Posted by: A. Benjasem | October 7, 2009

Planning Our Urban Future

This was the title of a workshop that took place 5-6th of September in Kuwait. Organized by UN-HABITAT to celebrate the World Habitat Day, the workshop focused on urban planning issues that are currently present in Arab countries. I found the workshop both insightful and encouraging for reminding Kuwait for its collective responsibility towards urban planning.

The Keynote speakers were specialists and researchers from Kuwait and abroad. They discussed how we (as urban designers and architects) should react to the fast change in environmental conditions and urban developments. Green buildings, where there is enough attention given to the use of water, wind and sunlight, are good solutions. However, buildings alone cannot create a sustainable, environmentally friendly city. A building plays an important role in a city, but it’s not the only element there. For the city to become sustainable, streets, highways and cars also need to be designed in a way that considers the environmental conditions.

Dr. Serageldin mentioned a proposal called Eco-city. Which is defined as “a human settlement that enables its residents to live a good quality of life while using minimal natural resources”. In this proposal, green buildings will be of great use since their surroundings are well designed. The city has a few other characteristics including its walkability, vegetation, self-reliance and public transport.

I think this is a great proposal but I doubt it can be fully implemented in Kuwait, mostly due to our lifestyle in conjunction with our intense heat. This does not mean we should quit trying to make Kuwait more sustainable. Surely, we can learn a few things from Eco-city and apply them in Kuwait. For example, better public transport would lessen the traffic and pollution. More trees and vegetation can act as a wind and dust barrier and assist in cleansing the air.

This workshop was under the patronage of Dr. Safar, Minister of Public Works in Kuwait. There were also officials from Traffic Ministry of Interior and Higher Planning and Development Council. What I appreciated the most about this workshop was the encouragement that I felt from the officials. They all recognized their roles in planning a better urban future for Kuwait.



  1. Damn, I did not know this event was taking place..?!

    Sounds great though. But was there any more solid proposals advanced regarding actions/ interventions for Kuwait. What’s the next step..?

  2. Unfortunately Kuwait is great at hosting seminars/events/conferences concerning environment, education etc but fails miserably at implementing anything.

    I wouldn’t hold my breath. A friend of mine wanted to build a green building in Kuwait – solar panels the whole bit with an international company and the municipality wouldnt allow it because ‘there wasnt a precedent’ and no laws governing such buildings.

    They are tearing down trees now and vegetation as part of the ‘izala’ campaign while the rest of the gulf is moving towards ‘green’ and encouraging growth of trees and plants. They want the whole country o0n that ugly pink brick or as desert land. That in itself is so sad and twisted.

  3. Tom; you didn’t miss anything that you wouldn’t have heard from students of the department of architecture…

    hilaliya; you stole the words right out of my mouth

    Kuwait as a country speaks a great deal louder than it acts… the government officials regularly prove they can read out of textbooks… anybody can read out of a textbook… it takes a patriot to act out those words.

  4. Tom: I attended the first day only, which unfortunately wasn’t related to Kuwait in specific. But the second day had Kuwaiti specialists so I’m hoping they proposed something? Also, the presenters generalized a lot about “Arab countries” when talking about environmental, poverty and other social issues. Frankly comparing Cairo to Kuwait is a big mistake.

    I agree with bumo and Hilaliya, but you need to remember that Kuwait is still hung up on glass and shiny towers. The concept of green architecture needs its time to sink in. Any change like this needs awareness, and it starts with lectures and talks.

  5. There still seems to be a lack of awareness in Kuwait what a successful urban plan/ intervention might entail. One reason for this might be that there isn’t much related debate in the general press about related issues. There is much lamentation about existing shortcoming and the laying of blame, but not much discussion regarding what the solutions might be or, more importantly, how they should be implemented and realized.

