A study of the social, religious and tribal factors that inform the urban realities of Kuwait. What are the reasons behind the cloistered and segregated identities of many of Kuwait’s residential neighborhoods? Are there many differences between our existing state of being and the immigrant neighborhoods of major cities such as New York and Paris? What does this say about our society that such a natural urban segregation has evolved with all its xenophobic, financial and security implications?
Neighborhoods in Kuwait have lost their charm and have become glorified parking lots. What can we do about it and are there any guidelines that can help us in designing better neighborhoods? According to Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, a husband-wife team of town planners and two of the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism, the design of neighborhoods can be defined by thirteen elements:
1. The neighborhood has a discernible center. This is often a square or a green and sometimes a busy or memorable street corner. A transit stop would be located at this center.
This neighborhood center would be a small urban space dominated by the main mosque and filled with dense shopping and landscape architecture. Shopping should be fragmented into smaller elements that serve specialized needs; a florist, a butcher, an electronics repair shop, etc. The main groceries shopping should be far smaller than the current tradition of building co-op ‘malls’ in the center of every residential area. The malls are so big and the only way to approach them is by car. Parking is usually shared with the central mosque which means that during prayer time the parking is cannibalized between the two and nobody benefits. We have to stop consolidating everything into one building but rather think of it as a town center similar to what it used to be in the old days.
2. Most of the dwellings are within a five-minute walk of the center, an average of roughly 400 meters.
In an ideal world, the Metro would criss-cross our radial residential areas and have stops in each neighborhood center. This would officially make Kuwait a walkable city, as it means that everyone has the option of living a car-free lifestyle. I’m sure this isn’t economically feasible, but as a public health initiative, it’s priceless. This would also allow the residential areas to be exponentially denser without fear of the transportation system failing. This would eventually lead to the collapse of the ‘mall mentality’. The neighborhood centers become a truly democratic and public space. Instead of going to The Avenues to hang out, you might go to the Shamiya center and have dinner, watch a show and have a nice stroll there meeting a friend who lives in Shamiya. You get all the amenities and advantages of a mall without the parking headache.
-Shamiya neighborhood center?
3. There are a variety of dwelling types — usually houses, rowhouses, and apartments — so that younger and older people, singles, and families, the poor, and the wealthy may find places to live.
This is quickly becoming a critical issue for Kuwait. Young people really have nowhere to live. More and more people are having to renovate and reuse space in their homes to accommodate their grown children living with them. This should not be happening. Most young people don’t mind living in smaller spaces, but they would rather be closer to home. Why can’t there be a variety of dwelling types in, for example, Qortuba? Why can’t there be apartments and rowhouses that compliment the standard 500m2+ house? This simple issue of re-zoning would solve so many problems. All it takes is a signature.
4. At the edge of the neighborhood, there are shops and offices of sufficiently varied types to supply the weekly needs of a household.
This is fairly self explanatory. A lot of areas in Kuwait already have this and they’re successful in reducing the number of car trips the residents around them make. If more people use them and the stigma against walking is overcome, we’ll see the option of walking become safer and more pleasant. People feel safer when other people are around.
5. A small ancillary building or garage apartment is permitted within the backyard of each house. It may be used as a rental unit or place to work (for example, an office or craft workshop).
This would be very successful in Kuwait. Many young people have ambitions of starting a side-business or workshop, but don’t have the money to rent an office or don’t want to bother with another daily commute. This would provide a way for them to make that happen while also transforming our neighborhoods into a lively, mixed use live-work environment.
6. An elementary school is close enough so that most children can walk from their home.
Summer break means that kids are spared the worst months of summer, so the walk is mostly pleasant. Of course, the entire length should be shaded, and every morning there should be someone at each road crossing to stop traffic and allow the kids to safely cross the street.
7. There are small playgrounds accessible to every dwelling — not more than 150 meters away.
We have a unique opportunity to create a hybrid community center by merging a playground with a mosque. Both have to be within walking distance of every dwelling, so why not combine the two? The playground becomes part of the mosque infrastructure. During prayer time, adults using the mosque will create a feeling of safety through community policing. It can become a new hybrid community center; a mosque, playground, learning center and local library all in one seamless small urban space.
8. Streets within the neighborhood form a connected network, which disperses traffic by providing a variety of pedestrian and vehicular routes to any destination.
I’m not sure how this can be retro-fit into our existing neighborhoods. Most of our inner streets are branches off a main 1st street that wraps around the neighborhood.
9. The streets are relatively narrow and shaded by rows of trees. This slows traffic, creating an environment suitable for pedestrians and bicycles.
I think we should experiment with the idea of a shared space; meaning a street that has none of the traditional means of dividing up the road into pedestrian/vehicle areas (no curb, only road markers). This seems counter-intuitive, but wherever it’s implemented it has improved pedestrian safety by slowing down cars. Of course, this might be asking too much of Kuwaitis, but it might be feasible in areas within the neighborhood center which might have a schedule whereby driving could be prohibited at weekends.
10. Buildings in the neighborhood center are placed close to the street, creating a well-defined outdoor room.
This is all about shading and creating a pleasant micro-climate. The courtyard cooling effect is our main weapon here; trapping a pool of cool air that is further cooled through mechanical and passive means. The center should have lots of seating and fountains. It’s the heart of the community and where the main mosque of the neighborhood is located where Friday, Qiam and Eid prayers are held.
11. Parking lots and garage doors rarely front the street. Parking is relegated to the rear of buildings, usually accessed by alleys.
This, of course, is a major part of the problem. Even when a pavement exists, it is usually filled entirely with cars. This forces people to walk on the street, which either makes them decide not to walk or exposes them to avoidable danger. This has to stop. There has to be a mechanism for punishing people for having more cars than they can handle. I would much rather have cars park on the street than on the sidewalk, actually. That would be a better solution, as it means that there is always a safe place to walk. To make this happen, new legislation would decree that a 2-3m wide sidewalk adjacent to the street on both sides of the road is public property and all cars parked on it will be fined. Of course, you can still park your car on the street. Instead of having shading devices that used to cover the parked cars, we should plant trees that line every street. This looks a lot better than shades, and also filters dust from the air.
In places where the road is way too big, we could simply increase the size of the sidewalk so that you can both park your car and walk comfortably at the same time. I’m not sure if its feasible to have street fronts that are completely devoid of cars, but the current situation should not continue.
-A rare side alley in a Kuwaiti neighborhood
12. Certain prominent sites at the termination of street vistas or in the neighborhood center are reserved for civic buildings. These provide sites for community meetings, education, and religious or cultural activities.
This makes sense also because it provides people with a frame of reference. Some neighborhoods can look very similar, and having an easily definable building is great for quickly calibrating yourself and understanding where you are.
13. The neighborhood is organized to be self-governing. A formal association debates and decides matters of maintenance, security, and physical change. Taxation is the responsibility of the larger community.
This is very, very important. We have to harness the menacingly powerful Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) mentality. Having the neighborhood be self-governing means that nobody feels powerless to change even the most minor thing. It would be fertile ground for grass-roots activism and provides a great opportunity for anyone to have their voice heard and participate.
All of these ideas aren’t meant to be a guide for how to build new neighborhoods. There is nothing in the list that we can’t really do now in our existing neighborhoods. All it takes is for us identify the problems and offer solutions for this change to happen.