Green Dreams: Reviving the Gardens of Riyadh
‘We travelled to the city of Yamama, which is also called Hajr … a beautiful city, verdant, with rivers and trees; inhabited by Arab tribes, most of whom belong to Bani Hanifa.’ Thus declared the famed Moroccan traveller Ibn Batuta in 1331 on visiting the location of what is now known as Riyadh. The statement evokes an image of a settlement that defies clichéd perception of desolate cities dominated by a desert landscape. But it also suggests that Arabs are a people seeking to escape the desert, striving for lush gardens and green meadows. That is of course not entirely true. Denizens of the Arabian Peninsula do like to spend time amidst the endless horizons of the desert landscape enjoying its solitude and privacy, a cherished traditional activity known as going to al-Bar (open land). Or drive across using all-terrain vehicles, in what is affectionally known as ‘dune bashing’.
Image 1: Wadi Hanifah, Riyadh. 1960
Yet while this applies to leisurely pursuits, examining urbanization in the region shows that there has indeed been a tendency to counteract the image of its inhabitants as ‘desert people’. When Cairo was founded in 969 – in a remote location away from the Nile – by the Fatimid general Jawhar al Siqilli a network of gardens both inside and outside its city walls was established. This drew the attention of travellers and visitors such as Ibn Hawqal who visited Cairo in the early years of the Fatimid caliphate mentioning that ‘Jawhar has made a strong wall around the city where the open space is three times greater than the built area, the city includes parks’ (Pradines & Khan, 2016). More recently Arab Gulf cities are extending their urban limits into the waters of the Gulf aiming to move away from the harsh landscape of the desert.
Yet with all the effort that is being expended by the region the situation in the wider Arab world is quite dire. The Economist in a 2016 article alarmingly proclaims that parks are disappearing. Citing UN Habitat it is noted that the amount of land devoted to parks, squares and other public spaces in Riyadh had fallen by 80% over the last century. Moreover, public spaces comprise just 2% of the area of Middle Eastern cities compared with 12% in the average European city. Such numbers are indeed alarming. In Cairo residents in a desperate search for any open space have appropriated bridges crossing the Nile, or traffic roundabouts, as a place for picnicking. But there are also success stories. For example, Al Azhar park, opened in 2005, was created on top of a garbage dump and has since become an important outlet for residents.
Image 2: Al-Azhar Park, Cairo
Throughout the world cities are reconfigured to become greener in recognition of the restorative qualities of parks and their demonstrable health benefits. Industrial sites, abandoned infrastructures, highways, are all repurposed to become green spaces benefiting city residents. From Paris's Promenade Plantée, a mid-19th century viaduct converted into an elevated park walkway in 1993; New York City’s Highline, a much-imitated project repurposing a disused railway track, opened in 2009; to Seoul’s Skygarden, a highway overpass converted into a botanical garden in 2017. Sometimes cities fight back and reject projects deemed to be too elaborate such as London’s doomed Garden Bridge. Ecological Urbanism, a new catch phrase, is the term used to describe such a shift in planning. The idea is to mitigate modernist tendencies from the 1950s and 1960s in which cities were planned with the stated aim of efficiency. Now the objective is to integrate open spaces and parks into the city, making them indispensable and part of people’s daily lives.
Image 3a: Promenade Plantée, Paris. A landscaped walkway on top a viaduct; and one of the many greened entrances to the walkway
Image 3b: Highline, NYC. Phase 2 passing near Hudson Yards. Disused rail tracks are used for landscaping.
Numerous metrics and measures are introduced to entice city officials to build more parks and public spaces. The World Health Organization recommends the availability of a minimum of 9 m2 of green space per individual with an ideal value of 50 m2 per capita. Accessibility is also considered. The standard is 7 m2 of green space per capita within 500 m walking distance. The Arab world in general falls well below such standards. Beirut has less than 1 m2, Damascus 2 and Baghdad 3.19 (Makhzoumi, 2016). Yet such numbers can vary widely. For example, it is claimed that Rabat has a share of 20 m2 per capita; Dubai is considered to have the highest percentage in the GCC at 2.49 (Almayouf, 2013), in spite of observations on the ground suggesting otherwise. Indeed my own calculations show that the percentage of green space is 1.6% from the total land area of metropolitan Dubai (Elsheshtawy, 2015). Such inconsistencies and discrepancies are mostly due to definitions concerning what constitutes ‘green space’. Whether it is purely based on vegetation or takes into account open public space, both formal and informal, and natural reserves – wetlands and the like.
