Green Riyadh will increase the city’s green cover from 1.51 to 9.1 per cent by 2030.

Green Riyadh will increase the city’s green cover from 1.51 to 9.1 per cent by 2030.

Green city in the making

Four ‘wellbeing projects’ being initiated across the length and breadth of the Saudi capital will transform it into one of the most liveable cities in the world, says ABDULAZIZ KHATTAK.

December 2019

The Royal Commission of Riyadh City (RCRC) – formerly Riyadh Development Authority – has laid out an ambitious plan for the Saudi capital – a city which today covers a massive area of over 3,000 sq km whose population has exploded in the past seven decades to nearly seven million inhabitants.

About 61 per cent of Riyadh’s population is below 35 years of age, and by 2030, the city’s population is predicted to grow to over 8.1 million.

With the focus having been on rapid urban development, the city today is a concrete jungle. But that’s to change soon with four transformative projects dubbed as “wellbeing projects” worth $23 billion that aim to touch every aspect of human life including health, entertainment, sustainability, sports, plantation, art, biodiversity, economic and well-being.

The King Salman Park, Sports Boulevard, Green Riyadh, and Riyadh Art projects are pivotal in Riyadh’s ambitions of becoming one of the most livable cities on the planet. They complement Saudi Vision 2030’s ‘Quality of Life’ programme and are aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to create sustainable cities and communities, while driving urgent action against climate change.

Putting in place such mega projects means doing things right from the get-go. And so, the RCRC last month called in over 60 experts from all corners of the globe, including research scholars in urban planning, consultants, art curators, project managers and other sustainability and lifestyle experts to analyse the four projects.

A two-day symposium at the King Fahad National Library, which was attended by Gulf Construction magazine, gave delegates a chance to discuss all four projects from every angle possible using available data to plug any gaps that might have been overlooked. The symposium aimed to benefit from the rich experience that these experts bring from other urban global projects.

The “Riyadh: The Sustainable City Symposium” was an attempt to analyse challenges that all cities face today, says a spokesman for RCRC.

The delegates overall were in awe of the mammoth area that these projects would encompass.

Riyadh is already home to the biggest transport masterplan of the world that features Riyadh Metro and an extensive rapid transit system – crucial elements that will make the well-being projects easily reachable.


Art on the Move will see sculptures installed at the most important intersections across the city.

Art on the Move will see sculptures installed at the most important intersections across the city.

Green Riyadh

The most extensive and far-reaching of the four projects, this citywide greening initiative includes the planting of 7.5 million trees, and aims to lower the temperature of the city by 2 deg C and provide welcome shade, allowing residents to walk and exercise outdoors.

In his presentation, Dr Abdulrahman Albidah, assistant professor at King Saudi University, said the project aimed to increase the green cover from the current 1.51 to 9.1 per cent (amounting to 541 sq km) by 2030.

He admitted the urban sprawl in Riyadh occurred at the expense of the vegetation cover and that the city lacked strategic direction for a greening initiative.

He also said the percentage of population within walking distance from parks in Riyadh was 32 per cent compared to 81.5 per cent in New York City and 83 per cent in Singapore.

Green Riyadh, he said, offers greening opportunities through 13 greening initiatives, including public buildings, wadis and sub-wadis, city parks, universities and colleges, main roads, parking areas, empty plots, neighbourhood parks, medical facilities, schools, streets, mosques and government buildings.

By 2030, the targets include greening 3,331 neighbourhood parks covering 10.2 sq km, 43 city parks (67 sq km), 272 linear km of wadis (103 sq km), 8,878 mosques (1.3 sq km), 6,003 educational facilities (20 sq km), 1,665 government buildings (39 sq km), 387 medical facilities (1.5 sq km), 175,000 empty plots (73 sq km), 270 linear km of public transport networks (0.5 sq km), 16,400 linear km of streets and roads (56 sq km), 2,000 parking areas (3.4 sq km), 1,100 linear km of utility corridors (85 sq km), and 11 sq km of private properties.

Riyadh is an arid city with water supplied from outside through pipelines. A massive project like Green Riyadh will require huge amounts of water.

Albidah said: “Currently, Riyadh uses only 15 per cent of the total volume of wastewater treated. This is very low compared to other global cities, such as Abu Dhabi, which uses 40 per cent, Dubai 90 per cent, while it’s 100 per cent in Singapore.”

