Where the Sidewalk Ends: Dubai

A few of us from Project for Public Spaces were recently in Dubai to train a group of the city’s leading real estate developers in Placemaking. The largest city in the United Arab Emirates, Dubai has experienced explosive growth in recent years, emerging as the region’s financial and cultural capital. 

The real estate development boom currently underway in Dubai almost makes New York City look like a sleepy ghost town. Combined, the group of developers we met are launching or planning tens of billions of dollars in new projects over the next few years. Despite many iconic, ambitious and, perhaps, visionary developments, the modern part of the city has almost no successful public spaces. As is usually the case, the major limiting factor was the city’s nearly total automobile dependence. Not surprisingly, the rapid changes are setting a course that will force Dubai to confront many difficult transportation and development policy decisions in the coming years.

Dubai’s transportation system depends almost entirely on the ever-widening Sheikh Zayed Road. The city lacks the smaller, more distributed and diverse destinations of a more organically developed city. With limited destinations scattered up and down this road there is little possibility for walking or bicycling (Neighborhing Qatar is building a network of mist-cooled bike lanes). Mass transit is planned and the current burst of development is creating density but nothing is being designed to be transit- or pedestrian-compatible.

Photo Credit: Asghar Khan/Gulf News

Like all undiversified systems, the transportation system of Dubai is susceptible to overshoot and collapse. With a rapidly growing population of 1.1 million, nearly 1.8 million daily car trips are made on Dubai roads, of which 800,000 trips are on the highways. Despite these conditions, the Gulf News recently reported optimistically that "Dubai Traffic Will Be Smooth Within Three Years."

We were told that 25 percent of the world’s cranes are in Dubai.

The economy seems to have been driven by construction and the mere momentum of growth with a concentration on high rise, luxury condominiums. Notice, even with all of this construction, there are no trucks allowed during the morning rush hour.

Soon to be the world’s tallest building, Burj Dubai is estimated to top off at 190 floors, but they will not disclose the final height. The Burj Al Arab, the city’s most iconic building, is described as a "7 star hotel" and together with the surrounding malls and resorts, it is the city’s primary tourist attraction. The city cannot go much further to impress the world with resorts or starchitectural monuments.

The most popular "alternative" form of transportation has perhaps an even larger ecological footprint, at the world’s largest indoor downhill ski slope located at the Mall of the Emirates. Apparently, they are about to build another, even larger, indoor ski slope. When the snow finishes melting off the Alps we’ll still have these. 


All this was in sharp contrast to Copenhagen where we had spent the previous few days at the Public Spaces Public Life conference (with world famous blogger Aaron Naparstek. Editor’s note: This is your best post ever, Ethan. –AN). Certainly, the stories we learned of Scandinavia overcoming the "bad weather excuse" and creating a walking and public space culture on "shoulder seasons" were relevant to Dubai.

As with most globally oriented cities, Dubai contains a hidden city within. We did not get to see the vast camps of immigrants brought in to do construction. The vibrant Deira section was not listed on the maps given to us at our upscale Bur Dubai Hotel, but this "poorer" part of the city is where one finds the only successful public spaces. Mostly car free, Deira is a maze of souks, pedestrian streets, small squares, markets and mosques.

Peering into a Mosque where Muslim men from all over the world worship.

Dubai and New York make for an interesting comparison. While completely different in many ways, in both Dubai and New York, recent development and real estate booms have been led by luxury housing and have largely ignored public amenities, livable streets and culturally dynamic and diverse public spaces. Both cities now seem to be playing catch-up for the lack of planning.

New York and Dubai have achieved great success by their own standards but are also at critical junctures. Transportation seems to be the major obstacle and limiting factor in both cities. Both cities are finding that the inefficiency of a surface transportation system built around the private automobile creates severe limitations. Both cities need to stop planning for cars and start planning for destinations that actually build and reflect local culture. Dubai and New York may be two of the world’s most rapidly growing cities, but the long term sustainability and competitiveness of both will be determined by their ability to wean themselves off the automobile and create highly functional destinations at every scale.

For more on how this can happen in NYC (with relevance to many large cities), see Project for Public Spaces’ recently released Nine Ways to Transform NYC into a City of Great Places.


  • zwaters

    I was thinking of writing something about the megafantastical folly that is Dubai, but then I found that Mike Davis had said it all: Sinister Paradise: Does the Road to the Future End at Dubai?