The humanization initiative introduced by Riyadh’s former mayor Prince Abdulaziz bin Ayyaf entailed a series of components as noted in previous blogs: development of walking paths and reconstitution of city streets to facilitate pedestrian movement. Another major aspect of the initiative was what has been termed ‘Environment Development’ with the stated objective of restoring ‘balance to the urban fabric’ (Bin Ayyaf, 2017, p. 66). Development of green areas and open spaces was a main target. The former mayor noted that he saw a ‘certain antipathy between pedestrians and the street’. People favoured being inside air-conditioned shopping malls. In order to achieve this goal a series of tracks were developed by the municipality. The first one was adopting a new approach in dealing with existing parks. The second track necessitated developing new parks; to that effect the Municipality aimed to merge small and scattered neighbourhood parks into bigger parks. The third track concerned the establishment of parks with a capacity of more than a million square metres, serving the city at large. Coupled with street greenery and development of municipal plazas the aim was to increase the city’s share of green space and usage by residents.
Riyadh is portrayed as having one of the lowest share of green space per capita, standing at 0.86 m2 according to some calculations (Almayouf, 2013). Yet when I did my own measurements relying on latest data from the municipality the number was slightly higher, 0.97 m2. The overall share vis-à-vis the metropolitan area was 0.5%. Certainly low, but it should be noted that these measures do not include the massive Wadi Hanifah, a sprawling natural valley defining the city’s eastern edge. Its area totals around 4,400 km2, with the northeastern section passing through Riyadh. It is not entirely green but is comprised of a Wadi that acts as a reservoir for water flows during heavy rain downpours, is surrounded by Palm groves, and has various rock outcrops, desert formations, small lakes and the like. Significantly, since a recent major development it has turned into an important place for people to visit and enjoy as a natural outdoor environment. There are also massive natural reserves that have been opened such as the King Salman Nature Park in Banban, north of Riyadh. Other projects are in the pipeline: e.g. the revival of Wadi Sulay, lost in the midst of urbanization, marking the city’s eastern edge and estimated to be 110 km long. Unlike Wadi Hanifah it is seen as a reconstitution of a previously existing valley. The share of green space would increase significantly if these are taken into account.
Image 4a: Wadi Hanifah. Riyadh near Diriya section
Image 4b: King Salman Nature Park. Banban, Riyadh
Overall though the fact remains that Riyadh has a low percentage of green space. This is quite paradoxical given that the name of the city alludes to gardens. Its origins go back to well before the 15th century when it was comprised of a series of small and dispersed villages, which at some point were collectively referred to as Riyadh. The designation is the plural of ‘Rawda’ defined as: green land or meadow, a pleasant garden, or a place where water collects resulting in greenery. Indeed, the city was made up of a series of low-lying plains in which water would gather and thus result in the flourishing of green areas. Over the years however, and due to rapid urbanization in the 1960s and 1970s, the city witnessed a serious decline in the amount of green space. This was further compounded by an exponential increase in population – from less than a million in the 1970s to about 7 million in 2018. Accordingly, there was a need to provide housing resulting in massive sprawl which came at the expense of the provision of public parks. Realizing both the environmental and social perils of such developments the municipality made it a priority starting in the 1990s to mitigate this deficiency.
Looking at the most recently available data about parks that have been developed shows quite an impressive achievement in terms of sheer numbers. The provision of green services is structured along size, location and targeted users. The largest are city parks (Mutanazahat) accommodating users from across the city; on various occasions they become sites for celebrating national and religious events. Then there are residential ‘gardens’ (Hada’iq) serving specific neighbourhoods; linked to these, but in some instances designed as independent entities are Municipal plazas (Sahat al-Baladiy’ya) which are dedicated to sports facilities such as soccer fields and basketball courts, and include children playgrounds as well. To further serve the community associated with these neighbourhood gardens are services such as facilities for the physically challenged, providing them with a community centre; there are also Diwaniyas (meeting places) for the elderly – described as ‘First Generation’ centres. Taken together the aim is to provide an environment that is inclusive and accessible to all.
In April 2019, I had the opportunity to witness and experience some of these parks, gardens and plazas as well as some community service centres. They represent a broad swath of green spaces in the city located across varying neighbourhoods in terms of density and social class. What was immediately noticeable is that they were all heavily used by city residents who appropriated them to fit with their needs. There were some unexpected side effects such as the proliferation of ‘informal’ vending activities; furthermore recent policies that aimed at liberalizing Saudi society are reflected in the parks usage and demographic. These visits also revealed some underlying tensions as a result of various policies aiming to open the parks but clashing with residents’ privacy needs.
