Yasser mahgoub paper to Gulf First Urban Planning and Development Conference 2006
Gulf First Urban Planning and Development Conference
22 - 24 February 2006, Kuwait
Socio-Cultural Sustainability and Urban Development in Kuwait
Dr. Yasser Mahgoub – Kuwait University
This paper investigates the impact of rapid urban development of Kuwait city during the
second half of the 20th century in terms of its socio-cultural sustainability. It analyzes the
impact of early planning decisions taken during the first planning stages and rapid changes
and transformations that occurred during the second half of the 20th century on the
sustainability of the contemporary urban environment in Kuwait city. Its goal is to provide
lessons regarding the impact of early planning decisions on the socio-cultural sustainability of
urban areas, especially for Kuwait city future plans during this important stage of the
completion of the Revised 3rd Master Plan. The paper concluded that rapid planned change
did not permit the city to develop in a sustainable manner and illustrates the different aspects
of this development. It suggests several strategies to be considered during the implementation
the revised Master Plan of Kuwait City and during the early planning stages of other cities.
Urgent measures that should be taken include; the renovation and reconstruction of badly
damaged traditional buildings, the development of mixed use downtown development
strategy, the provision of appropriate housing units to encourage of Kuwaitis to live in the
downtown, the integration of housing and commercial activities, and implementation of
revitalization projects for the downtown area. While the problems of the urban environment
in Kuwait might be similar to urban problems found in other parts of the world they require
uncommon solutions to avoid the mistake of copying solutions from other parts of the world.
They should stem from local context and conditions on the resulted urban environment in
terms of its socio-cultural sustainability. The results of rapid urban development of Kuwait
city during the second half of the 20th century provides important lessons of the impact of
planning on socio-cultural sustainability to other cities and to the future strategic planning of
Kuwait city itself.
According to the Urban Indicators published by UN Population Division, Kuwait is the
second country in the world with 98% of the population residing in urban areas - after
Singapore which tops the chart with 100% perfect score. (UN-World Resources, 1999)
Kuwait falls in the fourth position among Middle Eastern Countries – after UAE, Qatar and
Israel – in the GDP (per capita) list. (World Factbook, 2002) This status was achieved in less
than 50 years, during the second half of the 20th century.
The quality of contemporary built environment in Kuwait is criticized by specialists and the
public as being unfriendly, hostile and lacking the sense of belonging. “Asimatna, Laysh
Jazia?” (meaning “Why is our capital unsightly?”), is a question posed by observers and
critics of the quality of the urban environment in Kuwait. (Al-Anbaa, 2001) The “lost identity
in the built environment” is another observation made by the laypeople, professionals and
specialists. (Al-Qabas, 2003)
Architect Abdullah Qabazard states that, “as oil flowed, the population boomed and the city
sprawled. The rapid expansion was matched by hastily made plans – often disregarding the
needs and traditions of local population. The first Kuwait Master Plan of the 1950’s was
based loosely on standard city planning of post-war Europe. It tore down old structures and
replaced them with something foreign. The city center, once a place where families lived,
shopped, worked and played, was foreordained a commercial district and residents were
shifted to Western-style suburban and family homes and apartments. The boxy designs of
these flats and villas – now long out of vogue in the west – were internally inappropriate for
traditional, orthodox, Kuwaiti lifestyle and externally unsuited for the nation’s harsh
climate.” (Qabazard, 1999, pp. 22-23)
In his keynote address to the First International Conference on Architecture and Design in
Kuwait, the first Kuwaiti architect Hamed Shuaib reiterated the question posed by many
conferences and seminars held in the Gulf area: When will we, in Kuwait and other Gulf
countries, have modern architecture suitable for our community, environment and heritage?
(Shuaib, 1999) It is a clear case of Christopher Alexander’s argument that, “the biggest
problem in architecture in the 2nd half of the 20th century is the connection between people
and the physical world - the building of streets and so forth. Essentially, what we miss right
now, Alexander argues, is the connection that one could call "belonging" or possession in the
true emotional sense. (Alexander, 1994)
There are several sets of problems that are related to the current urban environment in Kuwait
city. They include:
- Problems related to the dependency on cars for transportation.
- Problems related to the absence of the human dimension in the design of streets and
- Problems related to the design of the governmental and private neighborhoods.
- Problems related to the quality of life in the downtown area as it is occupied by
foreigners and not citizens.
