Sustainability in Saudi Cities
Sustainability in Saudi Cities
Both defining and describing the sustainable relationship between the historic and newer built environment of Saudi Arabia’s state capital Riyadh focuses on culture as a mitigating factor in historic preservation and sustainability representative of Saudi cities. This scholarly exploration of the existing construction looks influences on their design from an environmental perspective. The following academic investigation therefore, both compares and contrasts the specifics of the time-honored urban design with the modern.
The following investigative account provides information on the environmental and cultural aspects underpinning traditional urban design versus the adoption of 1970s Western urban standards found in Riyadh in particular with its location on the arid Arabian Peninsula. The section on the Western influence during the 1972 reveals the changes made on urban development traditions. Finally, the last section shows the universality of sustainable building showing a growing demand influencing a return to more environmentally conscientious approach more to the traditional Islamic, cultural, and social principles of the lifestyle of the people of Riyadh.
Environmental, Cultural, and Social Aspects of Riyadh
The Arabian Peninsula’s location finds Saudi Arabia’s capital city Riyadh located in the heart of the region where the most severe hot weather pounds the city (climate.com, 2010). Traditionally and historically climate remained a driving factor of urban construction characteristics until the Royal Family adopted Western influences in their lives including construction styles as they applied urban renewal and expansion (Costa & Noble, 1986).
Settlement patterns framing Arabic-Islamic construction practices in its cities as already noted, continued in practical building methods as guided by religious, environmental, and social beliefs and values. These fundamental practices continued throughout Arabic-
Islamic settlement patterns where the people erected cities. Evidenced in the urban construction are the influences of these beliefs and values established through specific design principle denoted in the scale of the edifices erected reflecting the distinct urban planning characteristics and identify exemplified in the older sections of Riyadh (Costa & Noble, 1986). Economically, this capital city of Saudi Arabia originally found its wealth from the agricultural lands surrounding it. Located nearly dead center of the Arabian Peninsula this financial base continued into the early 1900s resulting in a small city covering just about a square quarter of a mile by 1916 with an approximate population of 14,000 people. By 1910 and 1930 respectively, that nearly doubled at 27,000 (see Figure 1).
Rapid population growth from immigrant Arabs from throughout the peninsula saw the unprecedented growth of Riyadh’s urban areas. With the focused adaptation of Western urban standards, the large abandonment of the more pragmatic approach to construction resulted leaving behind the traditional construction practices favoring the values and beliefs of the people based on religion, environment, and social practices (Costa & Noble, 1998).
For nearly half a century, the failure of Western influence on urban design and building practices in Riyadh understanding the religious and cultural values of the regions indigenous people proved a rapid physical conversion of the face of the nation’s capital directly associated with the historical urban design of the city. No longer reflecting the traditional constructs of an Islamic city, Riyadh became an increasingly and obvious Western modernist appearing community. Relinquishing traditional urban construction directly addressing the issues of the unforgiving climatic heat factors of the region, the decision adopting Western modern standards of construction proved an obvious influence on the city design and building construction. Logistically, this modern design focus never considered how the average temperature of Riyadh is a hot and dry 113-122 degrees Fahrenheit (climate.com, 2010).
As already mentioned, in contrast to this modern Riyadh, the city’s traditional urban form reveals buildings designed and constructed showcasing an intentional awareness and response to the critical impact of the region’s solar climatic realities on the environment and consequently on all living creatures including the human population. The two stages of Riyadh urban development therefore, directly links to “before” and “after” the influence of the 1970s oil boom in the nation creating the influential relationship to the Western financial investments (Garba, 2004).
