecture

By | Architecture | 6 Comments

Kuwait is a desert, yet you wouldn’t know this by looking at our architecture. What does it mean to design for a desert climate? The most important thing is to understand three basic rules:

  1. Understand the movement of the sun
  2. Know how different materials react to the sun
  3. Be aware of our physiological reaction to uncomfortable environments

It really amazes me that so much of the recent architecture built in Kuwait does not follow these basic rules. You see villas with giant windows facing west. Skyscrapers with glass facades on every side. It’s crazy. The only reason they can get away with this is because electricity is so cheap and they can afford to pump in chilled air all day long.

The image above is the building where my office is. The glass facades are facing south and west, which is where the sun is from noon until evening. The problem is made worse by the fact that the thermostats are deeper inside the building and so the space gets really hot during the day and suddenly, after sunset, it becomes very cold.

Good desert architecture should be able to reduce the daily heat gain inside a building to a comfortable level with as little mechanical cooling as possible. We can do this by respecting the sun. Another way to do this in residential architecture is to have as much shading as possible and to use materials that are natural insulators and reflect a lot of the heat. Most of the heat is gained through the roof, so having a well insulated roof that is white and reflective will help out a lot. Another idea is to build underground. This takes advantage of the insulating effect of the ground that will surround the building, like a blanket. It will make it cooler during the summer, and warmer in winter.

That’s why I believe a sunken, courtyard house design is the most practical residential model for Kuwait; both in terms of the environmental aspect as well as the cultural advantage of having absolute privacy. An inward looking house would allow you to have as big an opening as you want without having to worry about people looking into your house.

City Traffic Alternative

By | Urban | 3 Comments

That previous post by Jasem got me thinking about a solution to the traffic and parking problem within the city. Most of the cars that are driving around are actually people looking for a place to park. That’s a fact. The problem is made worse by people double parking and making a two lane street into a one lane crawl. It seems obvious to me that the problem is not that people can’t get into the city fast enough; which seems to be what the First Ring Road expansion is all about. The problem has to do with three things:

  1. Ensuring a constant flow of traffic within the city and with as few bottlenecks as possible.
  2. The inability to find parking that is close to where you want to go. People are willing to park in the baking sun as long as it’s close to their destination.
  3. There are just too many damn cars.

The First Ring Road project will not solve any of these problems. It will encourage more people to drive into the city, adding more cars that need a place to park. Also, I have a bad feeling that every exit on the new highway will have the same problem with people trying to use the exit and blocking the highway for people who want to drive past. During rush hour, this will be a nightmare.

Personally, I feel that the roads leading into the city are fine the way they are. The problem is inside the city. There are simply not enough parking structures. There are way too many surface parking lots in areas of very high density. Why not build a multi-level parking structure there?  If people know that there is a parking space waiting for them near their destination, then they wouldn’t waste time and create traffic driving around looking for a spot.

Free parking is a terrible idea, and all the parking spots in the city should be priced according to the demand for them. Since parking is free, we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s being abused. We should follow the SF demand-responsive pricing model in the city. No free parking during rush hour. You cannot do this equitably without creating alternate means of transportation for people who can’t afford the new fees. This is why building a light rail system within the city and expanding and simplifying the bus fleet is very important. In short, my alternative to the First Ring Road expansion is this:

  • More multi-level parking in areas of high density with shops on the ground floor of the parking.
  • A new and cheap light rail transportation system that goes around and across the city, with stops that are walking distance from each other.
  • No free parking anywhere in the city during rush hour. Prices are adjusted based on demand with strict enforcement of parking penalties.
  • More bus routes into the city at predictable timings.
  • Invest heavily in public space to create a better walking experience; meaning better and wider sidewalks, more trees, benches, rubbish bins and water fountains.
  • More policemen and traffic police walking the street to ensure that rules are enforced and order is maintained.
  • Incentivize more mixed use development in the city so that more people of different backgrounds and incomes live inside the city; this is to reduce the impact of traffic migration to avoid the rush to drive into the city in the morning and escape in the evening.

As you can see, this is not a one step solution. It can’t be, because it’s a very complex problem. Building the expansion of the First Ring Road is a terrible idea that will exacerbate the traffic problem. The reason for this is that decisions are made by individuals that either don’t have a clue about what they are doing or have a vested interest in green-lighting these mega-projects. We don’t have a long term plan for the city based on empirical evidence and good urban design fundamentals. For a more comprehensive look at my thoughts on traffic, click here.

Crowdsourced Activism

By | Neighborhood, Social | 13 Comments

Wikipedia works because of the energetic voluteerism of a dedicated core of users. We can harness this same crowdsourced dedication in Kuwait to help improve our public spaces. Everyone has a camera-phone now, and most newer models have the ability of adding geotagging information on photographs they take. This means that every photo has the GPS coordinates of the location in which the photo was taken.

What if some government entity creates a website where people can upload photos they take of things they feel are broken or wrong, such as graffiti, broken lamps, potholes, whatever. These photos are uploaded to the website by a few people wanting to do good for their community. Not everyone has to do this, just as with Wikipedia where only a small fraction of the total users are actively editing and creating articles.

The website becomes a real time ‘to do’ list for the goverment. The people posting to it are the eyes on the ground that can direct the action that needs to take place. Mechanisms can be put in place whereby if a week goes by and a ‘to do’ isn’t fixed then a flag goes up and the person in charge of fixing it gets a penalty. All this needs is a few people to oversee the website and collate the data and send the alerts to the people that need to fix the problem; meaning a photo of a broken lamp would be forwarded to the sub-contractors in charge of fixing them.

The internet is a great way of connecting people together. I can be so much more than Facebook.