Riyadh: The Metamorphosis of a City. From Centerless to Polycentric?

Fernando Perez
Head of Transport Architecture
IDOM, Bilbao

When considering the concept and development of “Polycentric Cities”, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital, stands as a case to examine. Situated in the center of the vast Arabian Peninsula, as a mirage in the middle of the desert, Riyadh continues to grow incessantly, in a seemingly unstoppable low density urban sprawl. Strikingly, this 50 -by-50-kilometer city of over six million people does not have any form of public transport, nor does it have a space that its inhabitants recognize as a city center.

The capital’s homogeneous urban fabric is randomly punctuated by a few landmark buildings or by shopping malls devoid of any character. Oblivious to urban space and mono-thematic in their use, they have not been able to generate enough critical mass as to become a city center. As a result, there is no gravity to the city; the usual tidal flows from center to periphery do not exist here. Cars fill up the urban highways uniformly: anytime, anywhere, in any direction. The doomed Financial District stays empty, expressing perhaps the capital’s aversion to anything central.

However, the city is undergoing a rather miraculous process of transformation, perhaps only possible in Saudi Arabia. A fully developed transport network, comprising 176 kilometers of metro rail and 1,200 kilometers of bus lines, is being laid out over the uniform carpet. This additional layer should manage to break the uniformity of the current city. Some of the nodes will hopefully become attractors of life and mixed activities. The Financial District may finally be actualized. This unprecedented urban experiment will be a reality in less than two years. The question is: will these new developments convert Riyadh into a more sustainable, more livable, and more humane city?