Monday, January 11, 2010

Dubai: A City Planner's Nightmare.

Planning is a process. New York City did not spring up over night. In fact, parts of the city began as a putrid quagmire that few thought ever would turn into a livable conditions--much less one of the world's premier cities. But that's what good city planning is about: creating a plan so that the world will transform from where it is to where it ought to be.

Dubai, however, is an example of a city that has taken the planning process and thrown it out the window. To hell with conventions, we'll dazzle 'em with big architecture and no one will ever notice the abysmal transportation system... Well, now that the Burj Dubai (renamed the Burj Khalifa) towers over the UAE like a might trophy for all to see, people are beginning to notice Dubai--and what a disaster it is.
Your polite, epaulette-wearing cabdriver screeches down a 12-lane highway and -- with the tower in plain sight -- he goes miles past it, leading you to wonder whether he's lost his way or is ripping you off. Only when he finally reaches an interchange and then doubles back to the tower do you realize what's going on: Dubai wins no medals for urban planning.

A tour of this once-booming Persian Gulf city-state, which has shifted into low development gear from hyper-drive, reveals a disturbing disconnect between its architectural spectacle and its short-sighted development practices. Dubai's ultra-modern transit line, which opened last year, is a significant exception. Yet the emirate and its leaders appear obsessed with architectural superlatives at the expense of the fundamentals -- or even the fine-grained art -- of making livable cities.

Take the palm-shaped, artificial island (above) that adds to Dubai's short supply of lucrative coastal real estate and forms one of the emirate's iconic images. The island is a miraculous engineering achievement, formed by dredged sand and constructed with the aid of a global positioning system. Yet the only way to get a pleasing overview of its thin, frond-like strips of sand is to look at a map or charter a helicopter

At ground level, the fronds are packed with high-priced villas while the stemlike road leading to them is lined with monolithic rows of hulking apartment buildings. These look as though they were designed by architectural refugees from East Germany who added a few Islamic touches.

Multiply this gap between image and reality a hundredfold and you have the Dubai that was taking shape before the global recession of 2008 and the emirate's debt crisis. It is a city of isolated enclaves, lacking convenient connections to one another, and brutal linear strips, exemplified by the eyesore high-rises along the emirate's main drag, a superwide highway called Sheikh Zayed Road.


It is not as though Dubai doesn't know how to make good cities. Its old downtown, located along the creek that bespeaks the emirate's fishing village and trading post origins, is a charmer, with arcaded old marketplaces, or souks, and picturesque wooden water taxis ferrying Dubaians back and forth across the creek.

Here are age-old lessons of walkable streets, mixed uses and the use of aged buildings that form still-relevant models for planning cities. The trouble is that these models have been trampled upon in the rush to create the ugly, Houston-style, car-oriented city of office parks and commercial strips that stretches for mile after mile along Sheikh Zayed Road. The patches of the urban quilt desperately need to be stitched together.
Dubai has fascinated me for years, but I have never had the yearning desire to see it for myself. Perhaps it's because a gay atheist won't fit well in a country where Islam is the official religion and homosexuality is punishable with prison time. That might have something to do with it. But even more so, I've wondered for a few years now--is it sustainable? As Dubai has soared up in the past decade, can it take a turn like a bell curve and crumble at the same speed it went up?