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Rescripting Riyadh: how the capital of Saudi Arabia employs urban megaprojects as catalysts to enhance the quality of life within the city’s neighborhoods

Anna Klingmann (Department of Architecture, New York Institute of Technology, New York, USA)

Journal of Place Management and Development

ISSN: 1753-8335

Article publication date: 5 August 2022

Issue publication date: 27 January 2023

355

Abstract

Purpose

This study aims to investigate whether the correlation between Saudi Arabia’s social and economic reforms, urban megaprojects and sustainable urbanism can lead to an increased quality of life (QoL) in the capital, create a comprehensive lifestyle setup for Riyadh’s residents while also aiming to attract foreign investment.

Design/methodology/approach

This research examines five government-sponsored mega-destinations and their master plans against the objectives of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030’s Quality of Life Program. Furthermore, the author analyzed to what extent the proposed projects fulfill global mandates of sustainable urban development and how they might help raise the QoL for Riyadh’s residents. The author’s methodology rests primarily on detailed policy evaluation proposed by Vision 2030, literature research and data collected from proposed urban development plans. In parallel, the author conducted informal conversations with people living in affected areas and architectural offices who are involved in the design of the five megaprojects. After collecting the data for each project, the author compared the QoL Program criteria to the data of the proposed megaprojects to examine to what extent the proposed designs implement the QoL criteria of Vision 2030. In the last step, the author evaluated whether and how the proposed plans adhere to globally established guidelines of sustainable urban revitalization by studying possible overlaps and contingencies on an urban level.

Findings

The analysis reveals that although each case study project targets one or more specific lifestyle domains, the projects combined fulfill all lifestyle categories specified in Saudi Arabia’s QoL program. In addition, each project contributes measures to improve livability in the categories of urban design and environment, infrastructure and transport, social engagement and safety while also providing a range of economic and educational opportunities for different demographics. In terms of sustainable development criteria, the analysis demonstrates that all case studies provide ample measures to enhance Riyadh’s mobility by providing greenways for pedestrians and cyclists, which connect to public transport. Furthermore, when strategically combined as a series of urban layers, the projects demonstrate potential to form urban synergies among different lifestyle domains that could positively affect existing and proposed neighborhoods, particularly when extended through an inclusive, participatory planning framework, which, in turn, could significantly raise the QoL for a broad socioeconomic demographic.

Research limitations/implications

This research reveals the complex role of megaprojects as change agents for socioeconomic reforms, as signifiers of livability and as planning frameworks to implement sustainable urbanism in Saudi Arabia’s capital, while also creating a lifestyle infrastructure for Riyadh’s residents.

Practical implications

With their sensitive approach to climate, ecologically driven landscape projects and regionalist architecture inspired by the traditional Arab city, these case study projects may serve as an example to other countries in hot arid zones on sustainably revitalizing their urban environments.

Social implications

This study demonstrates how social and economic reforms intertwine with sustainable urban planning and placemaking to create a comprehensive lifestyle setup for Riyadh’s residents that has not previously existed. On the planning side, this includes creating a massive public infrastructure that encourages walkability and residents’ active participation in recreational, cultural, entertainment and sports activities. However, as the analysis has also revealed, while offering a large number of public facilities, the projects do not embrace a mixed-income project model, which would allow low-income families to live within a market-rate environment. In addition, one of the projects entails the displacement of benefit low-income and migrant communities. Although the government has a separate program that specifically aims at providing affordable housing in other areas of the city, these model destinations primarily target luxury tourists and affluent Saudis, potentially cementing existing socio-spatial divides in the city. Consequently, the megaprojects demonstrate Saudi Arabia’s conflicted response to the logic of entrepreneurial neoliberalism: on the one side, progressive attempts to promote an egalitarian approach to urban livability; on the other, strategic efforts to use megaprojects as spectacular showcases in the global marketplace.

Originality/value

The correlation between Saudi Arabia’s socioeconomic reforms, megaprojects and sustainable urbanism in Riyadh has not been previously explored. Compared to Western countries’ cities, few attempts have been made to investigate the role of livability in the context of emerging countries’ fast-growing urban areas. This paper presents a considerable case study in Saudi Arabia that ties into a more extensive debate on cultural globalization where cities, particularly in the developing world, use megaprojects as change agents to reconstruct their urban territories according to standardized livability indices to elevate their image in the global marketplace.

Keywords

Acknowledgements

The author wants to thank Prince Sultan University for its generous commitment to encourage original research, Samia Khan for providing valuable assistance in producing the visuals and Dirk Dumuschat for reviewing the drafts of the manuscript.

Citation

Klingmann, A. (2023), "Rescripting Riyadh: how the capital of Saudi Arabia employs urban megaprojects as catalysts to enhance the quality of life within the city’s neighborhoods", Journal of Place Management and Development, Vol. 16 No. 1, pp. 45-72. https://doi.org/10.1108/JPMD-06-2021-0062

Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2022, Emerald Publishing Limited

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