  • But it’s so hard to convince a country that built up it’s fortune on cheap energy to become more efficient and stop using cars so much. (Take your pick which country I’m talking about)

    In many ways Dubai has it worse than the US since they “leapfrogged” past the industrial rail age straight from animal power to automobiles. I wonder if other still developing countries will leapfrog us in other ways using the internet, biking and small towns to be energy efficient, high quality of life and maintain their cultures without overdevelopment and the nasty edges of globalization.

  • AD

    Ethan, thanks for the post and for broadening my horizons beyond New York some more.

    Besides being an interesting window into Dubai’s place-making outlook, this provides, for me, a degree of confirmation of a theory put forth by oil man Jeffrey J. Brown of Texas, who argues the following:

    1) There a short and shortening list of countries that are able to produce more oil than they consume, about 15 countries in the world that can export more than a million barrels a day. (The United Arab Emirates is ranked fifth on this list.)

    2) As the money of the world flows into these countries, their economic growth will be fantastic and they will be encouraged to consume more oil with this influx of capital.

    3) As oil exporters consume more oil internally, the percentage they have available for export will decrease.

    4) Thus, he says, the world’s pool of oil available for export will contract faster and sooner than the world’s overall supply of oil, which ought to be of grave concern to oil-consuming nations dependent on imports. So, it isn’t the worldwide geological peak of oil production that matters, because the peak in amount of oil available for export, if you will, is what will hit us sooner.

    Here we see visual confirmation of point 2, that inflows of capital do indeed seem to be encouraging domestic consumption of oil in net exporting countries.

  • Interestingly, only 6% of 8% of Dubai’s GDP is from oil (Is the US similar?). While the oil in the region enabled them to get favorable loans, it seems that the growth in Dubai is essentially being fueled by growth. Certainly the definition of growth is extremely narrow and unsustainble and the results reflect this.

    Dubai’s vision was to build the city they have and the economy has been fueled by that vision. What Dubai, NYC and other global growth oriented cities need is equally bold visions and leadership around broader visions.

    The lesson here is perhaps not that Dubai is an anomaly that should be made fun of and derided (as Mike Davis does) but rather that it is a reflection of what many globally oriented cites are trying to do, just with less restraints. Watching Dubai grow at an unprecedented rate, under a definition of growth that strongly reflects dominant western values, we are seeing many of the same mistakes of as other globally oriented cities; only repercussions of this track are more clear. Hopefully, the path out for many cities also becomes more clear.

    I am actually writing from Bogotá now. This city and it seems the country has many of the same issues with great contrasts, but it feels like there are very positive forces redefining itself around its people and places.

  • AD

    Where are the new residents of Dubai coming from?

  • Will

    Couple of points here, the climate issue has possibly not been fully considered.
    One of the reasons there are few pavements or solutions designed for human powered transport is the summer climate.
    For at least 6 months of the year it is very uncomfortable to do any form of exercise outdoors except for early mornings and late evenings, for 3-4 months of those 6 it is impossible at any time.
    While Scandanavian cities face cold winters it is always possible to rug-up and walk in the cold, when it is 45C and 85% humidity no clothing can make the experience bearable.
    The only public places that can afford to cool the air are commercial spaces and thus the mall takes over from the unchilled souk.

  • In 2002 Velo Mondial was approached by the government of Dubai pitching for the IVth global cycling conference Velo Mondial 2012. I advised them that a cycling conference in a country without cycling infrastructure would not compute. In the meantime we have finalized the plans for a cooled cycle path in Qatar (not in Abu Dhabi; you can read about our adventures on our website. Possibly Dubai now also wants a Master Plan Cycling. I will keep you posted on developments on that front. If Dubai will ‘happen’ we will have enough expertise, to prepare an offer for the Middle East and for areas that have a comparable climate. Like many places in the USA.

  • Most of the immigrants are from South Asia, many of the people we were working with besides the local Emirates were Australian or British.

    The climate issue was indeed a major topic of conversation as a limiting factor, but that is the case in most of the cities we work in. When it comes down to it is just another fear like crime or diversity that needs to be and can be overcome to create successful public spaces. The new city is built largely around fear of weather and of public areas, the old city has many successful indoor and outdoor public spaces.

    In the evenings the temperatures are comfortable and the vernacular architecture dealt with the heat well. The souks (shown above) are all covered with well ventilated roofs that keep it cool.

    Pascal, thanks for the correction. One of the new developments we were asked to critic is looking to be car free (sitting on top of 80,000 parking spaces) depending on bikes and trolleys (and boats!) for getting around.

