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Gulf First Urban Planning and Development Conference 22 - 24 February 2006, Kuwait

Socio-Cultural Sustainability and Urban Development in Kuwait

Dr. Yasser Mahgoub Kuwait University

Introduction • The quality of contemporary built environment in Kuwait is criticized by specialists and the public as being unfriendly, hostile and lacking the sense of belonging.

Introduction There are several sets of problems that are related to the current urban environment in Kuwait city. They include: – Problems related to the dependency on cars for transportation. – Problems related to the absence of the human dimension in the design of streets and urban areas. – Problems related to the design of the governmental and private neighborhoods. – Problems related to the quality of life in the downtown area as it is occupied by foreigners and not citizens. – Problems related to the zoning and land use of the downtown area.

Introduction • The hypothesis of this paper is that current problems observed in Kuwait city are the result of early planning decisions and subsequent developments during the second half of the 20th century that focused on environmental and economic considerations and not on social and cultural considerations.


Background • The built environment found in Kuwait today is a product of decisions made during its early stages of planning and construction. Kuwait was mostly isolated from external influences until the discovery of oil during the 1940's.

Background • The fast speed of transformation that Kuwait went through from fishing and trading vernacular settlement to a modern, planned metropolis was the result of efforts made by the Kuwaiti’s to utilize the wealth generated by the discovery of oil to improve their living conditions and join the developed, modern world.

Background • Prior to 1952, Kuwait was a vernacular settlement overlooking the Arabian Gulf and composed of courtyard houses built using mud brick along narrow alleys. • Traditional houses lined along narrow streets, looking inward into courtyards suitable for climatic conditions and social needs.

Kuwait Before 1950

Background • The city was surrounded by semi-circular defensive wall constructed in 1920, in two months, to protect it from the tribal attacks.

The First Master Plan in 1952 • After the discovery of oil with economic quantities during the thirties and its exportation during the forties and the immediate wealth generated by its sales, the rulers of the country appointed the British firm Monprio, Spencly and Macfarlen to propose a “Plan” for the development of the city of Kuwait.

The First Master Plan in 1952 • The main objective of the master plan was to transform the vernacular settlement of Kuwait into a modern town according to the standards of modern town planning at that time. • As stated by the planners, “Our main objectives are to illustrate and describe the improvements which we consider necessary for the development of Kuwait in accordance with the highest standards of modern town planning.”

The First Master Plan in 1952 •

The matters which Monprio et al regarded as being of “primary importance� in the replanning of the town were as follows: (a) the provision of a modern road system appropriate to the traffic conditions in Kuwait, (b) the location of suitable zones for public buildings, industry, commerce, schools, and other purposes, (c) the choice of zones for new houses and other buildings needed in residential areas, both inside and outside the town wall, (d) the selection of sites for parks, sports ground, school playing fields and other open spaces, (c) the creation of a beautiful and dignified town centre, (f) the planting of trees and shrubs along the principal roads and at other important points in the town, and (g) the provision of improved main roads linking Kuwait with the adjoining towns and villages.

The First Master Plan in 1952 • The “Plan” led to the demolition of the walled city and its traditional houses to provide land for economic and public facilities and the establishment of western style neighborhoods surrounded by modern highways for cars and vehicles.

The First Master Plan in 1952 • This sudden change from a vernacular settlement to a modern urban environment had a dramatic impact on the quality of urban life. As proclaimed by the late Kuwaiti architect Huda AlBahr in 1985, “The changes in architecture experienced by Kuwait over the last thirty years or so, are almost beyond imagination.”

The subsequent master plans • The late fifties and early sixties witnessed the implementation of the first master plan by the Ministry of Public Works under the supervision of the Kuwait Development Board established in 1950. The demolition of the wall and old houses in residential areas inside it to clear land for the construction of new public buildings paralleled the construction of new roads and residential neighborhoods south of it in the desert.

The subsequent master plans • The neighborhoods were self sufficient entities with schools, shops, mosques and other services. As Gardiner put, “there was no need to come into the city except for work because every thing was there”



The subsequent master plans • As part of the government’s policy for the distribution of wealth, low income families were given public houses built by the government while rich families were compensated with plots of land and money for their demolished houses and acquired land.

The subsequent master plans • Building regulations proposed by the Plan allowed for the construction of individual “villas” on these plots of land illustrates buildings and houses erected during the 50’s and 60’s reflecting the modern style of architecture that dominated this era.

