Restoring Nature: The Craft of the Town Planner

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Photos courtesy of Agha Khan Award for Architecture


Restoring Nature: The Craft of the Town Planner

By Hwaa Irfan

Many of us without hesitation can take a look at our immediate environment and spot the environmental mistakes that have taken years to come to fruition. We might have even grown accustomed to living on the inside of our homes to protect our physical spaces thus creating a community of strangers; or the areas of land or disused buildings covered in graffiti, the broken sewerage, or used as a dumping tip. We might have even stopped visiting the outdoors as a place of exploration and relaxation. Not often do real architects get a chance to remold the chaos we live in, into one of harmony, and in the modern context what is harmonious to one, is inharmonious to another – that is when nature is kept at bay from the solution, which is sustainable and appeases all! Prosaically put, Mohsen Mostafavi refers to the disaster of modern development as follows:

“Over time, we have drifted away from nature and become disconnected from our roots as farmers and herders. This standard of civilization is built on heavily engineered gray infrastructure: complicated transportation systems designed for vehicles to deliver goods and services; huge pipe networks laid underground to drain excess storm water; rivers reinforced with concrete walls to control floods; Large sewage plants built to treat waste water; power lines to convey the energy necessary to run all of the machines and devices. Built upon this gray infrastructure are showy buildings with deformed heads and twisted bodies that deviate from what natural forces would allow.

“Such a model of urbanity, created by Western cities du ring the early stages of their development, has unfortunately been adopted today by developing countries in general and the Islamic world in particular. Here, landscape is largely limited to tamed gardens and parks, where lawns and flowers are irrigated with tap water and storm water is d rained by underground pipes. Here, landscape is just like other components of an artificial city a sink of energy and services, rather than a source. Landscape as a natural ecosystem, and a round cities is largely neglected, its natural processes disintegrated and contaminated and its natural patterns fragmented. The landscape completely loses its capacity to provide what would have been free goods and services for urban communities”.

In an area unknown to the outside world, so it was for the Wadi Hanifa/Al Irdh, a valley where rain once fell heavily in ancient times to form what was a wetland of 4,000 sq kilometers located in the middle of the Najd Plateau of Saudi Arabia annexing the city Riyadh. We know that the area must have been green at some time because firstly, Ar-Riyadh means “The gardens” in English, and because of the work of Harry St. John Bridger Philby (1885 – 1960). An  Administrator, writer and philologist, Philby referred to in his 1920s article Southern Najd published in the British Royal Geographical Journal “The Geographical.”

“I shall detain you a few moments at Riyadh. This is a great walled city of clay built without regard to symmetry in the midst of considerable amount of palm groves, with the sister settlements of Manfua and Mansana a short distance to the south east, forms a single oasis lying in a basin of the steppe desert.”

With temperatures that can rise to 102° Farenheit, desertification, and a local population growth of 150,000 in the 1960s to 5 million today, the valley’s function was as a large sewerage facility for water treatment to run oil refineries, irrigate public parks and green spaces, and a percentage given free to farmers who were able to produce higher yields in their crops. The treated sewerage water and the pumped off ground water were causing run-offs from the city had led to the formation of small lakes, and an increase in date palms. Stagnant waters known for being a source for illnesses and diseases were increasingly not that uncommon. Areas were suitable for the picnicking family desperate to get away from man-made structures, fishing and a growing population of migratory birds.

Keen to restore what was in line with the well-being of the citizens, Prince Salman bin ‘Abdulaziz, governor of the province concerned, Riyadh, and president of the Ar-Riyadh Development Authority, ARA, through ARA set about to re-establish an ecosystem by developing:

  • A system that allowed for three levels of running water along the valley by creating:

–        One canal that allows for the permanent  flow of running water to replenished from city groundwater networks

–        Bio-treated water stations

–        A process of flood-draining networks

  • Directing seasonal floods into Wadi Hanifa during the rainy season
  • The planting of reeds to purify treated and untreated water
  • Stopping and preventing industrial use that pollutes the environment, and for quarrying
  • Directing the floods from the climate cycles that take place every 50 years
  • Fencing Public lots and environmentally protected areas.
  • Establishing models for merchandising points.
  • Enhancement of agricultural lands
  • Establishing a main road and paved sub roads, and roads connected to merchandising points to retrieve the agricultural cover
  • Establishing a group of watch points, side-walks, and distributing the sites all over the valley.