- Problems related to the zoning and land use of the downtown area.
The hypothesis of this paper is that current problems observed in Kuwait city are the result of
early planning decisions and subsequent developments during the second half of the 20th
century that focused on environmental and economic considerations and not on social and
cultural considerations. The method used to investigate this hypothesis was to trace the
origins of some of the early planning decisions and their development until today and their
results. It utilized several accounts by key observers and critics of the development of Kuwait
city during the second half of the 20th century.
Thus, the story of Kuwait is a rich and long story written within a very short
span of time. It is the story of humble, organic desert Arab village that
exploded into a haughty, over-extended desert Arab metropolis according to a
geometric paper-plan, finding itself today (1964) a full fledged State
embroiled in scientific planning and world affairs. (Shiber, p. 2)
The built environment found in Kuwait today is a product of decisions made during
its early stages of planning and construction. Kuwait was mostly isolated from external
influences until the discovery of oil during the 1940's. The fast speed of transformation that it
went through from fishing and trading vernacular settlement to a modern, planned metropolis
was the result of efforts made by the Kuwaiti’s to utilize the wealth generated by the
discovery of oil to improve their living conditions and join the developed, modern world. It
was not imposed on them by outsiders as much as it was a selection and choice. The problem
was not in choosing to modernise but in the “rushing” towards modernization without
comprehending its drawbacks.
Prior to 1952, Kuwait was a vernacular settlement overlooking the Arabian Gulf and
composed of courtyard houses built using mud brick along narrow alleys. The city was
surrounded by protective wall with several gates. Figure 1. illustrates the traditional urban
environment found in old Kuwait. Traditional houses lined along narrow streets, looking
inward into courtyards suitable for climatic conditions and social needs. The city was
surrounded by semi-circular defensive wall constructed in 1920, in two months, to protect it
from the tribal attacks.
The First Master Plan in 1950
After the discovery of oil with economic quantities during the thirties and its
exportation during the forties and the immediate wealth generated by its sales, the rulers of
the country appointed the British firm Monprio, Spencly and Macfarlen to propose a “Plan”
for the development of the city of Kuwait. The main objective of the master plan was to
transform the vernacular settlement of Kuwait into a modern town according to the standards
of modern town planning at that time. As stated by the planners, “Our main objectives are to
illustrate and describe the improvements which we consider necessary for the development of
Kuwait in accordance with the highest standards of modern town planning.” (Minoprio et al,
1951, p. 2) The matters which Monprio et al regarded as being of “primary importance” in
the replanning of the town were as follows:
(a) the provision of a modern road system appropriate to the traffic conditions in Kuwait,
(b) the location of suitable zones for public buildings, industry, commerce, schools, and other
(c) the choice of zones for new houses and other buildings needed in residential areas, both
inside and outside the town wall,
(d) the selection of sites for parks, sports ground, school playing fields and other open spaces,
(c) the creation of a beautiful and dignified town centre,
(f) the planting of trees and shrubs along the principal roads and at other important points in
the town, and
(g) the provision of improved main roads linking Kuwait with the adjoining towns and
The “Plan” led to the demolition of the walled city and its traditional houses to provide land
for economic and public facilities and the establishment of western style neighborhoods
surrounded by modern highways for cars and vehicles. (See Figure 2.) This sudden change
from a vernacular settlement to a modern urban environment had a dramatic impact on the
quality of urban life. As proclaimed by the late Kuwaiti architect Huda Al-Bahr in 1985,
“The changes in architecture experienced by Kuwait over the last thirty years or so, are
almost beyond imagination.” (Al-Bahr, 1985, p.63)
The subsequent master plans
The “Plan” led to the demolition of the walled city and its traditional houses to provide
land for economic and public facilities and the establishment of western style neighbourhoods
surrounded by modern highways for cars and vehicles.
The modern urbanization in Kuwait has passed through significant stages. During each a
Master Plan or a review of the master plan was produced, which contributed to the
development of modern Kuwait (Kuwait Municipality, 1980). These stages were:
1. The First Master Plan: prepared by Monoprio, Spencely and Macfarlane in
2. The Municipality Development Plan: Assembly of different planning studies for
different areas during the period from 1952 and 1967.
