It is not too often that one is able to read some good news on an environmental matter of any scale. Usually the claim for any successful accomplishment in matters to do with the environment relates to a building design that has achieved a particularly high ‘star rating,’ or to a special programme that has received funding from the government, with any outcome being based on hope and enthusiasm rather than the actual realization of any aim. The propaganda usually has more to do with public relations than the making of any significant change in the world that might have an impact on people’s lives by improving circumstances for many. So it is that one sees universities boasting and gloating about an energy-efficient new building, or a politician declaring over-enthusiastically, funding for some new, local clean-up programme, with much self-importance.
The BBC story on the Wadi Hanifah scheme is unusually good news for an environmental story as it is a significant project that has achieved a real outcome – and has changed lives: see
Wadi Hanifah: An oasis where Saudi citizens can really relax
The fertile Wadi Hanifah valley running through part of Riyadh was for years a rubbish dump and a public health hazard, but now it's been transformed into a vast park, with lakes that attract cool breezes. It's an oasis so large it's hard to police - making it a place for Saudi citizens to relax, in more senses than one.
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As a village, then a small town, Riyadh grew sustainably with its population. But from the 1970s rapid growth quickly overwhelmed the city's ecosystems.
Construction firms mined Wadi Hanifah for minerals. The valley was blocked by encroaching farmland. Seasonal flooding swept pollutants into residential neighbourhoods and then left stagnant water, jeopardising public health.
Yet today, Wadi Hanifah shows few signs of its polluted past.
At Al Elb, on Riyadh's scorched northern outskirts, I walked along Wadi Hanifah beside high desert bluffs.
Improvements to Wadi Hanifah have given children a new place to play
Palm trees now shade a line of carefully designed picnic pods, each comprising a horseshoe of roughly finished limestone slabs, offering secluded valley views.
More slabs, laid horizontally, create steps down to the valley floor, where children scamper along nature trails and families lounge under the acacias.
"Riyadh has no open space," says engineer Saud Al Ajmi. "Wadi Hanifah has become a place to breathe."
Since 2001 the ArRiyadh Development Authority has been restoring and redeveloping the valley, clearing rubbish, grading the banks, landscaping and replanting native flora.
In other big cities you might head up to high ground for a breath of air. In Riyadh, you head down.
Wadi Hanifah acts like a flue, drawing cool breezes over the city to disperse smog and temper the heat.
It is a very long, very thin oasis.
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The scale of this scheme does make one ponder on other possibilities, and raises questions about our efforts in matters environmental. We seem very good at listening to the blurb and believing that we are achieving something useful - enough to praise ourselves and feel good about life - when in fact very little is being achieved. The scale of much of our self-praise frequently outshines the reality of the outcome. One building might be a start, just as local effort to clean out portion of a nearby creek might be useful in a micro manner; but much more needs to happen if we are ever to achieve something like the results reported on the Wadi Hanifah scheme.
Instead of itemised units that get detailed attention, the scale of our approach must change. Planning is involved here as well as environmental science and design. Sadly, the outcomes presently being achieved by planners in the development of our towns, cities and regions does not give one much hope. In spite of this profession having more members than ever before in the history of mankind, things just seem to keep getting worse. Plans are published with such vague parameters that anything seems to be possible with a little ‘negotiation.’ Success is measured by ‘proper’ paperwork rather than any review of the real outcomes. Indeed, results seem to be irrelevant. The core issue appears to be the ticking of all of the required boxes. Whether the proposal and its details as agreed/approved are ever likely to be possible seems to be of no concern to anyone in authority. Even proving to an authority that details of a proposal make no sense and will be unable to be implemented - no matter how wonderful they might sound or look on paper - seems to be of no concern. The core issue is the final approval and the closing of the file - and the politics of the situation. Whether the document one sends in by way of objection gets lost or not is of no concern either. One sometimes feels that others prefer them ‘lost.’ Frequently they might as well end up disappearing, for all the attention they are given.
So how do things change? There has to be a commitment to real outcomes rather than to assessing and approving schemes and proposals as words and illustrations matched against other texts and diagrams. Planning must start taking responsibility for results. Lives are involved, not merely presumptions, policies and preferences. This is not the ‘give us any proposal and we’ll look at it,’ proposition that leaves everything open to chats and cheque books. It is working hard to always determine real impacts and outcomes, and then reviewing these so that feedback can then inform other futures. Once this circular process starts controlling possibilities - real outcomes - then we will find that the parts might start joining together to give us something larger of substance.
The ideal would be to tackle matters on the large scale, but if this is not possible, then the gathering of the parts that are all environmentally sensitive and responsible - and beautifully designed - could give us a larger whole that is truly planned and co-ordinated with ambition and integrity, rather than merely being manipulated to maximize profits and benefits for a few. The failure of the success of the role of persuasive debate and argument in a project application can be seen everywhere in our cities, towns and regions. Planning has to change if we are to make a difference.