The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces

By September 12, 2009 18 Comments

Kuwait has forgotten the value of a good public space. The built environment of Kuwait City does not reflect the inherent character and tradition of its citizens. Kuwaitis are a very social people, yet the city has no truly public space. This spatial void has been filled with private malls and developments which have corrupted the Kuwaiti culture. Why have historical public spaces, which have been integral to urban life, now become obsolete? What are some solutions for regeneration and spatial evolution that can revive the forgotten idea of a public space?
[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/5298850 w=500&h=333] This is a wonderful video called ‘The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces’ and is the companion film to the book of the same name. It is a revolutionary study of the urban plazas of New York. I would recommend anyone wanting to understand the value of the public urban spaces and life that is missing from Kuwait to watch it. It attempts to show how basic human nature and intuition perceives and judges how good a public space is. The closest thing we have to this are the densely packed cafes of certain malls and the outdoor space of AlSalhiya. Are there any other spaces which can be considered to be successful small urban spaces? What kind of social life do they allow to happen? Which spaces in Kuwait City have the potential to become successful and what kind of intervention would be needed?
I personally think that the linear plaza between the end of 4th ring road and Salem alMubarak street is ripe for renewal. There is a very large amount of pedestrian traffic and the narrowness of the site allows for plenty of shading. Of course, it would be transformed into a pedestrian only promenade. Instead of the jam-packed parking scene, I would design a long, linear park that would incorporate plenty of seating and shading. The shops would benefit from this renewal even though the cars are no longer there. Once a pedestrian culture is initiated, this linearity would begin to extend further down Salem alMubarak street and become part of Marina Mall and Salmiya Park.

Join the discussion 18 Comments

  • Miss Good Egg says:

    Hi. I just wanted to say that I like your blog. I find it unique with a good cause. I started working recently with a lot of Architects and your posts are helping me understand the lingo and some basic engineering ideas 🙂
    Keep up the good work!

  • Victoria says:

    for me this is the one of the most crucial aspects of whats lacking in in Kuwait’s urban social fiber. salem al mubarak is a wonderful opportunity but unfortunately the bulldozer has already made its mark in a lot of the buildings there…

  • Miss Good Egg, thanks a lot.
    Victoria, I agree, it is very unappreciated and neglected. About Salem alMubarak, I really don’t care that much about the buildings. What’s important is the public space between them. This is the key. If the quality of that space becomes so wonderful that people go there just to walk, then developers will invest in far better projects that will fight over who can connect with the linear park in the most interesting way. The propagation of this idea, of pleasant public spaces, can’t and will not come from developers. It has to be a government initiative.

  • Mishari Ali says:

    Firstly i would just like to say great job on the website. It really brings to light the problems of Kuwait’s urban and demographic situation. Not only that but it’s nice to see some initiative taken into creating / suggesting the solutions.
    I agree that Salem Al Mubarak street is in fact an ideal starting point, as although it remains a car park it has the potential to be a perfect outdoor high street. Unfortunately the situation standing in Kuwait is the publics unwillingness to be outdoors when they shop. Many say that it is way too hot to be outdoors but forget that Kuwait has very good weather most year round, if you ignore the few hot summer months, even in which with the correct scheme and design proposal can be corrected to suit. I guess since the introduction of the glorious air conditioning unit Kuwait has forgotten how to build and design to climate instead of designing anything and slapping as much a/c as needed to fit.

  • Victoria says:

    at MA:
    you are completely on the mark about the “weather” and extreme environments. if you look at plenty of cities in countries with extreme cold during winter seasons, this has not stopped them from shopping and living outdoors and using public spaces. Many cities in the South have hot AND humid climates and still have thriving outdoor areas. Unfortunately, I think people have become complacent with air conditioning and have mistakenly come to see AC units as a measure of development and modernization, when in fact, the consequences of air conditioning on the built environment have been detrimental to maintaining a sense of community.

  • Khobiz says:

    I totally agree however i really dont see it ever ever happening. When word first came that Old salmiya was sold, and that a MALL was going to be built, i thought that was the dumbest idea ever. Instead of closing the area and making it a pedestiran only area, with shades (like u mentioned) but in reality, to the business man, mall would make more money.

  • Mishari, thanks. Also, even in the hottest summer month the weather at night is very tolerable and sometimes even pleasant. With the right microclimate the space can be very pleasant all year round.
    Victoria, yeah it seems that people have just given up trying to control the weather and simply reject it completely. That’s very unfortunate, because it greatly limits the urban potential of the city.
    Khobiz, I don’t think I agree with that. I think malls in Kuwait have already reached a saturation point. There are so many malls now that are very much the same. Any shopping/leisure space that can offer some kind of differentiation will succeed more than just another mall. An outdoor yet comfortable park/leisure/shopping promenade in the heart of the city is just that. It offers everything you’d want in a private mall, but it also belongs to everyone. Street performers and artists entertaining the passersby. Street vendors selling all kinds of food and junk. It’s noisy in parts, and quiet and relaxing at others. It really has the potential to be something entirely new in Kuwait, but there has to be a grass-roots initiative to make it happen. We have to demand that something be done, and since the street is a public space, they can just convert it into a linear park and the buildings just adapt to the change.