Image 5: Distribution of open & green spaces in Riyadh.
Image 6: Selected parks in Riyadh
One of the first parks which I visited accompanied with my interlocutors from the municipality was the ‘Okaz Environmental Park’. It is located in the far south of Riyadh in a relatively low-density neighbourhood and given its distance from the city proper was used for waste disposal in 1985. As the city grew residents living in its surroundings prompted officials to convert the site into a park. However, for that to happen an extensive detoxification operation was necessary to remove harmful gases developed as a result of waste decomposition; it was also necessary to eliminate accumulated dust and vermin which all posed a health hazard. The operation was partially completed in 2011 when the park was officially opened. Given ongoing operations regarding disposal of toxic gases the actual park is comprised of 5 separated sites along the edges. The central space is closed off with a fence. Use within these parts is extensive. I have observed numerous families sitting on the green grass, sometimes using seating equipment rented from the park’s management. Facilities are provided for children who also take advantage of the varying topographical levels. Remarkably, an extensive vending operation is taking place along the walking path provided by the park. People sell all sorts of stuff – snacks, toys, foods and beverages. Overall a boisterous atmosphere, in which vendors interact with users. A young child exhorted me to buy grape leaves he was selling; I photographed him instead which he took in stride; a group of elderly men, manning one of the tables selling snacks alongside the walking paths, welcomed us warmly. Of note is the open nature of the park, it is not surrounded by any fence as tends to be common in the region and is thus fully integrated with the neighbourhood. This represents a key aspect of municipal policy categorized under ‘open parks’ or ‘parks without fences’ – ‘hada’iq bila aswar.’ Also, I noticed signs stating that the space is to be used only by families, code for preventing single males from access. On being questioned, an official from the city’s parks department informed me that this policy is no longer in use. This was confirmed by observation as there were many single males.
Image 7: Okaz Park activities and people. Clockwise from top left: a kid proudly displays a tray of grape leaves; children run across a landscape feature; park users interact with vendors; people sitting on the grass, using rented furniture while children play in the foreground
We visited a number of other parks. Mohamed bin Qasim Park is attached to a municipal plaza where I witnessed a fully-fledged game of soccer while people were walking along the specially provided track. The space is ‘partially open’ meaning that there is a fence along one side overlooking villas while the side bordering a commercial street is open. This is considered a compromise given that some residents had complained about fully open parks for safety and privacy reasons. A series of food carts, set back at a small distance from the park, served patrons as well as passers-by from the city. Centrally located in the district of Malaz is King Abdullah Park. Considered one of the largest in the city, with an area totalling 288,331 m2, it was a former equestrian ground and was converted into a large park serving the city. It is meticulously landscaped, includes a ‘dancing fountain’ feature and has a large celebratory ground used for religious and national festivities. To the west, and still within the range of the city’s centre is Flowers Park, a smaller space known for a lavish display of various types of flowers with the city’s skyline visible in the distance. Users are comprised of both locals and expatriates, and there are the requisite food trucks stationed near the entrance. It witnesses an active social scene, including a group of elderly men who have appropriated a section of the park for sitting together and engaging in conversation while people are passing by. Both of these are fully closed parks, surrounded by a fence and entered via gates. However, they lack the spontaneous and slightly informal character of Mohamed bin Qasim Park and others.
Image 8a: Mohammed bin Qasim Park. Top: workers exit the park from the fence-less side; a woman exercises with a soccer game in the back. Bottom: Food carts are situated across from the park
Image 8b: King Abdullah Park. People watch the fountain display
Image 8c: Flowers Park. Elderly residents sitting on the green lawn; a family with strollers relax on the ground
A truly fascinating setting is Prince Abdulaziz bin Ayyaf Park, named after the former mayor. Designed to serve the surrounding neighbourhood it is smaller in scale, albeit linear and extending approximately 850 m, it has the usual amenities and green spaces. It was initially a fully open park without fences or gates. This follows the policy noted earlier, which was introduced in 2007, whereby fences were removed from existing parks and replaced with walking paths; newly built parks did not include barriers. This was enthusiastically received in the local media. A 2012 article even notes that Bahrain has adopted the initiative, which ‘broke the fear barrier’ of opening up parks. Others linked it to the opening of society and its ‘emergence from isolation’. However there were ‘side effects’. The area surrounding the place began to attract food trucks, vendors and the like which some residents felt violated their privacy due to noise and to some degree disorderly behaviour by teenagers. In response to such concerns the municipality decided to resurrect the fences and provide a single access. In its current state the park is entered through the eastern side. At that entrance are a collection of vendors. Given the park’s linearity, the section closest to the entrance is busy with people but as one moves further inside it becomes emptier and not as active. This is understandable given the distance from the entrance and the lack of any nearby exits.
