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

Fernando Perez
Head of Transport Architecture
IDOM, Bilbao

In a conference about “Polycentric Cities” we focus our attention on Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital. 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 x 50 km city of over six million people does not have any form of public transport. It does not have anything that its inhabitants recognize as a city center either.
Its homogeneous urban fabric is randomly punctuated by a few landmark buildings or by shopping malls devoid of any character. Oblivious to urban space and monothematic 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. Cars fill up the urban highways uniformly: anytime, anywhere, in any direction. The usual tidal flows from center to periphery do not exist here. 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 this country. A fully developed transport network, comprising 176 km of metro rail and 1,200 km 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 come to life.
This unprecedented urban experiment will be a reality in less than two years. Will it help to convert Riyadh in a more sustainable, more liveable and more humane city?