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The Diplomatic Quarter, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Name Diplomatic Quarter
Place Riyadh
Country Saudi Arabia
Topic please enter the topic here
Author(s) Christoph Dankers
Completion Please enter the date of completion
Client Please enter the client
Project costs Please enter the costs (if known)
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24.839857, 46.344955 </googlemap>

Rationale: Why is this case study interesting?

The Diplomatic Quarter was one of the first developments in Riyadh which features an extensive pedestrian route network including parks, outdoor sports facilities and other public open spaces. Until today the 'DQ' is one of the few places in Riyadh where locals and visitors can enjoy outdoor activities in a pleasant environment.

Why is this project interesting?

  • 1. Richard Boedeker (german landscape architect) introduced the concept of 'extensive landscaping' in the late 1970s. His way of transforming an unfriendly, dry and overwhelmingly hot piece of land on the edge of the Wadi Hanifah (a canyon and stream network running through the city of Riyadh) inspired many of the later developments in the area. Instead of trying to ban the harsh environment out of the public open spaces of the Diplomatic Quarter, Boedeker decided to translate the spectacular forms of the local desert into a network of parks. The result is a development which blends in with its natural environment and at the same time offers high quality open spaces using local plants and stone.
  • 2. The 'DQ' acts as a role model for other projects. Most of the plants successfully used in many designs in the area were first introduced and tested during the construction of the Diplomatic Quarter.
  • 3. Until today the Diplomatic Quarter is the only place in Riyadh where people (men and women) meet freely for sports and recreation. It is a strong example how landscape design can improve general quality of a city and the social life of it's citizens.
                           Masterplan designed by BW+P, Albert Speer and Partners and others.

Author's perspective

  • What theoretical or professional perspective do you bring to the case study?

I was a site supervisor during the construction of a part of the 'Earthberm Park' which surrounds the Diplomatic Quarter. I lived in Riyadh's Diplomatic Quarter for six months in 2006.

Landscape and/or urban context

  • 1. Overall Character

Unlike other areas in the city of Riyadh, the design of the Diplomatic Quarter supports pedestrian as much as vehicular routes. The designs of parks and sports flields placed within the residential developments in the precinct encourage people to meet for different activities. The overall landscape design blends in with the natural environment, using mainly local 'Riyadh Limestone' and desert trees. The most important element using this design approach is the 'Earthberm Park' an up to 20m high berm with walkways, playgrounds and sports facilities that surrounds the Diplomatic Quarter and creates it's micro climate that is slightly cooler than the surrounding area. Besides that a network of pedestrian routes, the so called 'green fingers' conncet residential areas with shops, sports club and restaurants.

  • 2. Cultural Features

Due to the unique mix of nationalities and the 'DQ' being one of the very few areas in Riyadh where men and women can meet and talk in public, the precinct with it's restaurants and public open spaces supports the dialogue between the different cultures.

  • 3. History and Dynamics

The first masterplan for the Diplomatic Quarter was drawn up 1977. Since then the design has been modified and improved after each construction phase. To the present day the construction goes on. After the first opening of the 'DQ' in the 1980s the area became one of the most popular destinations for locals and visitors. The parks were overcrowded and access had to be restricted for certain times. After the events of the of September 11 2001, security check points and 24hour police patrols were introduced. Since then the popularity decreased drastically.

Cultural/social/political context

The project is situated on the outskirts of Riyadh, capital of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, home to Mecca and Medina, the two holy cities of the arab world is one of the biggest oil exporters world wide. The country maintains close business relations to the USA and Europe. It also uses a large foreign work force which includes workers from other islamic countries like Pakistan or Indonesia as well as the Philippines. Besides that Engineers and designers from the USA, Canada, Australia and Europe often work on contract basis in Saudi Arabia. The main religion practiced is a very strict Islam. Often hard to understand for europeans, the social life in the kingdom mainly takes place in private homes and mostly involves family members. This is reflected in the local architecture with it's high boundary walls, small windows and big properties ensuring a maximum of privacy. Public open spaces are almost non existent in most of the cities. Public transport and pedestrian route networks are in general extremely poor. In Riyadh the High Commission for Development of Arriyadh (ADA) works closely with various international designers and engineers to improve the overall quality of the city. The projects include large recreational areas such as Wadi Hanifah as well as modern parks and public open spaces in the city centre.


  • How did the area/project/plan at the focus of the case study evolve?
  • Late 1970s: The precinct was planned.
  • Late 1980s: The grand opening was in the late 1980s.
  • 2005: Masterplan review by AS+P in.
  • 2007: Construction of the final section of the Earthberm Park.
  • 2008: Redesign of large parts of the precinct for the new USA embassy.

Spatial analysis of area/project/plan

  • 1. The Earthberm Park

This park surrounds the Diplomatic Quarter and offers trim trails, view points, amphy theatres and seating areas. The levels of the area vary between 0 and 25m. The park is partly still under construction, but approximately 80% of the area has been handed over to the public. Unfortunately the park has been partly closed due to security reasons. Besides the recreational aspect of the park the berms also protect the 'DQ' from the often strong winds and help create a micro climate that is slightly cooler within the berms.