Image 9: Prince Abdulaziz bin Ayyaf Park. Right to left clockwise: entrance to the park; first section next to entrance; further inside the park; a food cart next to a residential villa immediately in front of the park
More projects are set to become part of Riyadh’s urban landscape, including King Abdullah International Gardens, described as one of the largest botanical gardens in the world and slated to open in 2021. The total projected area will be 2,400,000 m2. The recently announced megaprojects in Riyadh encompass urban parks and boulevards, cultural venues as well as residential and leisure spaces. Three projects in particular stand out given their size and location within the city. King Salman Park, the Sports Corridor and Green Riyadh. All are set to substantively increase the city’s percentage of green space. They represent a natural evolution of the humanization initiative and are meant to make the city a pleasant environment for all residents. Riyadh has gone a long way from a car-oriented metropolis to one that is actively seeking to become more humane and welcoming. It can only do so, however, if it truly capitalizes on the richness of its natural environment and embraces the desert with its Wadis. In that way it stays true to its rich heritage and history by returning to the verdant gardens of its past.
Almayouf, A. (2013). Preserving the Green in Hot-arid Desert Environments: The Case of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia Journal of King Saud University: Architecture & Planning, 25(1), 39-49.
Bin Ayyaf, A. b. M. (2017). Enhancing the Human Dimension in Saudi Municipal Work. Riyadh, A Paradigm. Riyadh, SA: Tarah International.
Elsheshtawy, Y. (2015). Macro Dubai: Quantifying Urban Growth. Urban Research Lab (UAEU). UAE.
Makhzoumi, J. (2016). The Greening Discourse: Ecological Landscape Design and City Regions in the Mashreq. In R. Saliba (Ed.), Urban Design in the Arab World: Re‐conceptualizing Boundaries (pp. 65-84). London, New York: Routledge.
Pradines, S., & Khan, S. R. (2016). Fāṭimid gardens: archaeological and historical perspectives. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 79(3), 473-502. doi:10.1017/S0041977X16000586
Image 1: Wadi Hanifah, Riyadh. 1960. (Source, Keith Wheeler)
Image 2: Al-Azhar Park, Cairo (Source: Author)
Image 3a: Promenade Plantée, Paris. (Source: Author)
Image 3b: Highline, NYC. (Source: Author)
Image 4a: Wadi Hanifah. (Source: Author)
Image 4b: King Salman Nature Park. (Source: Author)
Image 5: Distribution of open & green spaces in Riyadh. (Sources: data - Riyadh Municipality iamge - Author)
Image 6: Selected parks in Riyadh (Source: Author)
Image 7: Okaz Park activities and people. (Source: Author)
Image 8a: Mohammed bin Qasim Park. (Source: Author)
Image 8b: King Abdullah Park. (Source: Author)
Image 8c: Flowers Park. (Source: Author)
Image 9: Prince Abdulaziz bin Ayyaf Park. (Source: Author)
 A 10th-century Arab Muslim writer, geographer, and chronicler
 The Economist (2016). “No Bed of Roses.” June 9. https://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2016/06/09/no-bed-of-roses
 “Rabat, Morocco to Undergo "City of Lights" Transformation by 2017” https://www.smartcitiesdive.com/ex/sustainablecitiescollective/rabat-mor...
 Oxford Business Group (2015). The Report Saudi Arabia.
 “Redevelopment of Riyadh’s squares and parks with green areas and removal of fences.” Al-Riyadh, March 17, 2007. http://www.alriyadh.com/233564# ; “Parks without fences; Health, social and security benefits.” Al-Eqtisadiyya, May 1, 2009. http://www.aleqt.com/2009/05/01/article_62463.html
 “The capital’s municipality ‘humanizes Riyadh’ and invites GCC countries to apply the experiment.” Al-Hayat, Oct. 3, 2012. http://www.alhayat.com/article/360682/أمانة-العاصمة-تؤنسن-الرياض-وتدعو-دول-التعاون-لتطبيق-التجربة&token=cf9ef49a
 For more on these projects see my article for the Arab Gulf State Institute in Washington, DC. “Transforming Riyadh: Towards a new urban paradigm.” April 7, 2019. https://agsiw.org/transforming-riyadh-a-new-urban-paradigm/