The modernization of Riyadh’s urban areas influenced by Western architectural design shifted from an environment conscious construction (not to leave out the religious and cultural values of Riyadh’s people). Consequently, revelations of this stage of Riyadh’s post oil boom urban growth design shows its own principles and practices with a clear lack of intelligent and proactive response to the constructs of issues connected to the intense solar climate of the region. Like the other Saudi cities, the old sections of Riyadh exemplify a traditional Arabic-Islamic city intentionally designed with incorporation of Islamic cultural principles in both building construction and urban characteristics. Exhibiting residents’ strong social bonds based on the Islamic cultural principles, these old urban sections of Riyadh also signify the profound consciousness as well as sensitivity of the “microclimate” contextually of the city’s urban characteristics. The connection between the buildings and the streets, the use of specific materials producing the housing typology all reflect this understanding of the challenges of climatic realities of the region (King, 1998, p. 172).
Comparing the traditional architecture of Riyadh prior to the Western influence of the 1970s, such experts as King (1998) look at the sustainability achievement in these structures as more efficient against the overpowering climatic heat of the region, than the ensuing modern approach begun in the 1970s. As explained Riyadh’s urban density typifies any Islamic urban setting minimizing human activity marking open spaces because of the vulnerability to the extreme summer heat for all living things unfortunate enough situated in these areas (refer to Figure 1).
Connected directly to the traditional issue of the extreme heat climate of this region, and the traditional Islamic influence on the older parts of Riyadh’s urban design and construction a better understanding emerges about this guiding principle with division of Riyadh into five varieties of land uses. These include open space further accommodates specific social activities and occasions. Radiating from this central city node of the public zone is a complex, is an irregular and organic patterned hierarchical group of varied shapes and widths all penetrating into residential communities leading to the surrounding main nine gates of a public zone and four residential neighborhoods. Representing the main city node, the public zone contains Riyadh’s central public buildings including the Souq (Market), the Grand Mosque, and the governor’s palace clustered about the Riyadh’s central open space. Street width derives from the amount of pedestrian traffic, its location to the public zone depends on use of land bordering it, and the height aligns to the buildings along its way (Figure 2). Typically, Riyadh’s streets run wide in the center becoming narrower towards the residential communities they meet. Incorporating this type of design directly links with the focus on Islamic cultural tenets of privacy but, as importantly, it reduces thermal inflictions on the residents (King, 1998).
This intentional construct of streets and Islamic tenets encompasses the same attention to the cultural and social life of those living along them. While the primary function of streets in Riyadh remains the same as anywhere as connectors do, the characteristics of streets of Riyadh prove they function as a social gathering corridor of homeowners living along them. Accomplishing the concept of semi-private dead streets the “cul-de-sac” proves the common residential characteristic requiring shaded and cooled spaces protecting from the direct sunlight and intense heat. From the environmental perspective, construction of variations in street width allows reflection of the high degree of sensitivity of the impact of mitigating factors of strong sunlight and extreme heat (King, 1998).
This results in an obvious empirical observation of the logically founded relationship between the buildings and the streets in Riyadh’s urban communities by aligning them with the property line of the dwellings and buildings creating shade from the burning sun. According to King (1998), “the common height of houses is two to three stories high; thus, narrow streets are shaded by the exterior tall walls of these houses (p. 172).” This creates a shadowed corridor, eliminating radiating sunlight during the highest concentration of the sun lessening the impact of its piercing heat (See Figure 2).
Also connected to the dominant volume of the public footmark through Riyadh is the construction of street design joining house arrangement. Riyadh’s old residential section presents distinctive structures standing apart from the modern neighborhoods either because of their design revealing their relationship one to the other providing more privacy and their positive responsiveness to allaying extreme heat climatic issues. The clustered together effect of these residences provides shaded streets creating a distinctive built environment with their rows of low-rise houses. In addition to creating shaded streets from their dense arrangement, the old section of Riyadh housing construction with no space between them creates a distinctive urban effect wall providing effective environmental effects for the interior areas by blocking both wind and sun – conditions typical to this region. Adopting this type of urban design reduces the sun effect by exposing only two side of the residential structure to the burning sun thus, creating a far more efficient cooling effect on the interior of these homes and buildings (Al-Hathloul, 2002; Marsh, 2010).