In volume, Riyadh will recycle 90,000 cu m per day of water in 2019 but aims to increase that output to 1 million cu m by 2030.

He lamented that in Riyadh only the traffic medians are landscaped while road sides are neglected, and the walkways are narrow.

Riyadh plans to raise annual public investments in greening to SR372 per capita from the current SR33.1. This is minute when compared to New York City’s SR2,337 per capita spent on greening. Meanwhile, the per capita share of green areas will increase from 1.7 sq m to 28 sq m, 16 times its current amount, he added.

Albidah said the design and study for the Green Riyadh project has already been completed and the project implementation had started this year. The project would be implemented in three phases with deadlines of each phase in 2020, 2023 and 2030, respectively.

A significant effect of this project will be a reduction of annual pollution and carbon dioxide (CO2) levels, which are expected to decline by three to six per cent.

Other benefits include a reduction in energy consumption by an average of 650 GW per hour per year, by fostering green building principles and using green roofs and walls. The city’s capacity to absorb rainwater in the green area will also increase and this will reduce flooding.

The cumulative economic benefits achieved through this project by 2030 could be to the tune of SR71 billion, Albidah claimed.


A wadi in the heart of King Salman Park.

A wadi in the heart of King Salman Park.

King Salman Park

This massive park will take shape within Riyadh city and blend with it. It will be the largest city park in the world, covering an area of 13.4 sq km, four times the area of Central Park in New York.

Being built on land previously occupied by King Salman Air Base (old Riyadh airport), the centrally located park will be connected to six major roadways.

Its environmental features include green areas and open spaces over 9.3 million sq m, gardens over 400,000 sq m, a 7.2-km circular walking trail, an 800,000-sq-m valley area, and water and aquatic elements covering 300,000 sq m.

The park will host a Royal Arts Complex covering an area of more than 400,000 sq m that will have a 2,500-seat national theatre, five enclosed theatres of various sizes, an open-air theatre for 8,000 spectators, a three-screen cinema, four arts academies, and an educational centre to develop young talent.

In addition, there will be seven museums, each for aviation, astronomy, space, forest, science, architecture and virtual reality.

To cater to sports activities, King Salman Park  will feature The Royal Golf Green with an area of 850,000 sq m, a sports complex with an area of 50,000 sq m, a virtual reality playroom, a parachute and hot air balloons centre, an equestrian centre, and a running and biking trail.

Among other attractions are an 80,000-sq-m knowledge, cultural and environmental centre, interactive park exhibitions, multipurpose halls, meeting rooms, as well as tree and plant nurseries, open spaces, food and beverage kiosks, a 100,000-sq-m recreation and playground area, a 140,000-sq-m aquatic park area, a family recreation centre, and an observation deck.

There will also be residential building complexes over a 1.6 million-sq-m area and housing 12,000 units, 16 hotels, 500,000 sq m dedicated to restaurants, cafés and retail shops, and office buildings covering 600,000 sq m, mosques, security, health, educational and social centres, public libraries, and parking garages.

King Salman Park is connected to five stations on Riyadh Metro, 10 bus rapid transit stops, while within the park, smart vehicles as well as electrical cars and bikes will be used.

Work on the project has started and is expected to complete in 2024.


Sports Boulevard ... a health and wellness destination adding 135 km of professional track.

Sports Boulevard ... a health and wellness destination adding 135 km of professional track.

Sports Boulevard

This will be a state-of-the-art health and wellness destination in the heart of the city, providing a network of cycle routes and adding an impressive 135 km of professional track.

Stretching between the Hanifa and Sulai valleys, the project will offer sports enthusiasts biking trails extending across 85 km for amateurs and 135 km for professionals, 123 km of horse riding trails, walking trails around the whole project, stops and rest areas for bikers in both the valleys, 3.5 million sq m of green areas and open spaces, cafés, and stores for both hikers and sports enthusiasts.

More than 120,000 trees will be planted and irrigated solely with treated wastewater, while monuments and iconic art works – including 10 major monuments – will be installed along the boulevard.

The Boulevard will have eight main zones: Hanifa Valley Route, which extends over 30 km; Arts Zone, which extends over 3 km; Al Ysen Valley with a shallow water canal that bisects the entire area; a recreational zone that offers a 40-km overpass to professional bikers and a land trail for amateurs; a sports zone, which will feature 60 activity venues, including 16 soccer fields, 18 indoor and 12 outdoor basket, volleyball and tennis courts and an ice rink and an iconic sports tower; an ecological area that extends over 14 km with areas dedicated to educating on plant cultivation and conservation; Sulai Valley Zone over 53 km; and Sand Dunes Park Zone covering 20 sq km and offering trails for professional mountain and desert biking as well as 5 sq km of botanical gardens, among other features.