3. Colin Buchanan and Partners Developed a Second Master Plan from 1967 to
4. First Review of the 2nd Master Plan by Shankland Cox Partnership in 1977
5. Re-examination of Master Plan by Colin Buchanan and Partners in 1983
6. A proposed Third Master Plan by Kuwait Municipality in 1997
7. Currently, Kuwait Engineering Group in collaboration with Colin Buchanan
were commissioned to develop a new master plan review in 2003. (See Figure 3.)
The late fifties and early sixties witnessed the implementation of the first master plan by
the Ministry of Public Works under the supervision of the Kuwait Development Board
established in 1950, headed by the Amir of Kuwait himself. The demolition of the wall and
old houses in residential areas inside it to clear land for the construction of new public
buildings paralleled the construction of new roads and residential neighborhoods south of it
in the desert. The neighborhoods were self sufficient entities with schools, shops, mosques
and other services. As Gardiner put, “there was no need to come into the city except for work
because every thing was there” (Gardiner, 1983). As part of the government’s policy for the
distribution of wealth, low income families were given public houses built by the government
while rich families were compensated with plots of land and money for their demolished
houses and acquired land. Building regulations proposed by the Plan allowed for the
construction of individual “villas” on these plots of land illustrates buildings and houses
erected during the 50’s and 60’s reflecting the modern style of architecture that dominated
In 1968 a Second Master Plan was developed by Colin Buchanan and Partners that
stretched the city north and south along the Gulf shores. It also called for the dissemination of
the city centre by creating new centres to overcome the growing traffic congestion problems.
With the rise of oil prices after the 1973 Middle East War, the country was able to acquire
enough income to support its ambitious plans.
In 1977 the British planning firm Shakland and Cox proposed the establishment of two
new cities. During the eighties several remarkable buildings, designed by internationally
recognised architects, were constructed in Kuwait. They included: The National Airport by
Kenzo Tange, The National Assembly by Jorn Utzon, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs by
Reima Pietila, The Central Bank by Arne Jacobsen, and The Kuwait Water Towers by
Lindstorm, Egnell and Bjorn. (Kultermann, 1999) This practice facilitated the dissemination
of global trends into the urban environment in Kuwait. Figure 4. illustrates contemporary
built environment in Kuwait city.
Impact on Socio-cultural Sustainability
In situations of speedy buildup, advantageous and disadvantageous results ensue
and accompany the fast buildup that does not usually show up immediately but
which will, most certainly, show up over time. (Shiber, p.5)
Sustainable development is defined as “meeting the needs of current and future generations
through an integration of environmental protection, social advancement and economic
prosperity” (Government of Western Australia, 2003. p12). Planners have been aware of
sustainability issues for some time. This concept has concentrated on three key strands:
environmental sustainability involves using ‘best practice’ in the management of energy,
transport, waste and pollution; social sustainability concerns the ‘greening’ of trade,
investment and service industries and the notion of improved ‘personal’ responsibility for all
members of society, and finally, economic sustainability involves self-reliance and the
objective of local equity.
Early planning decisions and their subsequent developments in Kuwait during the second half
of the 20th century resulted an urban environment that has advantages as well disadvantages.
1. The problems of planning for the car
- The automobile dependent planning created an automobile dependent society where
almost each private car is occupied by only one person. This resulted urban environment
encourages the use of the car as primary means of transportation. Public transportation is
used by poor expatriate workers from Asia and Middle Eastern countries. This
dependency on cars raise the levels of air pollution and result an increasing traffic
problems. The rising number of cars, coupled with lack of adequate parking places inside
houses, resulted in occupation of sidewalks by sheds for cars, creating visual pollution
and socially hostile neighborhoods. (See Fig. 5.)
- The compact traditional design of the city was replaced by a spread modern planning.
Attached courtyard houses were replaced by detached villas, narrow shaded alleys for
pedestrians were replaced by wide streets for cars. They prevented people from using
them for walking. The spread planning does not encourage people to walk to their close
- The urban environment of the residential neighborhoods in Kuwait is characterized by
private cars occupying sidewalks and pedestrians walking in the middle of the street.