The architectural design of Riyadh’s older homes have two main characteristics that focus on residential privacy and addressing the climatic challenges as outlined previously in this academic investigation. Typically, rising no more than two stories, these residential abodes show their dominant feature of an enclosed central courtyard. Here, the area rooms of varying size open inward while they connect with colonnades. This densely built interior of the residential homes therefore lessens direct contact with both sun and hot wind of the daylight (Al-Hathloul, 2002).
The Modern Globalization of Riyadh
Designated the nation’s capital in 1824 and the second Saudi state, numerous incidents from that time tempted more city development of Riyadh but city leaders faced limited resources and regional political instability. With a stable government established in 1932, Saudi Arabia’s unification of its western region increased urban building ensued considerably culminating in the modern movement from the 1930s into the profoundest influence of the West with the oil boom of the 1970s. This resulted in architectural standard practices contradicting Riyadh’s cultural tenets founded in its core Islamic community in the rush to modernize as a global city (Garba, 2004).
With the influx of Arabs into Riyadh from all regions of the Arabian Peninsula with the onset of the oil boom, the government accommodation of these growing ranks of employees resulted in the city’s first Western influenced modern housing project called the “Al-Malaz Housing Project.” Adopting a gridiron pattern design in laying out this modern urban settlement in Riyadh introduced this ancient culture to a new concept of housing with villas, multi-storied apartments, and the single house unit (see Figure 1, p. 13) (Garba, 2004).
A direct result of this new standard of urban development proved a radical shift from Riyadh’s traditional urban design and as mentioned earlier in this document, proved the undoing of centuries of architectural characteristics specific to climate challenges of burning extreme sun and hot winds of this region. Disregard of this fundamental reality of living in Riyadh reflected the Western influenced modernity in both building construction and the layout of landscaping. The new urban format juxtaposed erecting buildings and roadways in an irrational lifestyle of scattered buildings with little shaded areas and auto-mobile dependent living without the shaded streets for the pedestrian citizenry or buildings constructed to keep the majority of its living areas away from the demanding heat of Riyadh’s typical sun baked environment (Garba, 2004).
Nineteen seventy-one introduced the city planners’ comprehensive urban development schema designed by the “Doxidis Associates” international architectural firm with two design goals focused on erecting flexible structure development based on the absence of physical constraints and the equitable, effective and balance in distribution of both services and facilities in its vision of the new urbanization of Riyadh. Considering the automobile the primary means of transportation in this new urban reality of the capital city, this international architectural firm envisioned a two by two kilometer grid consisting of a hierarchical arrangement of roads. Review of (Figure 1) shows how each grid square signifies one neighborhood block (Garba, 2004).
Completely different from the traditional neighborhoods of Riyadh with the public zone connection through well-intentioned street design connecting to the residential areas, the modern plan grid specifically catering to automobile access created the main hub containing commercial land activities along the city’s main streets, completely eliminating any concentration of street access to safe areas within neighborhoods. The underpinnings of this modern urban planning focus diminished if not eliminated the beliefs and values of the traditional fabric of Islamic life in urban Riyadh (Garba, 2004).
Ignoring Islam’s life-guiding principles and values in the modern blueprint and development, also proved a disregard for addressing a sustainable approach in development, but also disregarded application of any design directly influencing managing the intense heat resulting from solar radiation of Riyadh’s macro and microclimate in residential and building construction. The results of the new city draft for urban development during Riyadh’s oil boom meant the modern planning replaced the curvilinear street
Because of modern standards of planning, the curvilinear street configurations with the grid systems’ intention for managing large amounts of automobile and other motorized traffic with wide streets without any pedestrian considerations. Consequently, Riyadh’s new urban setting had no place for the idea of the narrow street for the pedestrian safety from intrusive mechanized traffic. Ironically, the people adopted as preferable the wider streets even within the residential areas so the idea of the relationship of buildings to the streets creating shade for pedestrians and sustainable constructs against the heat and wind within residential buildings no longer existed (Marsh, 2010).