The subsequent master plans • The modern urbanization in Kuwait has passed through significant stages. During each a Master Plan or a review of the master plan was produced, which contributed to the development of modern Kuwait (Kuwait Municipality, 1980).

Kuwait Master Plans Several master plans were developed to guide the rapid urbanization of Kuwait. They included: 1. The First Master Plan by Monoprio, Spencely and Macfarlane in 1952. 2. The Second Master Plan by Colin Buchanan and Partners in 1968. 3. First Review of the 2nd Master Plan by Shankland Cox Partnership in 1977 4. Re-examination of Master Plan by Colin Buchanan and Partners in 1983 5. A proposed Third Master Plan by Kuwait Municipality in 1997. 6. Currently, Kuwait Engineering Group in collaboration with Colin Buchanan were commissioned to develop a new master plan review in 2003.





The subsequent master plans • In 1968 a Second Master Plan was developed by Colin Buchanan and Partners that stretched the city north and south along the Gulf shores. It also called for the dissemination of the city centre by creating new centres to overcome the growing traffic congestion problems. • In 1977 the British planning firm Shakland and Cox proposed the establishment of two new cities.

The subsequent master plans • During the eighties several remarkable buildings, designed by internationally recognised architects, were constructed in Kuwait. They included: The National Airport by Kenzo Tange, The National Assembly by Jorn Utzon, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs by Reima Pietila, The Central Bank by Arne Jacobsen, and The Kuwait Water Towers by Lindstorm, Egnell and Bjorn.

Sustainability • Sustainable development is defined as “meeting the needs of current and future generations through an integration of environmental protection, social advancement and economic prosperity” (Government of Western Australia, 2003. p12).

Sustainability • •

This concept concentrates on three key strands: environmental sustainability involves using ‘best practice’ in the management of energy, transport, waste and pollution; social sustainability concerns the ‘greening’ of trade, investment and service industries and the notion of improved ‘personal’ responsibility for all members of society, and finally, economic sustainability involves self-reliance and the objective of local equity.

Impact on Socio-cultural Sustainability 1. The problems of planning for the car • The automobile dependent planning created an automobile dependent society where almost each private car is occupied by only one person. • This resulted urban environment encourages the use of the car as primary means of transportation. • Public transportation is used by poor expatriate workers. • This dependency on cars raises the levels of air pollution and result an increasing traffic problems.

Impact on Socio-cultural Sustainability 1. The problems of planning for the car • The rising number of cars, coupled with lack of adequate parking places inside houses, resulted in occupation of sidewalks by sheds for cars, creating visual pollution and socially hostile neighborhoods.

Impact on Socio-cultural Sustainability 1. The problems of planning for the car • The compact traditional design of the city was replaced by a spread modern planning. Attached courtyard houses were replaced by detached villas, narrow shaded alleys for pedestrians were replaced by wide streets for cars. They prevented people from using them for walking. The spread planning does not encourage people to walk to their close by destinations.

Impact on Socio-cultural Sustainability 2. Demolition of historical buildings • Destruction of the majority traditional architecture buildings occurred during the implementation of the “Plan” in the 1960’s. The deteriorating condition of the handful remaining buildings is raising a concern of their complete absence in the near future.

Impact on Socio-cultural Sustainability 3. Neighborhood planning • The modern “villas” lack any common style or character. The collection of styles and characters found in residential neighborhoods is comparable. As Al-Bahr put it, “to visiting a Disneyland of residential manifestations.” (Al-Bahr, 1985) Qabazard argues that “as personal wealth increased, Kuwaiti citizens began experimenting with new styles of buildings. Architects from locations as varied as America, Belgium, India and Iran descended on the country – earning huge commissions and designing whatever their clients demanded. (Qabazard, 1999)

Impact on Socio-cultural Sustainability 3. Neighborhood planning • The distance between the outward looking villas is not appropriate to maintain acceptable levels of privacy required by people of a culture that value privacy highly. Windows of different buildings face each other allowing visual intrusion into neighboring houses. The windows are never opened and balconies and seldom utilized due to dependency on air-conditioning and privacy requirements.

Impact on Socio-cultural Sustainability 3. Neighborhood planning • The windows and balconies of the private villas are rarely used. Modifications of building bylaws added to the problem by reducing the distance between houses and reducing the level of attained privacy. Many of the new houses are utilizing the traditional concept of the courtyard to create a private space within the house.