  • 2. Green Fingers

A pedestrian network, designed to connect the embassies and residential areas with all facilities. Shaded walkways, strategically places drinking fountains and seating areas are the main features of the green fingers.

  • 3. Extensive Landscaping Area

The so called 'Extensive' area is located along the edge of the Wadi Hanifah Canyon. The aim of the design was to blend in with the natural environment as much as possible. A trail along the Wadi edge built from local 'Riyadh Limestone' and a number of Rock Art features along the way built from the same material are the main features of this area. The 'Extensive' area connects to the 'Earthberm Park' and ends at the Diplomatic Quarter's own Tree Nursery.

  • 4. The Nursery

The 'DQ' Nursery located within the Wadi Hanifah canyon is the main supplier of local and imported plants to projects inside and outside the Diplomatic Quarter.

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Core questions working group open spaces

How does the design of an open space contribute to a run down neighbourhood?

  • 1. Neighborhood lost attractiveness because of open space design

Public open spaces are the figureheads of a district, their design influences the resident's daily quality of life significantly. Public open spaces in residential neighborhoods should provide the following:

1. Sufficient usable green space for recreation (parks, playgrounds,...) 
2. A harmonic relation between buildings, hard- and softscape areas 
3. Safe and pleasant pedestrian and bicycle routes  
4. Contribution to drainage system of the precinct 
5. An identity to the neighborhood 
6. Contribution to the districts micro-climate 

If the open spaces of a district do not fulfill these criteria other reasons for a neighborhood being attractive for its inhabitants such as general location, access to public transport and general cost of property and lease will become the main motives for people to move to the area. As a result people who are willing to invest in a home and it's surroundings would not consider the area and the the neighborhood is on it's way down.

  • 2. Upgrade of a run down neighborhood through public open space design

There can be many reasons for district to become unattractive or run down. Open space design can ally some of these factors, for example:

1. Noise and visual protection through berms, walls and green barriers 
2. More safety for residents by introducing traffic reducing measures, pedestrian routes and bicycle lanes  
3. Providing recreational space for different user groups: Jogging trails, playgrounds, sports facilities, etc.

Riyadh Diplomatic Quarter

The diplomatic quarter is defined by it's open spaces. The parks and sports facilities are unique for the city of Riyadh. The open spaces make the area one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the region.

How are open spaces linked to the adjacent areas?

  • 1. Natural Environment

The design of the open spaces in the diplomatic quarter tries to blend in as far as possible with it's natural surroundings. Most of the features were built from local Riyadh Limestone and the planting is dominated by different Acacia and Tamarix species. Where ever possible the natural water drainage systems were respected and extended. Seasonal river beds or 'Wadis' were built to support storm water drainage and act as planting areas.

  • 2. The city of Riyadh

Unfortunately the landscape design of the Diplomatic Quarter does not help to connect the district to it's built surroundings an up to 25m high earthberm with trails, viewpoints and sport facilities surrounds the area and cuts it of from the rest of the city. Visitors can only enter at two secured entrance points.

How are open spaces used?

  • Functions:

The whole district is permeated by smaller parks as well as pedestrian links, a central plaza and surrounded by the large Earthberm Park. The parks offer a range of different usages such as:

- Sports facilities (football fields, basketball courts, varying exercise points and jogging trails) 
- Playgrounds for different age groups and themes

The Central Plaza (Kindy PLaza) offers restaurants and shops as well as a large paved open space extensively used for rollerskating, football or bicycle riding.

  • Users:

The open spaces are mostly used by the residents of the of the area. The area lost a lot of it's popularity during the last years, due to strict security checks at the entrance gates and long queues.

Which elements make an open space successful and attractive?

The elements adding to the attractiveness of an open space can be categorized in general elements and location-dependent elements

  • 1. General elements
- Accessibility: how easy is it for potential users to reach the space 
- Usability: what facilities are offered, 
- can the space be used by different groups or individuals at the same time, 
- can the space be used at all times, 
- is sufficient lighting provided, 
- is the place safe at all times. 
- Is there sufficient maintenance 
- Is there any cost for using the space 
- Is the design functional and pleasant for the user  
  • 2. Location-dependent elements:

Example: Riyadh/Saudi Arabia

- Does the space provide shade 
- Is the space sheltered from strong winds 
- Does the space provide privacy for families 
- Can the space reached by car

How can the historical background of an open space be shown to the public?

