Masterplanning in the Emirates! Dubai’s Highs and Lows

by Tony Chavira

I’m sure that by now you’ve received an e-mail or seven about the development boom in the United Arab Emirates kingdom of Dubai. You’ve probably seen images of the indoor ski slopes, supermassive green mall spaces, buildings on their own man-made islands, and futuristic light rail that floats on magnets and pure imagination. Most of those things are definitely true; the train, for example, is up and running even though not all of the stops have been completed. The malls are pretty nice too, I suppose. I mean, they’re still malls ... what do you really expect from them?

from the top of the Burj
view from the top of the Burj - about 160 stories up

As I flew in, the first thing I noticed—even from way up there in the sky—was the Burj Khalifa Dubai tower, and let me tell you that it is colossal. No pun intended, but it towers over the comparatively puny 50- to 80-story buildings around it, and makes the array of 30-story ones all around the city seem like shoddy efforts. But I use the term “city” in this case very lightly, because much like places I’ve been to earlier in this trip, Dubai has two distinct sides to it. These exist in the same general space, and for now let’s call them “Dubai Sky” and “Dubai Street.” Before I go any further, here’s a question for you: when you look at images of Dubai that really wow you, are they mostly of the immense and modern skyline and wildly innovative buildings? I’d bet on it. At the Street level (just as with the Sky level), there is a ton of slowly-paced construction taking place, which in many cases impedes or endangers the pedestrian experience. In fact, although the "city" really only includes about three major boulevards along which all the skyscrapers and malls are placed (with the rest of the city looking dangerously like sprawl to me), sidewalks are a completely underutilized commodities in Dubai. Here’s a good example of what I mean: to reach the sidewalk on the main road, I had to walk in the far left lane of the highway-like road with another timid older woman who followed not-too-closely so that I might take the brunt of any impact from any incoming vehicle before she did. In some ways it's shocking: some areas don’t have sidewalks at all, and amazing facades with modern statues and dramatic fountains have no place for people to walk by them. Or even sit to enjoy them, lest they wish to be hit by one of the many luxury cars hogging up the road right in front of them.

Dubai light rail
Dubai light rail

Not that I’m all complaints. Dubai has a fantastic (and fantastically efficient) bus system, complete with insulated, air-conditioned bus stops that everyone seemed to be using. Well, everyone outside a certain income bracket, anyway. Also, Dubai Sky is, in fact, very impressive from the roof of your hotel, even if the structures compete with each other for which is the most obvious phallic representation. In the daylight the glassy, metallic cityscape shimmers with clean, futuristic hypermodernity that’s worthy of the “oohs” and “ahhs” those chain mails elicit.

Sheik Zaid Road
Sheik Zaid Road

During the night, however, you get a real picture for how the city of Dubai is faring in the economic crisis. As I currently stare out my window on this cool and breezy desert evening, I can almost tally the number of lit, in-use rooms I see amidst all of the skyscrapers around me on the bottom ¼ of my notepad. Of course, shops and restaurants glow dominantly on the ground floor, and sky bars on the top of each building struggle to bait residents and tourists alike into ordering bottle service for 2500 Dirham per bottle. But that’s just what you do here ... pay too much for booze.

The problem quickly you realize is that Dubai Sky, for all of its amazing gloss, is still just too new. Though it tried to skip them, it’s still subject to the same rules many other cities were forced to abide by in their successful development: that demand drives development, and not vice-versa. Though I’ve seen a few signs that made reference to Dubai being like Las Vegas, I really don’t think that this is the right strategy for a unique place like Dubai (even through it’s interesting to think that everyone everywhere knows what goes on in Vegas). Instead of marketing Dubai as the land of quick cash, the city should continue to work developing futuristic-looking infrastructure like the bus system, smart streets, and light rail system as public amenities that will continue to give Dubai its wow-factor. As for the buildings, architects and developers around the world aren’t going to slow down when it comes to designing amazing structures in Dubai ... it’s just too good an opportunity to test drive a wild concept for anyone to pass up. But as I stepped into one of the air-conditioned bus stops, I laughed at how cool it seemed that someone even thought to do this for free, and those are the kinds of ambient amenities that really help the city live up to its innovative brand. Needless to say, if I were waiting for a bus in the blazing hot summer desert heat I’d surely appreciate the oasis.

Anyway, Dubai was an amazing place to visit, and it’ll get a lot more amazing once the local development board (i.e. the King of Dubai) discovers more interesting and unique ways to consolidate Dubai Sky and Dubai Street. Once you see the city from the top of the Burj, you’ll be able to see for yourself how much development is left to go. Not that the view isn’t great (because it most definitely is), but I’d say to wait about ten more years before it’ll surely be amazing.

indoor ski slope
indoor ski slope
view from the Burj
another view from the Burj
Tony Chavira is the President of FourStory, a nonprofit organization that promotes fairness and social justice through strong writing and storytelling. He is also the Program Developer at RACAIA Architecture, writes and posts comics at Minefield Wonderland, and teaches Business Report Writing at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
tony@fourstory.org

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