Architects Debate Dubai’s Urban Planning Future in Connecting Neighborhoods

A postcard of Dubai, highlighting its iconic skyline. / Image via Postcards blog (karinka300.blogspot.com).

DUBAI — Nearly five years after the global financial collapse in 2008, Dubai stands at a crossroads. Though its economy and population have been growing over the past couple of years, the pause in construction allows for reflection on the city’s physical form.

At the first meeting of the year for the American Institute of Architects’ Middle East (AIA-ME) chapter at the Dubai Pavillion on January 29, architect Jonathan Ashmore of Anarchitect presented on the city’s context over the past 10 years:

  • Perception of it being a desert and ignoring the indigenous culture
  • Precedent of a postcard-like New York or Hong Kong
  • Infiltration of Dubai’s branding around the world using the Image of a successful skyline
  • Denial that the financial collapse would affect them, as there was still the buzz around the city, until the Exodus that cleared out the “dead wood” of the city.

    Now Dubai is at its Crux, the decisive stage, and there’s a Gap in the built environment.

    Plans for Business Bay, a development that is not fully completed. / Image via Real Estate Webmasters.

    “Empty space is space for renewal,” said Ashmore. “The city became fragmented, it’s not concentrated like in Europe.” These voids are opportunity for Integrated solutions and Regeneration — and re-establishing the Identity of the city and region.

    “These shouldn’t be demolitions,” said Ashmore, emphasizing reuse. “You cannot compare Dubai to global cities that have undergone cycles of growth, decay and rebirth. Now it’s time for small projects for integration and connect the interstitial spaces on a human scale.”

    Areas with potential include Ras Al-Khor (industrial district) and Business Bay (new central business district), he said. “We have to look at the micro and macro scales,” he said, emphasizing both the pedestrian scale and knitting together neighborhoods on a larger level.

    Architects responded favorably, offering a swirling mix of solutions. These ranged from top-down scaling like more central planning and having a visionary leader to push through plans, and also from the ground-up: more input from Dubai citizens, coordination with local architecture students, and temporary reuse of structures like in San Diego, Berlin or New York’s SOHO district.

    Solidere's Master Plan in the City Center (1994). Beirut's unplanned development could offer a model for Dubai. / Image via Worldview Cities.

    “But why even look that far?” one participant pointed out. Beirut, since its civil war ended in 1990, has been redeveloping spaces both from an official level with Solidère’s rebuilding the downtown, and from regular residents opening stores in half-constructed buildings.

    There does seem to be progress — the American University of Sharjah has an impressive College of Architecture, Art and Design; while Art Dubai and Design Days Dubai (in March 2012) offer the framework for reshaping the city.

    The meeting concluded with Victor Schoone talking about the upcoming annual World Water Day on March 12, 2012, the We Are Water Foundation‘s “We Art Water” film festival, and a screening of the film “Aral, the Lost Sea,” an ethereal look at the near-destruction of the Aral Sea in Central Asia.

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