Different types and colors of sheds protect those cars from the burning sun causing visual
pollution. This phenomenon is contributed to the changes made in the building bylaws
permitting the construction of more area within the lots. (Mahgoub, 2002)
2. Demolition of historical buildings
- The absence of a traditional neighborhood or historical center. The destruction of the old
city without an alternative project. Destruction of the majority traditional architecture
buildings occurred during the implementation of the “Plan” in the 1960’s. As observed
first hand by Freeth, “When an 'underdeveloped' country sets its feet upon the road
towards a modern industrial society, it often wants to forget the primitive way of life
which its people had in former times.” (Freeth, 1972, P. 113) The deteriorating condition
of the handful remaining buildings is raising a concern of their complete absence in the
3. Neighborhood planning
- The urban environment in Kuwait is segregated; houses and residential areas are
separated from other activities according to zoning regulations. This resulted in typical,
monotonous neighborhoods for citizens, while commercial and business activities are
located in the downtown and districts occupied by expatriates.
- The modern “villas” lack any common style or character. The collection of styles and
characters found in residential neighborhoods is comparable, As Al-Bahr put it, “to
visiting a Disneyland of residential manifestations.” (Al-Bahr, 1985) Qabazard argues
that “as personal wealth increased, Kuwaiti citizens began experimenting with new styles
of buildings. Architects from locations as varied as America, Belgium, India and Iran
descended on the country – earning huge commissions and designing whatever their
clients demanded. (Qabazard, 1999)
- The distance between the outward looking villas is not appropriate to maintain acceptable
levels of privacy required by people of a culture that value privacy highly. Windows of
different buildings face each other allowing visual intrusion into neighboring houses. The
windows are never opened and balconies and seldom utilized due to dependency on air-
conditioning and privacy requirements.
- The replacement of the courtyard house by the two story villa type resulted in a more
exposed house facades four times more than the traditional ones. It made the exterior
envelop of the house exposed to other houses. This increased the exposure of the
inhabitants to outsiders and reduced the level of privacy achieved by that design. The
windows and balconies of the private villas are rarely used. Modifications of building
bylaws added to the problem by reducing the distance between houses and reducing the
level of attained privacy. Many of the new houses are utilizing the traditional concept of
the courtyard to create a private space within the house.
- The community feeling, characteristic of the traditional neighborhood, was not
maintained due to lack of spaces that allow social contact opportunities. The occupation
of sidewalks by cars reduced the chances of neighbors meeting or kids playing in the
streets that are not safe for them. Unlike the traditional environment where neighbors
enjoyed social relationships in the narrow alleys, the contemporary neighborhood
environment encourages isolation and separation between families and neighbors
4. Downtown problems
- The relationship between masses of buildings in the urban landscape is the main problem
currently dominating the urban environment in Kuwait. Discontinued streets are created
by separate individual buildings without any tie or common style. For examples, Fahd Al
Salem St. attached buildings in the beginning then detached buildings afterwards. While
each building is designed and constructed according to a specific view and solution, the
collection of buildings do not form a coherent character or identity. The problem does not
reside in individual buildings alone but is the product of the collective image created by
the urbanscape. (See Fig. 6) Forty years ago, Shiber envisioned this problem and alarmed
that; “The application of civic design, at least in the composition of major buildings, has
to date been non-existent. In the future much more sensitive care must be accorded the art
of disposing one architectural element in relation to another, and in relation to the spaces
displaced and created.” (Shiber, 1964, p.118)
- Large, vacant, and undeveloped lots of lands are common inside and outside the
downtown area are contributing to the visual discontinuity of the urban landscape. The
existence of deserted, deteriorated houses in the downtown and major streets is another
aspect of visual pollution. Some of these houses are being torn down after media
campaign by several newspapers regarding their condition and negative impact on the
city. (Al-Anbaa, 2001)
- The planning of Kuwait city did not provide adequate housing for Kuwaitis in the
downtown area. Only one, unsuccessful housing project for the Kuwaitis called Al-
Sawaber is located within the old city. Living away from the down town contributed to
the absence of Kuwaitis from the downtown area. There are efforts to bring the Kuwaitis
back to the downtown, but without adequate housing that satisfies their new needs, the
downtown will continue to be occupied by expatriates.
The future of humanity will be shaped largely by urban conditions. The quality of life
for generations to come - and the chance to solve conflict within nations and between
them - will depend on whether or not governments find ways of coping with
accelerating urban growth, and whether or not local authorities succeed in combating
pollution, limiting automobile traffic, and securing basic health and social needs.
