Dubai hoping for serendipity

While the metro and tram have improved public transport in Dubai, their usability is still under reviewImage Credit: Supplied

Dubai aims to be among the top ten happiest cities in the world by 2021, according to the Dubai Municipality, which has begun implementing the Happiness Index, an initiative launched by His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

The initiative is a shift from a commerce- and tradedriven policy to one that puts residents at the centre of planning. Many government and private sector efforts are focused on making the city more liveable.

Projects such as Makani, Dubai Municipality’s system for recording building addresses, ensure that data enables faster delivery of services. Urban planners are sparing no effort to ensure that the new communities are developed in such a way that residents do not have to travel far.

With traffic on their mind, master planners now believe that instead of merely connecting people from point A to point B, it is better to bring point A and B closer to each other. With the announcement of the World Expo 2020, the Dubai master plan has undergone changes to keep pace with development and the anticipated population increase.

However, as planners grapple with a fast-growing metropolis, problems such as traffic do not affect property values in areas seen as desirable, experts say.

Clementine Malim, Client Manager at Ascot and Company Real Estate, tells PW that traffic or transport options do not really impact property values in Dubai. “Sometimes traffic is a by-product of living in an affordable area. It does not affect the value of the home. People choose to live in those places,” she says. “In high-end desirable locations, [people] find traffic frustrating but these communities offer so much in the way of food, beverage and shopping that they remain hubs. People just think traffic is a byproduct of living in Dubai.”

Malim cites Dubai Marina as an example of a highattraction locale despite the difficulty residents face in getting in and out of the community during peak hours.

The consensus is that a city’s desirability does not depend on how happy the residents are with traffic. Some of the most expensive cities in the world are some of the most cluttered and even then expensive areas are characterised by not having an inch of land left to develop. Clearly, other factors are at work. Yolande Barnes, Director and Head of Department at Savills World Research, tells PW, “We increasingly talk about how some cities have commercial value in and of themselves.

“This is because they are capable of attracting and retaining talent independent of any employer’s actions. If a city is generating revenue and wealth in this way, more people want to live and work there.

“It is a virtuous cycle but one that real estate supply can’t always keep up with. This in turn puts upward pressure on values and [may] make the city less attractive for some.” If traffic doesn’t impact the property value negatively, the solutions do not cause the property prices to rise dramatically either.”

Malim says, “Some properties could warrant a really small premium, such as 2.5 per cent. If you’re near a tram station, a park, the marina, the metro or a beach, desirable features could warrant a small premium.”

Dubai master plans

That the emirate is growing faster than estimated is not a new problem for urban planners. A paper by Laura Poulin as a part of the course, The Contemporary Built  Environment, at the University of Washington (UoW) under Dr Vikramaditya Prakash, notes that many master plans that Dubai has put in place since the 1960s have not  anticipated the rapid growth of the city.

The first of these plans was by British architect John Harris in 1960, before the discovery of oil in 1966, when Dubai had an estimated population of 40,000.

According to the paper, “Dubai in 1960 did not have much infrastructure, lacking paved roads, utility networks, running water and modern supply ports, with few telephone lines.”

The emirate’s unique development has necessitated master plans that address the peculiar nature of a highgrowth desert city with a mix of nationalities, and a bird’seye view brings up some challenges. Speaking of the most prominent elements in urban design, Barnes says, “Three things that stand out for me are: a lack of walkable streets and consequent reliance on cars, zoned development and lack of mixed usage.”

Zones have long been a part of the master plan. Harris’ version, for instance, introduced a road system, zoning of the town into areas for industry, commerce and public buildings, residential quarters and a new town centre. These zones perhaps visualised the need to minimise local travel. The road system connected the old city with the new developments, a preferred option over razing the old city.

This plan was updated in 1971 to include a tunnel and two bridges across the Dubai Creek and the vision for Port Rashid. New zones for health care, education and leisure were created, along with the Dubai World Trade Centre, which was completed in 1979.


Dubai is a unique development. Barnes compares it to a North American car-reliant city built in the desert in the late 20th century — “but on steroids, with buildings of a scale rarely seen elsewhere”.

