Posted by: Barrak Al-Babtain | December 30, 2009

Neighborhood Character

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.


Responses

  1. “I don’t think anyone would disapprove if every street in Kuwait was lined with trees.”

    You know who’d disapprove of green trees lining every street in Kuwait? Lajnat Al Ezala. They just removed two 30 year old Sedra’s on the edge of our street, and the excuse? They obstruct street view and compromise safety!!! All these trees were guilty of was providing much needed shade and visual comfort and housing the chirping birds we no longer hear every morning since they made our street barren.

  2. Faisal, that’s really sad and frankly makes me angry. I think the best way to get back at them is by turning it into a religious social responsibility argument. “If the Day of Judgment erupts while you are planting a new tree, carry on and plant it.”, the Prophet said. We can use that beautiful phrase to hold the high moral ground (as if cutting a tree down doesn’t make you despicable enough) and claim that no matter how awkward a tree is placed, we can always build around it or walk around it. There are rules in developed countries that make it ILLEGAL to cut down a tree in residential neighborhoods. If you’re building a house, and there’s a tree existing there on site that’s over a certain diameter, then you can’t touch it. In fact, you have to set your building back enough to give it room to grow and live.

    Here’s an interesting post about it: http://www.360winnett.com/2008/09/30/tree-protection/

    They documented designing and building their house (something i’m planning on doing for albabtain|design) and this was when they found all the rules that govern trees:

    “Trees protected by city by-laws may not be removed, injured or destroyed in any way without written authorization from the city. And that covers all parts of the tree—roots included. Tree pruning and root cutting may only be done by the City of Toronto, Urban Forestry Services. No exceptions.”

    Why can’t we do the same? Aren’t Muslims just as interested in conservation? Doesn’t our climate actually demand as many trees to be planted as possible?

    This seems like it’s ripe enough for a post. I’ll work on it.

  3. Sometimes cutting a tree can actually harm a site itself… A large tree has a root system roughly the size of its canopy, i.e. cut down a tree that, for example, has a canopy which reaches over a wall or grows next to a street and, after a while, once the roots have dried up to form cavities, you have a wall or street which foundations will be on unstable ground…

    There are always consequences to all our actions…

  4. Hi, I’m from NZ and it’s surprising that Kuwait is such a rich country and invests so little in public spaces. The city looks impressive til you’re in it and it’s nothing but highrises with minimal pubic amenities. Salmiya is also a mismatch of footpath treatments, run down buildings and barren trees. Kuwait is always going to be a ”what if they did this” kind of place. The locals have no respect for the land, the beaches are awash with rubbish and the sand is competing with cigarette butts. People throw rubbish out of their car windows, where ever they may be. The corniche is one of the most attractive places which is why people set up for picnics and are too lazy to dispose their trash in the right way. I guess with having maids, some never learn to pick up after themselves.

  5. We’d love to see our neighborhoods in Kuwait with a more stress-free and walking-friendly atmosphere that would reflects the kind of living we enjoy.

    Thank you guys for opening our eyes with your insightful and optimistic thoughts..

  6. I’m glad my little comment inspired you. If you’re interested there’s a little facebook group that is gaining grounds and whose owner is doing some interesting things to raise awareness. The group is “Keep Kuwait Green! Stop the Izala from cutting our trees!”, I’ll make sure I link your post if it ever appears to their page.

  7. Oh, absolutely. Yeah, i’ve seen that facebook group before. I’ll add myself to the group, and i’ll be writing the post this weekend (if it ever appears… hah) and i’ll be mentioning them of course.

  8. its not about Green V.S. Asphalt

    the rules and regulations are there for having minimum of 2 meters of clear area so predestine can walk but its the government fault letting people do what ever they wish for so in order of having bigger houses and a bigger car parking they used the 2 meters as garden and as car parking.

    only now after decade of getting used to law violation they want to implement the law. of course people already designed there house in away to have there garden on that 2 meters and now they are refusing to clear the area.


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