By Rachel Hill
I went to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to help design a waterfront park that is being created as a public central seed for a “new city” with the catchy name “Jazan Economic City”. The concept of originating this wholly new place based spatially around a shared public green space seemed progressive and quite radical for Saudi Arabia – a place where relatively recent and immense oil wealth has generated cities of walled compounds and exclusivity. Coming from water wealthy Portland, I expected to see and feel the difference of working in an arid environment. We know water in its presence. Arid land places understand it through its absence. Saudi Arabia is an interesting hybrid, where wealth can buy its presence, but at what cost?
The city of Jeddah flooded a couple of years back. Twice. With serious consequences. Even in sandy, coastal Jeddah, the city was built like an ice cube tray with impermeable surfaces coating every bit of ground. Concrete walls “protect” villas and curbs are built over twice the height we typically use in the US to prevent the ubiquitous impatient driver from hopping it and driving on the sidewalk to avoid traffic. During the flood, these streets filled up. Hummers and Ferraris floated through the streets. Tragically, over one hundred people died.
The rest of the year it is what you imagine it to be – an arid place where if you can see soil (which is tough to find between massive development projects), you’ll see a sandy, rocky earth. Plantings sit on mounds, their slope pitching to the streets so that any water that falls will drain towards a concrete drainage channel. And then there’s the Red Sea – calm, highly saline, turquoise blue with a tide that is hardly measureable. Corals sit serenely just under the surface and with little to no recreational tourism (most tourists are pilgrims and there is very little domestic tourism). The only time it sees any turbulence is when fresh water comes streaming down from the high mountains, diverted in numerous dams built in its apron, contained many times in its travels into concrete lined channels that fill with trash. This fresh water is dumped like the garbage it contains, into the sea on those couple of days when rain freshens things up around the city.
While this is happening, water is pumped from the sea into desalinization plants that sit on the coast, leaking smoke day and night. The two largest smoke stacks in Jeddah compete with King Fahd’s sea geyser, the largest water cannon in the world at 853 feet that sits in the Jeddah harbor. The sea cannon pumps water into the sky – the smoke stacks pump smog.
Thus the Saudi water cycle begins with petrol, pumped from the earth, that is burned to turn sea water into potable water. Clouds of smog puff into the sky. The water is then dispersed to the city where it often flows through irrigation tubes to feeder heads that spray it onto barely surviving vegetation that is boxed into tiny cut out punctures in tile, granite and concrete. Any precipitation that falls naturally is channeled to a drain to the sea. And the water cycle continues.
Saudi urbanites moan and groan that they want a lush, green city. Revered landscape architectural projects have serpentine paths through lush lawns. Small mounds of irrigated turf planted with palms look like a bad hair transplant in the middle of roundabouts. People yearn for Central Park, a British garden or a French par terre. One Saudi colleague told me that they are a night culture because there is no shade to relax in during the day. What they want and what they have to work with are sometimes incongruous. But they don’t have to be. The feeling of “lush” does not translate always to a tropical garden or European park.
And yet every drop of water that falls on the city of Jeddah is whisked away, seen as a nuisance in its natural form, re-gathered, anesthetized and put into tanks and tubes such that it is deemed useful again. Less than a century ago the Bedouins searched for and revered the oasis. The absence of water made it sacred. Travelers followed the wadi – a stream bed that fills with water only during rain events. Date palms surrounded oases that became settlements. These are concepts that modern Saudis remember more and more as lore.
As a landscape architect working in Jeddah, our job was often interpreted as “greening things up”. It felt equally as important to help interpret what “green” means in arid Saudi Arabia, and to those who want to emulate western models of modernity, using landscape as a mode of communication of prestige. The country is at a critical point where population growth, incredible wealth, and the planning and engineering that are responding to it are on a fast track to shaping (in mostly detrimental but also in positive ways) the future of the country. Its recent past of walkable, dense cities with vibrant markets and the natural genius loci of high, rocky mountains, migrating dunes, acacia trees and cultivated date palms are majestic and important to protect, both for the natural and cultural identity of the country. Landscape architects have a unique perspective in understanding how environmental and sustainability goals weave into public space. For me, never has our profession appeared more vital.