Moving in the Greatest Gathering of the World

Moving in the Greatest Gathering  of the World

Planning and design of a new development in the holy city of Mecca has no equal in the world from all perspectives, and, in particular, from both cultural and social standpoints.

In that sense, Thakher City is a memorable and unique new residential and hospitality-based development, which most relevant peculiarities consist in symbolic and religious aspects related to the greatest human gathering in the world, climate conditions and the highly variable functioning of the whole city. This new urban district is located in the city centre of Mecca, around 2 km north of the main Mosque al Masjid al Haram and it is designed to provide enough capacity – around 2m m2 of GFA – to accommodate up to 250,000 pilgrims during the Hajj, the main Islamic pilgrimage that takes place every year in Mecca, involving more than 2.5m pilgrims who arrive and leave in one week.

Pilgrims approaching the entrance gate to Al Jamarat, during Hajj.

Hajj is literally a once-in-a-lifetime experience, which fixed ritual requires pilgrims to move between four main sites – al Masjid al Haram, Mina, Arafat, Muzdalifah – at given days and following a precise schedule, making transport planning a very demanding and definitely fascinating exercise which requires attention to safety issues through effective and integrated crowd management strategies.

On the one hand, the Hajj’s rituals imply a tremendous effect on transport infrastructures, while, on the other hand, they determine a “predetermined” pattern of induced mobility and make the related impact more predictable. With this regard, transport-related aspects of the Thakher City definitively represent a challenging dimension to tackle through a robust, multi-layered and integrated mobility strategy, aimed at providing adequate capacity and functionality to future needs, in order to deliver a massive urban intervention with the lowest impact on surroundings and, in the meantime, creating a high-quality urban environment by paying due regard to city-streetscape elements.

Due to the peculiarity of the pilgrimage patterns and the limited distance between the site and al Masjid al Haram, walking is by far the predominant mode of transport with peaks of 120,000 hourly movements.
As part of the pedestrian accessibility strategy, the provision of a public vertical transportation hub represents a pioneering intervention aimed at seamlessly negotiating the substantial change in elevation – around 80m – from the city level to the upper portion of the site: the planned Gateway Building is in fact an unprecedented marriage between architecture and infrastructure, integrating 54 high-capacity, double-deck elevators, a sort of vertical mass rapid transit system, to smoothly move more than 90,000 pilgrims in one hour.

Maps showing the Pedestrian Flow and th Pedestrian Level of Service (LOS). Crucial indicators for analysing pedestrian conditions in crowd management.

An effective and safe management of hundreds of thousands of first-time visitors coming from all over the world also needs to gravitate around an effective and solid wayfinding strategy. The distinctive geometric language of the pedestrian network is, in fact, complemented by a clearly defined composition of neighbourhoods that differentiate zones within the Master Plan, supporting pilgrims to easily orient themselves; moreover, the subdivision of Thakher City into seven districts is not accidental as the number 7 is very recurring and meaningful in the Islamic culture.

Neighbourhoods are defined holistically, using architectural accent colours, landscaping palette, and geometric patterning in hardscaping, as well as traditional elements such as strategic signage, to reinforce wayfinding messages in the most broadly accessible and comprehensible way. Moreover, a proper wayfinding system looks at streets and districts as interrelated elements, weaved to facilitate the experience of space and simplify its visual representation.