The scheduled completion for the first three phases is 2023, 2024 and 2027, respectively.


Welcoming Gateways ... Riyadh Art will see art installations at the city entrances.

Welcoming Gateways ... Riyadh Art will see art installations at the city entrances.

Riyadh Art

This project will establish the city as ‘a gallery without walls’ through a world-class interactive public arts programme.

It includes the installation of more than 1,000 works and art landmarks by local and international artists and the largest art programmes in the world, said architect Bader Al Shenaifi.

These programmes include:

  • Urban art labs that offer interaction between artists and citizens at more than nine sites;
  • Joyous Gardens that will see the creation of more than 200 artistic gardens throughout the city;
  • Jewels of Riyadh that will offer a collection of international art installations;
  • Welcoming Gateways, with art installations at Riyadh city entrances;
  • Art on the Move, with installations at important city intersections;
  • Art in Transit, which will see over 300 art installations at public transport stations;
  • Urban Flow that will have creative pedestrian bridges;
  • Hidden River, including art installations on bridges using illumination and over 200 art installations in the valleys;
  • Garden City, a park containing a collection of monuments and sculptures;
  • XXL, a striking art landmark for the city that will be chosen through a design competition for local and international artists; and
  • Noor Festival, an annual celebration featuring interactive artwork based on light.

The project is expected to be completed at the end of 2023.


The Hidden River ... artworks on bridges using illumination.

The Hidden River ... artworks on bridges using illumination.

Expert opinions

The global experts at the symposium were unanimously of the view that public participation was crucial. According to Maria Vassilakou, former vice-mayor and deputy governor of Vienna, Austria, these projects aim to encourage social interaction and create a destination for all demographies and be at the forefront of innovative and enriched public design.

“For that you need to engage the public, raise awareness and inclusively involve people in the decision making, especially women and youth,” she said.

She said in order to make Riyadh a world-class city that celebrates its individual culture while reaching the top of the global livability rankings, the project owner must avoid repeating the mistakes made in other places and avoid generic models.

She strongly suggested relying upon design elements that reflect the unique and strong regional culture of Riyadh.

Experts also stressed focusing on synergy among urban policies (housing, land management and transportation), introducing high efficiency standards and innovative energy solutions, and ensuring effective monitoring and evaluation – both qualitative and quantitative – right from the inception of the project.

They also said to ensure effective phasing of different projects and future scalability, Riyadh needs to invest in local capacity building in order to guarantee on time project delivery, and to take into account lifecycle operational costs of associated elements, such as buildings, trees, shade, plants, operational aspects and water management.

Michael Koh, executive fellow at the Centre for Livable Cities in Singapore, called the project far sighted and strategic that will change the face of Riyadh. “These projects will further improve the quality of life of the people in Riyadh. And they will particularly enhance the livability and environment of the city, improving tree cover, increasing quality and provision of public spaces as well as providing facilities and amenities for the people of Riyadh,” he said.

Dr Mauricio Gómez Villarino, partner director in IDOM Consulting, Engineering and Architecture, Spain, said sustainability is a key issue and every decision should revolve around this feature.

Meanwhile, Chris Robb, founder and CEO, Mass Participation World, Singapore, expressed that “he was blown away by the scale of the projects”, adding it is a magnificent opportunity to completely change Riyadh.

“The appeal of these projects to positively impact the lives of millions of people from a health and well-being perspective really excites me, and I love the ambition that is being put into place,” he said.

Robb has been in the mass participation industry for more than 35 years and has organised massive events like marathons mostly in South East Asia and Australia.

What he loves about these projects is their ability to create linkage, particularly the Sports Boulevard, which draw communities together for events.

“Building communities is a key feature of these projects, which offer avenues for more family bonding and bringing people together to spend more quality time.”

And while emphasising the need for sustainability, he said what shouldn’t be overlooked is commercial sustainability to allow these projects to keep going.

“I believe these projects will spin an entire commercial ecosystem that will offer opportunities for new businesses to spring up and build the economy of Riyadh beyond what it is at the moment,” he stated.

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