The ARA drew up a long term development strategy back in 1994 with a focus on preservation, and the utilization of the whole valley. The first phase has been completed Moriyama and Teshima Planners and Buro Happold, and the result has been an oasis of :

  • An ecological corridor
  • 100 km watercourse with a daily discharge of 400, 000 – 600,000 meters of grounds water
  • Waterfalls, lakes and islands
  • Rich flora and fauna
  • 53.2 km of roads, six major parks, three lakes, and 43 km of recreational trails.
  • Reclamation of water via bioremediation of 400,000 cubic meters per day of wastewater cleaned and recycled for use
  • Plantation of 35,500 shade trees and 4,500 date palm trees
  • A reduction of flash floods
  • Removal of 1,000,000 cubic metres of dumping
  • A 10-fold increase in property values along the Wadi corridor.
  • Landscaping, conservation of the natural environment, and the development of recreation areas

The process of bioremediation allows for the purification of water to go through a natural process, thus reducing any health risk to the local population. Natural stoned were laid to encourage the growth of microorganisms vital to any ecosystem as well as to increase oxygen content to encourage healthy marine life, and to prevent/reduce harmful chloroform bacteria. Two of the inspectors (planners), Jens Bodeker, and Ulrich Riederer on behalf of the Agha Khan Award observed in their report:

“When going on the first excursions together with the president of the ADA, H.E. Dr. Mohamed Al-Sheikh in 1984 – 1985, we could already make out the beginnings of a vegetation and a large variety of birds.

“It was amazing that the water became crystal clear already a few kilometers south of Batha and the Manufah Channel. – The purifying effect of the root zones of phragmites (reeds) is immense…”

“The Wadi Hanifah Wetlands or Riyadh Lake District is a “man-made environment” created by Riyadh’s population of about 3.5 million people and demonstrated in a good way that masses of people can also have a positive influence on the environment.”

By creating this model alternative of urban life, the project won the 2010 Agha Khan Award for Architecture. The reasons given by the judges were:

“This project reverses the tide of rapid urban development, which has seen public space in many cities within the Muslim world fall victim to expropriation and other practices that deprive the population of its resources. This invariably happens at the cost of environmental values and sensitive ecosystems. The Wadi Hanifa Wetlands project eloquently demonstrates an alternative ecological way of urban development.

“It shows how a major natural phenomenon, which, through the course of urbanisation, became a litter-strewn and dangerous place – a scar on the face of the capital city – can be transformed by sensitive planning attentive to social values and imaginative infrastructure-driven landscape solutions.”

Using landscape as an ecological infrastructure, the project has restored and enhanced the area’s natural systems’ capacity to provide multiple services, including cleaning the contaminated water, mediating the natural forces of flood, providing habitats for biodiversity and creating opportunities for recreational, educational and aesthetic experiences”.

With the burgeoning demands of climate change, water shortage, and conflicts between modern lifestyles, and what the earth can sustain, all architects and landscapers of the above orientation should be given the means to re-create urban environments that would provide a sense of community, belonging, a softer environment that is conducive to general well-being, conducive to children, and not conducive to violent crime, and one that engenders a common sense of responsibility instead of conflicting self interests that undermines the interests of everyone.


Arab News. “Wadi Hanifa Project to Protect Wetlands.”

Bodeker, J. “Document B #2258.SAU: Architect’s Record” 2001 Award Cycle.”

“Five Projects Receive 2010 Aga Khan Award for Architecture; Oleg Grabar Receives Chairman’s Award.”

Mostafavi, M. “Landscape as Ecological Infrastructure for an Alternative Urbanity.” Lars Müller Publishers.

“Wadi Hanifa’s Amazing Transformation.”

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