The difference, she says, is the life on the street.“Where tall buildings do occur in the high-rise parts of, say, New York or Chicago, they do so on street blocks and the city looks  familiar at street level. This can in no way be said of Dubai. Travelling between blocks on foot or by bike is quite difficult, even in the cooler winter months because there are few clear pathways from one building or district to another. You are almost forced to go by car.”

The lack of mixed-use developments is another striking difference. “Even in Asia where you have very large buildings, they tend to be more mixed with retail and leisure on the ground floors, offices above and then hotels and residences above that. You have much more of a 24-hour place as a result,” says Barnes.

“With each sector in Dubai zoned and segregated, you get much less mixing of property and consequently of people. There is very little if any opportunity for serendipitous meetings in Dubai — and they can be very important in a modern economy.” With community malls springing up in residential areas, there is clearly a move to address this. While Dubai’s malls previously competed for tourist attention, communities around neighbourhoods such as Jumeirah and Al Wasl are now getting the attention of developers.

She says zoning in Dubai is a part of top-down planning, so much so that serendipity is not a part of the picture. Citing an example, she says, “Separating digital industry from the creative quarter will damage the sometimes temporary, sometimes permanent symbiotic relationships that can spring up in a more mixed and flexible city framework. Pre-planned zoning doesn’t allow for the coalescence and cooperation between seemingly diverse businesses or the waves of agglomeration, dispersal and change that happen in the highest functioning cities.

“It’s not an intractable problem but it just makes it harder for businesses to operate and for all those happy accidents of productive business encounters to occur.”

On the other hand, town planners say that self-contained zones, which act as mini-cities, are effective for tackling the problem of traffic. In a session titled UAE Smart Cities Outlook at the recently concluded Government Summit, city planners said that smarter, internationally competitive cities will make it possible for their inhabitants to focus on  innovation and creativity.

Hussain Nasser Lootah, Director-General of Dubai Municipality, said smart systems will ensure that connectivity is not limited by physical presence. “Smart systems are going to govern and manage the lives of people in the future. Most of our business and requirements will be taken care of through smart systems.”

Dubai’s solutions to the peculiar nature of its urban life are unique and technology could be a large part of the future. For instance, Dubai Municipality’s Makani application cuts through the issue of giving complicated directions in a city with more than 200 nationalities. Its description states, “Dubai is the first city in the world to use numbers called Makani Numbers to locate building entrances. [The] simple addressing consists of ten digits only, which doesn’t require using names or explaining the location’s direction.”

Recent years have seen the introduction of the Dubai Metro and the Dubai Tram. However, the usability of these is still under review. Barnes says, “There is a difference between providing infrastructure and making it usable.

“If Toronto has a whole underground city to use in its extreme winters, maybe Dubai needs some underground streets to protect its citizens from the hottest weather. No one is going to use a metro station that they can’t walk to in summer.”

Population growth

According to the UoW paper, Dubai’s city population witnessed a growth of more than 300 per cent in 20 years. “By 1968 the population had grown by another 20,000 people. The census recorded populations of 183,000, 370,800 and 674,000 in 1975, 1985 and 1995, respectively.”

Keeping up with the rapid growth, the Dubai Urban Plan 2020 has been under review since the emirate won the rights to host the Expo 2020. Dubai Municipality has been working on the plan since 2010, alongside entities such as the Roads and Transport Authority, Dubai Electricity and Water Authority, Dubai Land Department, Civil Aviation Authority and Dubai Maritime City.

The plan includes scenarios on the expected population growth in the emirate, ranging from a low of 2 per cent to a high of 7 per cent. With a medium growth scenario, the estimated population would be about 2.8 million by 2020. Figures released in January last year showed Dubai’s population was 2.2 million people. As of March 15, the Dubai  government’s population clock places the figure at more than 2.34 million.

However, Dubai is not yet overpopulated in the context of the world cities. Barnes says, “The difference between the size of the place and the number of people in it is quite striking.

“It might be a high-rise city, but it isn’t high density and has a small population by world city standards.

“The number of people per hectare in Dubai is lower than in Sydney. Although the rate of growth has been phenomenal, the intensity of city building has not been as great as it might appear. The relatively low population is probably what makes the city work at the moment.”

Source: Shalini Seth, Special to PW


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