Gone was the passive shading of the old Riyadh neighborhoods resulting from the design of erecting closely spaced adjacent buildings. New construction regulations required a certain percentage among the erected buildings set back from the street. At the same time, regardless residential areas streets became wider; the dwelling typology remained the same for two story single-family units. The intention looked at these becoming a better way of approaching the land connection to construction aptly experienced in the old sections of the city. Paradoxically, the new urban design resulted in exacerbating the undesirable effects of exposure to the sun radiation by expanding the area of exposed ground and building surfaces. Logically, this proved a profoundly negative influence on resulting ground-level temperatures because of the diminished presence of ground shaded areas (Marsh, 2010).
Riyadh as all human habitations in desert regions deal with a lack of vegetation, the absence of bodies of water as well as surface soil dryness. In addition to these characteristics of arid regions on the planet in relation to urbanization, human habitation erecting residential and commercial areas using Western modern manufactured materials creates heated islands within the city. With different specifications, these foreign Western materials’ enormously impact Riyadh’s urban landscape because of the “Albedo” effect as the fraction of radiation from the sun reflecting from a surface. Therefore, the characteristics of the albedos Western construction materials used on Riyadh’s roofs and streets and the relation to the dryness of the city’s topography prove lower than to the landscape surrounding the city (Marsh, 2010).
Absorbing rather than deflecting the sun’s heat, albedos materials therefore, increase air temperatures in the areas where this construction takes place during the day, and release the heat during the night giving no relief to the residents living in these buildings. It also contributes to the overall ambient heat of the neighborhood even on the rooftops where modern Saudi cities including Riyadh have flat concrete tiled roofs (Marsh, 2010).
In retroflection of the realities of the Western influence on the modern cities of Saudi Arabia focused on the example of the capital city of Riyadh, in the post oil boom new urbanization planning. As the discourse presented in this academic document shows, this completely disregarded the cultural, religious, and social principles and values of Riyadh's people and the sustainable lifestyle experienced in the old urbanization on their daily lives. Consequently, the moral and pragmatic implications look at a return to urbanization based on the traditional precepts of material selection, neighborhood, and street design, and the overt consideration of how these provide a sustainable consistency for addressing the challenges of the microclimate conditions of desert life.
In conclusion as postulated in the introduction, the academic investigation, and discourse both defined and described the contradictions of sustainability of the relationship between the historic and newer built environment of Saudi Arabia’s state capital Riyadh. The results of this discovery focused on culture as a mitigating factor in historic preservation and sustainability representative of Saudi cities proved the benefits of doing so requires city planners must take into account the impact of how urban design affects the daily lives of inhabitants. This directly connects to a conscious sensitivity to how binding the relationship of building design, materials, and the dense layout of neighborhoods with streets must reflect the social life of Saudi city residents from the underpinnings of culture connected to their core values and followings of Islam. The parallel importance of adhering to this architectural philosophy in desert city urban planning lessens the harshness and life threatening realities of solar radiated heat on the inhabitants. Al-Hathlou (2002) says it succinctly about the mitigating realities connected to this, “The overriding challenge is to achieve a proper balance between the economic functions that are necessary to the city’s existence and an environment that allows for the health and well-being of the populace (p. 376).”
Al-Hathloul, S. (2002). Riyadh Architecture in One Hundred Years. Public Lecture presented in Darat Al-Funun, Amman, April 21, 2000.
Climate.com. (2010). Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Retrieved from
Costa, F. J., & Noble, A. G. (1986). Planning Arabic Towns. Geographical Review, 76(2), 160-172.
Garba, S. B. (2004). Managing Urban Growth and Development in the Riyadh Metropolitan Area, Saudi Arabia. Habitat International, 28(4), 593-608.
King, G. (1998). The Traditional Architecture of Saudi Arabia. I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd. London
Marsh, W. M. (2010). Landscape Planning Environmental Applications. 5th ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Son.