  • Nick

    Dubai seems similar to New York in having a Dense Auto-Hostile City Center, but with large scale outward auto-oriented sprawl.

    Judging by the photos, Downtown Dubai seems to be teeming with pedesrian activity. However, there also seems to be a lot of pedestrian hostile growth as well

  • Matt

    My understanding is that Dubai is much like the Middle Eastern version of Las Vegas… harsh climate / desert, little-to-no natural resources (94% of the oil in the UAE is located in Abu Dhabi)… so they just built a gigantic city on nothing but grandeur and spectacle… competing world’s-tallest buildings, 7-star hotels, globe-shaped islands and the like, essentially making it a destination unto itself first, and then attracting the financial / commercial might through tax shelters and friendly development laws.

  • Glenn

    Having spent much time in Dubai the last 6 years, a few things to be noted which were not otherwise included in the excellent blog above.

    1) Dubai is ripping up many of its streets for a “Metro” system – completed with first class “VIP” cars to separate the more fortunate from the rabble. It will tie together many (but not all) of the key destinations. But one will still need to walk, take a taxi, or take a slow bus (which uses the same streets everyone else does) to the Metro station.

    2) There are actually 3 or 4 large, attractive parks (plus some beach parks, discussed below). They are scattered throughout Dubai and are mainly auto (or taxi) accessible, but not pedestrian accessible. They are well out of the central area.

    3) One major street, Dhiyafa Street in the Satwa neighborhood of Bur Dubai, has actually been built to be very pedestrian oriented, with wide sidewalks, streetscaping, fountains in the roundabouts, etc. And with the colorful stores, sidewalk cafes and restaurants spilling out into the street, it provides a singular example of what can be done in Dubai. This is another local treasure not in the tourist books, but Dubai natives or residents will gladly take you there. It is a different type of “real” than the souks of Deira, but it is the one street in Dubai that evokes Europe.

    4) For me, the saddest example of the “privatization” of Dubai has been the cutting off of much of the remaining beach from public access. Every hotel complex restricts access to its section of the beach to the public (you have to pay to enter the beach, usually an expensive $30 to $50 per day per person “beach club” package if you are not staying at the hotel. And unlike Miami Beach or even Ocean City, MD, you cannot just walk up and down the beach past all the hotels – physical walls and other barriers keep you on your property. Years ago, they’d let you on the beach at night without paying. Of course now with all the construction devouring the areas near most of the beach resorts, it is no longer such a peaceful, relaxing place. Just three public beaches remain – “Open Beach” (the only really “free” beach), located in the older Jumeira 1 neighborhood, and the beautiful Jumeirah Beach and Mamzar Beach Parks, which charge per car load. The latter are both not in the heart of the urban area, but they are at least *there*. For how long, who knows?

  • There are many places available in Dubai , which are great to visit.  We know that the temperature is very high in Dubai but the way they maintain things which is made with snow is amazing.

  • Randall Mckay

    It looks like a fake city. I guess to make it more real, you’d have to show the slums too. But that doesn’t make good article i guess.


De Blasio Appoints Carl Weisbrod to Head Up the Planning Department

Mayor Bill de Blasio has named Carl Weisbrod to lead the Department of City Planning. Weisbrod, who co-chaired de Blasio’s transition team and has deep experience in city government, now commands a post with tremendous power to shape the quality of New York City’s built environment. Of particular interest for the city’s transportation and housing […]

Car Fight

Last night’s public hearing on the proposed NASCAR track on Staten Island turned into a melee. Union members, many of whom were apparently shipped in by the developer, shouted down and physically intimidated community people who had come out to voice concerns about the project. New York 1 showed video last night of one particularly […]

In Third Term, Bloomberg Must Align All Agencies With PlaNYC

We continue our series on the next four years of New York City transportation and planning policy with today’s essay by Ron Shiffman. Co-founder of the Pratt Center for Community Development and a professor at the Pratt Institute’s Graduate Center for Planning, Shiffman served on the City Planning Commission from 1990 to 1996. Read previous […]

Parking Overkill in Flushing: NYCEDC Made It Happen

It’s not every day that a New York City real estate executive name-checks Donald Shoup, but one developer admiringly referred to the dean of progressive parking policy while explaining his project to Streetsblog. If not for the New York City Economic Development Corporation and mis-directed political pressures, says TDC Development President Michael Meyer, the huge mixed-use […]