    Also, too often the discussion is about developing ‘tabula-rasa’ proposals, i.e. proposing plans for developments which are not in, or even natural extension of, existing areas or neighborhoods. This is an easy and convenient solution regarding plans as fitting in ‘revolutionary’ ideas into an existing context can be tricky, as ‘realness’ usually comes with its own share of baggage. However, as the predominant part of any urban intervention will inevitably happen in/ into existing urban contexts, which have their own histories and mannerisms, its important that any general principals, which such aforementioned events usually introduce, are customized to the specific conditions happening where they are to be applied. This usually involves its fair share of elbow-grease, commitment and perseverance, to implement – something which isn’t as ‘sexy’ as only talking about such proposals in theory.
    But, if we are to make Kuwait a more ‘sustainable’ place to inhabit (and here the term ‘sustainable’ is not necessarily connected to any ‘green’ ambitions, but more about making it, call it, a more ‘pleasant & interesting – dynamic place to be in), a place from which one wouldn’t need to ‘escape’ on regular intervals (as seems to be the general sentiment of its somewhat transient population), make Kuwait a place with its own unique qualities which might make it a place even worth visiting (by others) in its own right – we need to begin tackling these issues now rather than at some hypothetical future date…

  6. Tom, you sound uncharacteristically pessimistic, although I understand your frustration. It’s very easy and convenient to talk about ‘plop’ architecture because it solves the problem of context by deleting it. We keep talking about where to start and we never actually do anything. But I guess we’re all to blame for this lethargic attitude, we can’t expect people to ‘see the light’ by themselves. I think it’s our job to shine a light on the issues that need to be addressed.

    I keep thinking about your offer to make a short video about Kuwait describing the state it’s in and what the potential for change really is. I think that a short film (through youtube) is a fantastic medium to reach the masses. But before we run around the city with our video cameras and iPhones I think we need to really think about what we want to show and how to present it. I am very interested in being a part of this and would like it if as many people became involved as possible.

    I suggest we use the ‘Small Spaces’ video as a guide, and aim for a 10 minute short video (since this is the upload limit for youtube and it seems like a good nice round number).

    Any ideas on what to film and say?

  7. Hi Barrak,

    Hopefully my tone is not too pessimistic. I think some of the logistics of getting things done here in Kuwait are quite demanding, aren’t always based on reason or logic, and can be quite grinding, as I suspect both Kuwaitis and expats have come to realise, but that should be formulated as an incentive to improve things rather than the opposite.

    I think that sounds like a plan… A ten minute film, or a series of ten minute films on various areas (of Kuwait) or topics (traffic, pedestrianization, public transport, urban planning, micro urbanism, etc.) , should be something that’s actually realizable. It could also be something that could easily be translated into a publication. We could use the films included on your blog as a template, and perhaps look at the movies by the Eamses or, say, even define the topics according the chapters or classifications of Jencks (Image of a City)or Jacobs (Life & Death of Great American Cities)… I believe CABE also has some outlines for what’s important in urban development. We could also, if this at some stage develops into something more solid, use some of the documents produced by one of our sister companies, the 4M Group in London, as an outline. They did a very comprehensive and interesting proposal for a neighborhood in Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo, a few years back which has not become the actual master plan for the area confirmed by legislation…

  8. A small correction to the earlier posting – Image of the City is by Kevin Lynch, not Jencks… He uses something called ‘cognitive images’ to define a city. These are Paths, Edges, Districts, Nodes and Landmarks. Here Paths are streets, sidewalks corridors – the passages found in our environment. Edges symbolize representational boundaries – the walls, buildings shorelines, rivers, embankments that separate areas. Districts are usually large areas with fairly distinguishable characteristics, such as business or entertainment areas. Nodes are key focal points – buildings or city entrances, central courtyards, stairwells. Landmarks are clearly distinguishable, dominant physical elements – the main opera building or museum, a preeminent bridge, a central square. These categories were used by Lynch to describe various features relating to urban planning, however, they can easily adapted to other, architectural or urban (micro, meso, macro) scales and comparisons that would lend themselves either for the structure of a short film (or series of films) or even an accompying book…

  9. I think that the end product should be easily digestible and understood by anyone. That doesn’t mean we have to dumb it down in any way, but we have to be constantly aware of who our audience should be; that is those people who always complain about the state of the city while not realizing why they feel that way and what to do about it.

    The goal is to provide some measure of hope that with small achievable goals and a collective effort that we can create a better city. It has to be optimistic in nature (but not in a sappy way), always providing hints of a solution and not always denigrating the current state of things.

    The more I think about it, the more I feel that it can have a very strong impact. I think we should test the waters first with a very general introduction to urbanism and the concepts involved. If we feel like we have way more material than can comfortably fit into a 10 minute film, then we will expand it into a series like you suggest. I can do the editing and even the narration if need be; but it would be better if we can create a team that would work on specific tasks after we decide on how to proceed.

