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Is enough being done to shape the public realm in Saudi Giga urban projects? asks Hadi Khatib. His findings are as published in AMEinfo of  September 25, 2020.

When it comes to building cities, developers need to understand target customers to uncover their needs and priorities and allow them to share feedback and make sure that what’s being built actually works for them

– Technology like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) help achieve placemaking
– Three Saudi Kingdom Cities will be part of the world’s top 100 Global Cities
– Cities are facing difficulties where there is surging demand on infrastructure, services, mobility and housing

There are key experience considerations when planning master developments, giga projects, and cities.

Kristine Pitts, Director of ExperienceLab  Middle East says “In a country that is rapidly changing and developing like Saudi Arabia, and with increasing competition for people’s attention, in-depth understanding of target audiences and actively designing with and for them will be key to attracting them to live, work and play. Build it and they will come is a risky strategy.”

Cities from scratch

KSA’s giga projects such as NEOM are cities from scratch where new residents, office workers, and visitors need to collectively create new communities within the newly built structure. 

In Qiddiya, Saudi is creating spaces for Saudis seeking a different kind of lifestyle, and for expats seeking something that feels familiar compared to what they are used to. But what draws them? What are the deciding factors that make them choose to live, set up their workplace, or spend their Friday afternoons?

Public Realm in Saudi Giga Urban Projects?

ExperienceLab encourages bringing the residents, visitors, and office workers into the design process to collaboratively define and shape patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution.

Physical spaces are defined by their physical edges, but places are defined by the people, activities, and engagements within them.  

Placemaking

‘Placemaking’ refers to a collaborative process by which to shape the public realm in order to maximize shared value. The concept facilitates creative patterns of use, paying particular attention to the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place and support its ongoing evolution with the intention of creating public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and well-being. 

Public Realm in Saudi Giga Urban Projects?

Technology, like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), helps achieve this when showcasing designs before plans are finalized. 

Planning ahead

The best places are those that have adapted to change, and not being constrained or limited by short-sighted planning, architecture, or engineering.

Obvious factors to look at are green spaces, experiences, and what drives authentic community relationships.  

Office workers need more than office space; they need the urban realm, a place to take time out, eat, and socialize.

People also need a way to get there! Where they live is a factor of their proximity to work, schools, and healthcare needs.

Public Realm in Saudi Giga Urban Projects?

Also, technology underpins great cities, whether that’s accommodating autonomous transport, smart buildings, or adapting our spaces for the use of mobile technology.  

The Global Future Cities Index measures a total of 21 metrics against 24 participating Global Cities – a total of 504 data points.

Three Saudi Kingdom Cities will be part of the world’s top 100 Global Cities: The Red Sea, NEOM, and Qiddiya.  

Aecom and NEOM

America’s largest design engineering firm, Aecom, has been appointed to handle the design and support of the “backbone infrastructure” for NEOM, a futuristic, intelligent, and sustainable urban living and development set to deliver some of the highest quality living standards that the world has ever seen.  

The need for a public realm

According to UN-Habitat, public spaces now comprise just 2% of the area of Middle Eastern cities, compared with 12% in the average European city. Often, the requirement for new infrastructure comes at the expense of green spaces. For example, in Riyadh, the land devoted to parks, squares, and other public spaces per person has fallen by 80% in half a century. 

Learning from the recent past

Jeddah is a radically re-planned city in a rapidly developing economy, but one where largely unusable public spaces have fallen short of meeting people’s everyday needs and aspirations.

A recent massive survey showed many participants having a negative view of public space quality both within their neighborhoods and citywide. 

When asked how far public spaces attract people, respondents thought they did not. Most residents say increased distances between buildings discourage people from exploring outdoor areas with wider streets and widely dispersed spaces.  

Regarding the design and construction of public spaces within modern neighborhoods, most pointed at the lack of such spaces and pedestrian networks. The rigid edges and poor finishes of public spaces negatively affected visual character, creating unpleasant urban images, some respondents said. Also, the lack of shaded areas and climate protection discouraged the public from outdoor areas.

The New Jeddah waterfront was described as suffering from traffic congestion, crowds, litter, the careless attitudes of visitors, and a lack of well-maintained public toilets. 

Jeddah has a shortage of affordable housing which means that more than one million people, a third of the population, live in unplanned settlements.  

The common tales of cities facing difficulties include surging demand on infrastructure and services, mobility constraints, housing backlogs, limited access to clean water, rising pollution levels, lack of waste management and environmental sustainability, among others. 

Saudi has witnessed a steep rise in urban population (over 83% of the population now lives in urban areas) and infrastructure demand resulted from tremendous economic growth.