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Experts discuss ways to make cities livable

Saudi Arabia, May 10, 2018

Experts participating on the second day of the Humanizing Saudi Cities conference here on Wednesday focused on how to get three Saudi cities into the top 100 of “Most livable cities in the world” list by 2030.

They said that cities could metaphorically be compared with an animal, in that they have nervous systems (communications and administration) blood stream (traffic and people movement) and sinew and bone (physical infrastructure).

However, government requires flexibility in its administration as cities differ in their character and composition of population and decisiveness and transparency in finance and budget. A ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach simply would not work, they concluded.

Day two of the conference was one of huge contrasts.

Opening with a panel discussion on the methodologies and techniques of physically delivering the infrastructure, the session was followed by an exuberant and iconoclastic set of presentations by three speakers who had deep experience of city planning and building.

Following on their initial admonition of, “Don’t trust experts” their advice was distilled into three rules for city building: “Don’t copy US models; trust yourself and your culture; make them comfortable for people.”

The representatives of major ministries, Rural Affairs, Economy and Planning, Environment Water and Agriculture, Finance and Haj and Umrah debated and analyzed the mechanics of delivering the 2030 Vision that the Kingdom has set itself and analyzed at close quarters the delivery of the infrastructure in a humane style.

They agreed that there was a need to get back to “human friendly standards, not just environmental ones” but acknowledged clearly the link between a sustainable and well-tended environment and its humanizing effect in the urban environment. “The city is for all”, they agreed echoing conclusions from yesterday’s sessions.

Unsurprisingly, water and air quality came top of the environmental considerations.

It was the session on Creating Vibrant, Livable cities that really brought the conference to life, building on the seeds sown on Tuesday concerning engagement of people in the formation of a human-oriented city.

What is livability?, asked Herbert Dreiseitl author of “The Creative City”. Using the visual example of a water droplet, he argued that as it enters a pool a structure develops, but within seconds changes dramatically as it enlarges into its new environment.

“The system of the drop is full of instability, changes rapidly and eventually dissipates becoming part of the new environment”, he said. He argued that a city had significant similarities in the development of its systems, but generally people are not aware of it.

Livability, he thought, can have many expressions — through the senses as sound, light, atmosphere and also psychologically as social awareness and spiritual reconnection.

He noted that in many countries “up to 50 percent of long term sick leave is due to mental disorders, mainly depression” and that by 2020, “depression will be the biggest contributor to the global burden of disease.” He saw a direct connection between that and the fact that very soon, two thirds of the planet will live in cities.

He recommended that city planners should take on board the opinions of the local population and involve them in city projects.

Michael Sorkin, Founder of the Michael Sorkin Studio, gave a passionate presentation that brought ‘out of the box’ political aspect to city planning.

He set the tone by suggesting that a city by government planners necessarily had a political aspect as spaces were created for people and they had to fit what was given. It was he said the classic expression of “putting people in their place and the people knowing their place”. That he contended has all changed.

One of the outcomes of the directed planning was that people in prescribed areas had rights; these rights included the right to change the space and the right to leave it alone. Indeed, the theoretical ‘city’ had rights, as people constitute the living city.

Sorkin explained that private people or companies could do deals with city planners to change the cityscape and the social and community life of their environment. He gave Zucotti Park in New York as an example.

It became well known after the Occupy Wall Street protests, and is a result of a Public Private Partnership deal. United States Steel created the park in 1968, after the property owners negotiated its creation with city officials. The deal was, taller building for a park. Today, thousands of workers, shoppers and tourists enjoy the dappled shade, benches, and tables in this popular urban oasis. They come here for the food vendors, to play chess at the permanent tables, and to shop at one of the city's smallest green markets.

Significantly, said Sorkin, it is private property with public access, which means that the public can use it outside the reach of city regulations! This he averred was engagement with the people and ownership of the space in a truly humanistic form.

Referring to the city-authority planning styles that created spaces and require people to fit, Fred Kent, Founder of the Project for Public Spaces, said, “You can’t apply 17th century planning ideas to 20th century society.”

He said, “If architecture is frozen music, then planning is composition.”

It was a truism that if you planned for traffic, you got more traffic. It followed then that to plan for people and you would get more people, interaction and a sense of community.

He gave a striking example of a project in central land-locked Detroit where a sandy beach was built. Immediately it became a popular place and a vibrant public place.

“Public places do not have to be long term projects,” he said. “Short term – one to four months and long term only two year can transform areas. Crowd source ideas through social media and develop ideas from the inside outwards.”

He recommended that planners be flexible – “it takes time to see what people want, so experiment, give projects a couple of years.”

“Above all,” Kent suggested, “a place must be comfortable for the people in it and the visitor, a place where they want to be and can feel whole.”