    This can easily become a very interesting publication, Tom. I’m sure we’ll discover things we haven’t really thought about while filming.

    What’s the next step?


    I just saw this. I keep coming back to the idea of that place being the proving ground for a new Kuwaiti urbanism.

    Some more thoughts on the film project: The goal is for it to become viral in Kuwait. It has to be cool enough for that to happen, and that means it can’t be a dry and esoteric lecture. How can we make sure of that? This was also the intention for this blog, although at times I forget that.

    I’m imagining a similar sort of video that you shot, but with far more pauses and collages being overlaid to explain ideas clearly. Maybe showing a slow transition from it being a car filled space into a pedestrian promenade with cafes at the higher level overlooking the space. Nothing fancy, just a static image that slowly adds more stuff, but it will do wonders to help people visualize the potential.

    How should the series be structured? Should it be site-specific, or a series of ideas?

  11. Great stuff Barrak..!

    I agree with all your points. I also think that’s important that we make videos that do not rely on ‘archispeak’, something I know I’ve unfortunately often been guilty of.

    The links you included on this blog provide a nice precedent. Ten minutes each could be formulated as a chapter/ theme each, and the number six seems in number (of topics) and duration (6 X 10 minutes – roughly sixty minutes in total) be a well balanced number, with each 10 minute segment being long enough to cover a theme, but still ‘short’ enough to, if combined with the five segments to follow, to form a collective total which could be viewed as a more comprehensive ‘documentary’ in its own right… These six segments could of course also be used as the six main chapters of a reflective publication.

    Even though it might be good to think through and define the ‘bigger picture’ of the combined videos ahead of time – provide the collective theme of the affair – they should also, as you suggested, function as individual entities. So even though one should be able to eventually view them in sequence, and doing so would still make collective sense – we still need to conceive each of them as separate videos, with their own intros, bodies and conclusions…

    So there’s a lot to think about…

    Some of the topics would need to be a (as you mentioned above) a explanation what urban design is, why it is important, and how we’re planning to apply it to Kuwait. It might also, strangely enough, be good to somehow explain, or insinuate through contextual means, what the role of an architect is, as I’ve noticed that I’m surprisingly often needing to explain either what an architect does, or what the difference is between an architect an an engineer.
    So we need to touch on more general themes, which perhaps could be made or demonstrated the value of through various case studies showing examples of ‘before & after shots’ (as you also mentioned above) of various solutions (with their pros & cons explained). These could include things like a proposal for ‘SAM st.’ (Salem Al-Mubarak Street) as well as touch upon simple things such as how difficult (impossible) it is to move around a/ any neighborhood in Kuwait with a wheel-chair (an example of micro urbanism) and how easily such a shortcoming can be rectified through a few simple interventions…
    We should provide viable solutions for real problems…

    Timeline wise, it would be great if we would manage to get the first 10 minute video out before the end of the year (it would be nice to try to do it sooner, but I don’t know if that would be realistic). This of course also depends on what exactly the videos will include – charts, animations, interviews(?!), enacted scenes, etc.. We also probably need to do some foundation research to back any (potentially controversial) claims we make, so so time will need to be allocated for such activities. Thus it would be great to start building up a team of individuals whose collective know-how would make the films’ & eventual publication’s realization easier.

    We also need to give some at least brief consideration to financing. I assume all of us will volunteer for this, and most of the needed equipment can/ will be borrowed. But if there is a need for something that will produce expenses how such affects are covered need to be decided. Do we try to get sponsors (something that might be difficult until at least the first snippet is completed)? Put together a small business plan along side the plan/ spine for the movie’s theme, which then could be used to find a benefactor, or something else..?

    Anyway, we should set up a ‘real life’ meeting somewhere, perhaps some generic, easily accessed and not too popular coffee-shop (where a group discussing for a few hours won’t draw too much attention) in the not too distant future where all individuals wishing to contribute could establish first contact… I’m open to suggestions…

  12. I agree, the next step should be a meeting somewhere. Anyone is welcome to come and share their ideas. How about Wednesday (14th)? Anytime after lunch is good for me. I’m sure Jassem and Amenah are interested in joining us. Anyone else?

    10 minutes can fit a surprisingly large amount of content, so we shouldn’t spread ourselves too thin. The first video can be an introduction to urbanism (and architecture for that matter) in general and Kuwait while also providing a concrete example of it in action; SAM street (great abbreviation) would be my choice. This could easily fit into a rich 10 minute video.