  • 1. Leave all original parts of the space at it's place (if existent) and incorporate in new design. Provide information about these elements through signs
  • 2. Use sculptures and other artistic elements to express the historical background
  • 3. Incorporate the historical use (for example market place,...) in the new design
  • 4. Give the space an relating name
  • 5. Use authentic materials
  • 6. Use informative signs

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Analysis of program/function

Main functional Characteristics

  • 1. Encouragement of pedestrian movement,

throughout the Diplomatic Quarter by introducing a network of pedestrian routes usable even during the hot season with more then 50 degreece celsius. This was achieved through the intensive use of large canopy evergreen trees such as acaia, Albizia and Delonix along the walkways as well as the placement of drinking fountains and shaded seating areas.

  • 2. Introduction of outdoor sports

Especially the numerous parks within the Diplomatic Quarter provide many different sports facilities all over the 'DQ'. Since sport and fitness is not a common recreational activity in Saudi Arabia due to the often harsh weather conditions, public sports facilities were a completely new aspect of Landscape Architecture in Saudi Arabia at the time. The combination with large shade trees proved to be successful, The sports fields and trim trails are popular with locals and visitors. The placement of the sports fields within enclosed parks makes them very safe for children and gives families the chance to enjoy different aspects of the of the public open spaces without being separated from each other.

  • 3. Design with low visual impact

The overall philosophy of the landscape design is to blend in as good as possible with the natural environment. Inspired by the shapes and colors of the desert the designers created berms, canyons, amphy theaters, viewing towers and water canals out of local lime stone. The result is a dramatic and usable landscape which has a minimal viual impact on its surroundings.

Analysis of design/planning process

The masterplan for the Diplomatic Quarter was established by a consortium of town planners, landscape architects and engineers mostly from Europe in 1977. The concept for the public open spaces was mainly developed by 'Boedeker, Wagenfeld and Partners' together with 'Albert Speer and Partners'. These two offices worked closely with Riyadh's High Commission for Development to establish the principles mentioned above. The concepts and general detail drawings as well as numerous reports were used by the site management to create the open spaces within the area. The landscape Architects of BW+P introduced the concept of 'Design on Site' mainly in the 'Extensive' areas and the 'Earthberm Park'. They only drawings used were rough layout plans for the general setting out of the project. After that every feature was designed during construction by choosing and placing boulders and shaping the natural ground.

Analysis of use/users

Before 9-11-2001 the area was widely used by locals and visitors. The 'DQ' was one of the most popular destinations in Riyadh. It acted not only as sports and recreational facility, but as a place where inter-cultural dialogue could take place. At present the project is mainly used by the citizens of the Diplomatic Quarter. Due to strict security checks at all entrances it became a hassle for people to enter the 'DQ'. Long queues at the check point and an armada of police and military make it difficult for locals to enter the area without 'good' reason.

Future development directions

  • How is the area/project/plan evolving?
  • Are there any future goals?

The precinct is still under construction. The latest extension of the Earthberm park (see aerial photograph below) and numerous greenfinger and pocket parks (all part of the original design from the 1970s) are going to be handed over by the contractor in 2009. Besides the landscape features, there are different housing projects which are still under construction or in the planning phase. The most important development during the next years will be the new USA embassy which will have a strong impact on the surroundings (see 'Future Development'on aerial photograph below).

Imla 2.jpg

Peer reviews or critique

  • Has the area/ project/plan been reviewed by academic or professional reviewers?
  • What were their main evaluations?

The masterplan for the Diplomatic Quarter has been reviewed by 'Albert Speer and Partners' in 2005. Their evaluations can be found on http://www.as-p.de/content/e3-projects/e_3-2-9.php

Points of success and limitations

  • What do you see as the main points of success and limitations of the area/project/plan?

Points of Success

  • Introduction of freely usable public open space for men and women
  • The precinct is used as a test area for newly inroduced plants. Many of the species used throughout the Riyadh area were first planted in the 'DQ'.
  • Introduction of pedestrian zones. The Diplomatic Quarter is the first precinct in Riyadh with a pedestrian friendly infrastructure.

Limitations: Although the area was planned as recreational precinct for visitors and locals, heavy security checks at the entrance points make it almost impossible for locals to enter without a 'good' reason. The result is that many parks stay unused and the central square is deserted most of the time. Small businesses like restaurants or shops battle.

The Diplomatic Quarter was created as role model for new developments to be more community friendly. The planners tried to convince local investors and royals to build more for the public rather than only for themselves. Unfortunately the surrounding areas still show the usual setup (see images below).


The images show an informal settlement and one of many royal palaces, located a few hundred meters from each other along Wadi Hanifah.


Alber Speer and Partners

BW+P Abroad



<gallery caption=" " widths="150px" heights="150px" perrow="5"> Image:dc01.jpg|Natural environment and designed landscape merge in the 'extensive' parks Image:dc02.jpg|'Extensive' landscaping on the wadi edge Image:dc06.jpg|Climbers and ground covers add green to the normally monotone landscape Image:fig24a.jpg|Tuwaique Palace is one of the most majestic feature structures of the 'DQ', design by Frei Otto. Image:palms.jpg|Palm trees are widely used throughout the Diplomatic Quarter. Image:kindy.jpg|The kindy plaza is the central meeting place of the precinct.

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