Impact on Socio-cultural Sustainability 4. Downtown problems • Discontinued streets are created by separate individual buildings without any tie or common style. For examples, Fahd Al Salem St. attached buildings in the beginning then detached buildings afterwards. While each building is designed and constructed according to a specific view and solution, the collection of buildings do not form a coherent character or identity.

Impact on Socio-cultural Sustainability 4. Downtown problems • Large, vacant, and undeveloped lots of lands are common inside and outside the downtown area are contributing to the visual discontinuity of the urban landscape.

Impact on Socio-cultural Sustainability 4. Downtown problems • The planning of Kuwait city did not provide adequate housing for Kuwaitis in the downtown area. Only one, unsuccessful housing project for the Kuwaitis called AlSawaber is located within the old city. Living away from the down town contributed to the absence of Kuwaitis from the downtown area. There are efforts to bring the Kuwaitis back to the downtown, but without adequate housing that satisfies their new needs, the downtown will continue to be occupied by expatriates.

Conclusions • Kuwait still has a long way to go to regain a viable urban environment. Urgent measures that should be taken include; the renovation and reconstruction of badly damaged traditional buildings, the development of mixed use downtown development strategy, the provision of appropriate housing units to encourage of Kuwaitis to live in the downtown, the integration of housing and commercial activities, and implementation of revitalization projects for the downtown area.

Conclusions •

The above measures are expected to be faced by obstacles that the policymakers and urban planners in Kuwait should try to overcome. These include: 1. Building bylaws and regulations: Conflicting and contentiously changing building bylaws and regulations are major contributor to the deteriorating urban environment. Modifications of building regulations were mainly concerned with increasing the building volume and floor area through the increase of floor area ratio and the reduction of setbacks on the expense of quality of the environment and community comfort. (Mahgoub, 2002)

Conclusions 2. Neighborhood design: The “outdated� approach to neighborhood design practiced by the Public Authority for Housing Welfare since its foundation as in 1954 should be modified to improve the quality and design of future neighborhoods. New neighborhood design guidelines should be implemented to achieve a sustainable neighborhood design. See Fig. 6)

Conclusions 3. The car: Jefferson argues that, “there are no indications that the car will be abandoned in the near future. Its presence therefore has to be acknowledged and regarded as a challenge in the planning of the urban environment.� (Jefferson et al., 2001. p. 23) The car is a commodity that should be accommodated in the planning and design of urban environments. Parking for private cars should not occupy the sidewalks provided mainly for pedestrians.

Conclusions 4. Zoning Regulations: Mixed use planning should be encouraged to improve the livability and excitement of the urban environment. Segregation between functions and peoples proved to be disadvantageous. It only succeeded in creating hostile and unfriendly environment.

Conclusions 5. The building industry: Encouraging the building industry to be sustainable in the use of material and construction methods could be achieved through economic incentives. It will also require the development of consensus on the adoption of green and sustainable building activities. This is where leadership support from officials and leading figures in the society is essential to encourage the adoption of these strategies. Inadequate knowledge and publications regarding the concept and methods of sustainable development in Arabic is hindering the development of public awareness and participation.

Conclusions • This paper recommends the adoption of the framework proposed by Wheeler that suggests main directions for urban sustainability that include: 1) Compact, efficient land use, 2) Less automobile use, better access, 3) Efficient resource use, less pollution and waste, 4) Restoration of natural systems, 5) Good housing and living environments, 6) A healthy social ecology, 7) A sustainable economics, 8) Community participation and involvement, and 9) Preservation of local culture and wisdom. (Wheeler, 1998, p. 439).

Conclusions • While the problems of the urban environment in Kuwait might be similar to urban problems found in other parts of the world, but they require uncommon solutions to avoid the mistake of copying solutions from other parts of the world. The solutions should be stemming from the local context and conditions. As Erickson (1980, p.87) put it, “it is impossible for anyone from the West to do any more than attempt to understand the environmental and social conditions and the ideas that have given rise to architectural styles in the Muslim countries. The final expressions of those ideas and factors has got to come from within the Islamic world.â€?

Thank you.

Socio-Cultural Sustainability and Urban Development in Kuwait  

Yasser Mahgoub Presentation - Gulf First Urban Planning and Development Conference 2006 Socio-Cultural Sustainability and Urban Development...