    1. Introduction to Urban design, Kuwait, SAM street project

    – Slow, beautiful shots of many varied scenes in Kuwait with narration explaining the state of the City, very lyrical and inquisitive. Ask the big question: what are the alternatives and what would it take to change. Begin to identify and explain the concepts of Urban design and architecture. Highlight areas where successful urbanism exists. Transition to SAM street, showing potential while identifying the critical errors. Show how simple interventions can slowly allow the space to regain its original intent and allow it to evolve into something that doesn’t really exist in Kuwait anymore, a pleasant public space.

    2. Shift towards introverted, isolated island architecture (residential and malls), the social changes this engendered and car dependency. No urban fabric. Potential for change

    – Start with historical footage of Kuwait, showing people walking around dense neighborhoods, talking, standing around, having chance meetings, walking to the mosque. Suddenly cut to a dead neighborhood filled with huge homes with shuttered windows and streets packed with cars. Maybe a minute with narration of several of these to really highlight their devastating impact. Why did this happen? Why did we change? Talk about social changes that have occurred as a result of this (anonymity, isolation, etc). Malls. Several examples of malls that fail to interface with their context (there are too many to choose from). Show places with potential for change: Shuhada street (AlRaya), Marina Cresent, i’m we can think of many many more. Courtyard housing. Ground floor becomes public/service. Density is good but only if it is designed well. Wider, tree-shaded sidewalks that are clean, safe, well lit. Less cars or much bigger public shared space between private home and public street. There is a lot to talk about here and i’m sure it can all fit coherently into a rich 10 minute video.

    I don’t think financing will be an issue at all. Like you said, we’re all volunteering our time and the software is already at hand. The only expense I can think of are coffee and donuts. Maybe things will change if after the first video we see an opportunity to expand the scope of it all, but at first I don’t think there’s any need to think of that.

    I think the long term goal for us is to have this become an introduction to urban design and architecture for Kuwait and how it can affect peoples lives. The audience is basically the uninformed public, not other architects. We also can’t be complaining, we have to always be providing solutions. We have to always keep that in mind.

  13. Sounds good..!

    Wednesday 14th, tomorrow, is OK with me, after about 3.30 PM (there are kids to be picked up)…

  14. Interesting thread guys! I’d love to help out as well. But it will have to be after work, 5 onwards for me.

  15. Any suggestions for a place for meeting up tomorrow..? Somewhere central and easily accessible would be nice. Say around fourish or fiveish…

  16. How about 5:30pm tomorrow (Wednesday) at the Casper and Gambinis near the church by Sheraton? This seems like the best time for everyone.

  17. 17.30 at C & G sounds good to me (haven’t been there before, but I’m sure I’ll find it)…

    Looking forward to it…

    See you then,


  18. Looking forward to it guys.

  19. Looking forward to it; see you then!

  20. Hi all,

    It was great to meet you all in person yesterday. Sorry for being so late…

    I came across the material below today. Which could be considered an interesting comparison, quality and quantity wise, for the video…

    As mentioned, I’m already putting together some preliminary mappings of SAM St. for an upcoming presentation which also, if deemed appropriate, could be included in some form in the video…

    Talk soon,


  21. Hey Tom, was great meeting with you yesterday. I am very impressed with the through analysis and end solution on the wed link you attached and I agree on making a comparable work both on quantity and quality.
    Looking forward to it.

  22. I just caught up with this thread, don’t know how I missed it!! Is it too late to join or contribute to this effort?

  23. Hi Faisal,

    The more the merrier..!

    We haven’t set up a date yet for the next get together, but the plan is to do so in a perhaps a week or so…

    If you send your contact info to the hosts of this blog I’m sure they can keep you updated…


  24. This has been fascinating to read! I was born in Kuwait, but left when I was 11 years old, although I remember the country very well, especially “Salmiya” area; the sea port & the beach. With a greater focus on the environment now globally, especially with the Copenhaggen summit, I’ve often wondered what the environmental costs are going to be for Kuwait, which has built big & bigger steel towers.

    Could someone tell me:

    – What is the current culture of urban planning/architecture in Kuwait? The dominant thinking?

    – Any concrete things being done for the future? Or is it all rhetoric like some of the above posters have said?

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