Kuwait still has a long way to go to regain a viable urban environment. Urgent measures that
should be taken include; the renovation and reconstruction of badly damaged traditional
buildings, the development of mixed use downtown development strategy, the provision of
appropriate housing units to encourage of Kuwaitis to live in the downtown, the integration
of housing and commercial activities, and implementation of revitalization projects for the
The above measures are expected to be faced by obstacles that the policymakers and urban
planners in Kuwait should try to overcome. These include:
• Building bylaws and regulations: Conflicting and contentiously changing building
bylaws and regulations are major contributor to the deteriorating urban environment.
Modifications of building regulations were mainly concerned with increasing the building
volume and floor area through the increase of floor area ratio and the reduction of setbacks on
the expense of quality of the environment and community comfort. (Mahgoub, 2002)
• Neighborhood design: The “outdated” approach to neighborhood design practiced by
the Public Authority for Housing Welfare since its foundation as in 1954 should be modified
to improve the quality and design of future neighborhoods. New neighborhood design
guidelines should be implemented to achieve a sustainable neighborhood design. See Fig. 6)
• The car: Jefferson argues that, “there are no indications that the car will be abandoned
in the near future. Its presence therefore has to be acknowledged and regarded as a challenge
in the planning of the urban environment.” (Jefferson et al., 2001. p. 23) The car is a
commodity that should be accommodated in the planning and design of urban environments.
Parking for private cars should not occupy the sidewalks provided mainly for pedestrians.
• Zoning Regulations: Mixed use planning should be encouraged to improve the
livability and excitement of the urban environment. Segregation between functions and
peoples proved to be disadvantageous. It only succeeded in creating hostile and unfriendly
• The building industry: Encouraging the building industry to be sustainable in the use
of material and construction methods could be achieved through economic incentives. It will
also require the development of consensus on the adoption of green and sustainable building
activities. This is where leadership support from officials and leading figures in the society is
essential to encourage the adoption of these strategies. Inadequate knowledge and
publications regarding the concept and methods of sustainable development in Arabic is
hindering the development of public awareness and participation. I follow Guy et al in
suggesting that society’s willingness to recognize and solve environmental problems depends
more upon the way these claims are presented by a limited number of people than upon the
severity of the threats they pose. (Guy et al, 2001)
This paper argues that during the planning stage, sustainability is usually discussed in terms
of its environmental sustainability, which is more tangible and physical. Economic
sustainability is the second aspect of sustainability that gains attention and consideration.
Soci-cultural sustainability, the third aspect of sustainability, usually attracts the least
attention during the stages of strategic planning and implementation. This paper stresses that
socio-cultural aspects of sustainability are as important as environmental and economic
aspects of sustainability.
This paper recommends the adoption of the framework proposed by Wheeler that suggests
main directions for urban sustainability that include: 1) Compact, efficient land use, 2) Less
automobile use, better access, 3) Efficient resource use, less pollution and waste, 4)
Restoration of natural systems, 5) Good housing and living environments, 6) A healthy social
ecology, 7) A sustainable economics, 8) Community participation and involvement, and 9)
Preservation of local culture and wisdom. (Wheeler, 1998, p. 439).
While the problems of the urban environment in Kuwait might be similar to urban problems
found in other parts of the world, but they require uncommon solutions to avoid the mistake
of copying solutions from other parts of the world. The solutions should be stemming from
the local context and conditions. As Erickson (1980, p.87) put it, “it is impossible for anyone
from the West to do any more than attempt to understand the environmental and social
conditions and the ideas that have given rise to architectural styles in the Muslim countries.
The final expressions of those ideas and factors has got to come from within the Islamic
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The urban structure Alleys and streets
The urban tissue
Traditional market - souq
Dwellings - Diwans Courtyard Houses
Fig 6. Traditional Environment in Kuwait
Fig. 7.The first master plan of Kuwait
Kuwait Kuwait in 1950
Master Plans: a) 1952, b) 1967, c) 1977, d) 1995
Fig (8.) Maps of Kuwait
Highways spreading out into
Downtown business center suburbs Neighborhoods and villas
Fast-food franchise Modern shopping centers Air-conditioned office towers
Fig (9.) Contemporary Urban Environment in Kuwait
Tradition neighborhood (Fareej) Modern neighborhood (villas)
Typical Neighborhood planning by Public Authority for Housing Welfare
Different styles of villas Cars occupying sidewalks
Fig (10.) Neighborhood planning and character in Kuwait
Fig (11.) Fahd Al Salem St. connected bllocks.