Saturday, August 29, 2009

Pedestrian Drivers...

A nigh time shot of the pedestrian path in Salwa, Kuwait (taken on a very humid day). As commendable as it is as an effort, this track leaves much to be desired regarding track material (the asphalt is too hard), location (too close to the road), variety (too uniform), etc.

All drivers are sometimes pedestrians, but not all pedestrians need to be drivers. This truism applies also in Kuwait, where even the most persistent drivers aren't (as of yet) allowed to drive down the main concourses of Avenues or Marina Malls. Why is it that a nation that not too many generations ago used to be almost exclusively reliant and designed to befit seafaring and moving by foot has now completely transformed into a place where even crossing a road has to be done by car? Take Gulf road as an example – on its roughly twenty kilometer stretch there is not a single pedestrian crossing worth mentioning, and as of yet I haven't detected a single pedestrian traffic light in Kuwait!

Claiming that the climate doesn't allow one to walk in Kuwait has become a self-fulfilled prophesy that has by now transcended into a generally accepted, and often repeated, justification and excuse why no one seem to walk in this city. Yet, for eight to nine months of the year, aided by the for the region unusually dry air, its perfectly possible, in fact pleasant, to move by foot in our beloved city. Whether this is actually possible due to the lack of available venues and routes where walking is possible is a different matter. This is a true shame, as walking, along with providing a form of low impact aerobic exercise, also offers a much more comprehensive sensory experience of a city compared to driving. In pedestrianized cities the pace and rhythm of the city are different – here the details and nuances begin to matter. A city perceived mostly through a car window is a city that lacks a soul, as it ends up becoming a city always experienced through the enclosed viewpoint and uniform and controlled ambiance of a car interior. It becomes a 'nodal-city', in which the points between the nodes end up becoming of less importance – generic, forgotten - and thus subservient to the end points of a car trip. Here the more subtle nuances of a place are lost, blurred by the speed and driving entails and the inevitable concentration handling a car requires. Intangible qualities such as the fragrance of the sea or blooming roadside plants; the gently shifting shadow patterns on a 'sigma-tized' wall; the sound of ones steps across shifting ground materials on different street blocks and neighbourhoods; or the gentle stroke of of the shifting breeze that adjusts its turbulent temperament according to the urban vernacular, the time of day, and seasons - all such subtleties are squandered whilst driving.


In the images below are two images from a case-study of Izmir, a coastal city in Turkey, which in many ways is surprisingly similar to Kuwait in that it is a city wrapped around an elongated bay coastline with a main vehicular artery adjacent to it. However, in many ways Izmir is leaps and bounds ahead of Kuwait thanks to how it has realized some of the featured details relating to this key ingredient of the city. Elements that are easy to overlook, but which make a substantial difference in how the areas along the coast are used. Factors such as the speed of traffic is substantially slower in Izmir than in Kuwait, and pedestrian access between the city and the shoreline is prioritized, or at least equalized, to that of cars. There are also other features, such as a maximum height to the buildings flanking the shoreline and how the buffering between where cars and those pedestrians move is more sensible and reflective of how people actually use the areas. These are elements that could be, with a bit of forethought and planning, be easily implemented in Kuwait, all it would require is a bit of formal commitment and faith from the right parties.


A cross-section of the main beach side street in Izmir (please click on the image for a close-up)...


A panorama shot from the beach side walk and street above, outlining some of the key features...


As it is well known by now, Kuwait as a nation has one of the highest levels of obesity and diabetes in the world, this one can with some assurance speculate is at least partly due to the lack of daily exercise. Ordinary things that in other cities are taken for granted, such as walking (or bicycling) to work or even just the corner store, are done by car in Kuwait. Ironically, as one of the most sun-rich nations in the world, many Kuwaitis also suffer from vitamin E deficiency, something easily rectified by additional sun exposure. There are only benefits to be had from reconsidering how we get about in Kuwait.


There are a number of parallel things that need to be developed to make this a viable option. Firstly, the seemingly infinitely postponed plans to develop a more comprehensive public transport system needs to be reanimated – the current situation is not sustainable for much longer. Secondly, a campaign for the hearts and minds of the population need to be set in motion. The current stigma attached to public transport needs to be neutralised. Thirdly, how the city itself is planned needs to begin assuming that (the Kuwait version of) suburbia is not the answer, as people seem to be living further and further from necessary amenities and work places – density, if done right, can be a good thing.

There are infinite templates of successful, more densely populated, neighbourhoods that could be adapted in Kuwait, some interesting options are already in development in some of the neighbouring states. We should learn from these and adapt them to Kuwait.


The aim here is not to exclude driving from the picture, but to allow for more alternatives for how one could get around the city, a symbiotic hybrid, of sorts, where there are options available. To do this, however, it is not enough to just get the architects, urban-designers, environmentalists and engineers involved, but, most importantly, engage with these issues on a political level, as true change will only be initiated through changes in governmental policy and the way these are implemented, supervised and enforced.


Tom having a morning stroll on the ceiling...

3 comments:

ghadah said...

Tom for president! Or at least Minister of Public Planning, if there is such a thing. I found myself nodding a lot in agreement as I read this piece. You spoke about nodal-Kuwait. When I started cycling around a year ago, I discovered places and smells which were always there when I was driving from one place to another, but that I 'saw' and 'smelled' for the first time. But I also found difficulty in getting from point A to point B because of how this city is geared for cars. The same way our society is shaped by having servants do most of our work for us. Really, all we need to do is have someone clear the table for us and start over. Like you said, it doesn't take much. There are simple and far more practical solutions. Solutions that would save this country tons of money, last longer and benefit everyone. We just need to remove people's blindfolds and earbuds.

Thomas said...

Thanks Ghadah,

I suspect the best way, in Kuwait at least, to get this implemented in the current century, might be to do so one building, street, neighbourhood at a time - lead through example. Now all we need is an enlightened developer...

Tom

Anonymous said...

"A city perceived mostly through a car window is a city that lacks a soul, as it ends up becoming a city always experienced through the enclosed viewpoint and uniform and controlled ambiance of a car interior."

Couldn't agree more.


Wonderful post, btw.