  • Bu Yousef says:

    Nice idea…
    One day!

  • Faisal Asad says:

    I recall that a proposal for reforming Salmiyah as a whole by a local investor, it was presented to the Mjlis Baladi a year or so ago. I think it also called to pedestrianize these streets.
    That was the closest thing I saw to realizing this vision. But of course, bureaucracy and stupidity prevail over any genuine effort to reform.

  • Faisal Asad says:

    Found a link to an article about this proposal:

  • Deema says:

    hi Barrak, I wrote a post on algorithmic architecture, I would love to know your thought about it (and Amena’s since her focus is on parametric urbanism)..
    good luck!

  • Nouf says:

    Hii Barak,
    I have always imagined that this area would be an amazing pedestrian area with coffee shops and vendors along the line…unfortunalty no one is seeing this, ppl here are soo short sighted..there is no place for inovation in this country everything is a copy of everything else! and “habba”
    I hope someone who has great influence in this country or big money would see this post and decide to do something about it
    Keep it up. we need ppl like you in this country
    Thank you

  • passing by says:

    Dear Barrak,
    i have been reading your blog for quite some good time now, but i never posted a comment. I don’t know why i decided to post one today, although i have been impressed with alot of your topics before. Nevertheless, i would like to encourage you to keep up the good thoughts and work. There are alot of Kuwaitis like you in this country, with great set of skills and highly intellectual. Alot of which had a very good esteemed start with their careers, yet failed to maintain the momentum of their motivations and productivity. We are going through some bad times in Kuwait due to multiple factors. But i believe we will be out of this time, going into the better, soon inshalla.
    Going forward, i hope you succeed in gaining an influential position within your domain, so Kuwait and Kuwaitis can see your thoughts transforming into reality.
    Same goes to Jasem & Amenah
    I miss the days when saying “Ana Kuwaiti” reflected greatness and strong productive personality.

  • Mark says:

    shade makes a huge difference. I walk my dog in Salem Mubarek street every morning. Whenever I walk under a tree you can feel a cool breeze even in summer. As soon as i step out of the shade its blistering heat again. sadly because a lot of trees were cut for some reason there are huge gaps without shade.
    The reason people don’t like shopping outdoors is because there isn’t a proper outdoor place to shop. Salem Mubarek has major issues one is terrible sidewalks. Some have shade, some don’t, some have garbage, some are covered in sand, it can be very disgusting… If the whole street was designed properly with lots of trees, no cars, continuous shade, specific garbage dumps etc.. then i think people would enjoy the experience of shopping outside a lot more.
    Malls are nice, I am a huge fan but when the weather is nice I enjoy a walk from the beginning of salem mubarek at the end of the 4th ring road all the way to sultan center at the end. but currently its not that easy to walk.

  • Faisal, that sounds like a very ambitious project. I don’t know if this is really the way to go about doing this. I’d rather it becomes a slow, evolving process rather than a rapid development. The reason I say this is that natural patterns of movement and activity are the best way to generate these urban conditions. If you try too hard to enforce them, you might end up making wrong judgments. This needs to be an emergent project that nobody really owns or controls, but is regulated, kept clean and secure.
    Nouf, i’m currently working on trying to visualize this idea and present it as a sort of quick photo-collage. Let’s hope that when people see the potential for themselves that it might instigate a movement for change.
    passing by, thank you for your kind words. Although your advice is good and appreciated, I never really thought of it in that way. I hope it won’t ever be a serious problem, but I see your point. I’m not expecting sudden transformative change anytime soon, but we must all fight for those little victories. That’s how we get real progress. Sounds cheesy, but it’s true.
    Mark, you’re absolutely right. Shade, especially trees, are critical. Not only are you being shielded from the sun, but the ground you walk on isn’t radiating a lot of solar heat either. If the street is narrow enough (and it is) then a large enough canopy will surely create a very pleasant microclimate. Add some water features and lots and lots of benches and you have a great public space already (as long as it’s not gated but free to enter 24/7). It’s not enough for me, I want something a lot more unique for this space, but that would be the bare minimum of expectations.

  • I must commend you on the excellent blog idea you have conceived here. It reads very well and has got an almost “Monocle” feel to it – Tyler Brûlé would be proud of you.

  • JimmyBean says:

    I don’t know If I said it already but …Hey good stuff…keep up the good work! 🙂 I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks,)
    A definite great read..Jim Bean

  • Tom says:

    Had finally a chance to finish watching all of the Small Urban Spaces snippets, which are absolutely wonderful..!
    We should put something similar together for Kuwait – be it a publication or even a short movie (or maybe a combination of both)…
    If you and your colleagues are interested (or any other individuals) perhaps we could meet up at some stage and knock heads regarding what such an endeavor could entail…
    You can reach me through my e-mail (which I believe is included automatically with this submission) or through any of my blogs…

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