How Expo City Dubai could set a lively legacy

It has the potential to do much better than former expo sites of other host cities

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Today, the grounds that once hosted Expo 2020 Dubai will reopen, this time as Expo City Dubai. Paying visitors (not yet residents) will be asked to imagine there a “city of the future,” nearly 50 kilometres from the city’s historical nexus at Dubai Creek.

During the Expo days, a visitor would have walked around a panoply of national pavilions designed to grab her attention. Many of those buildings are now gone, having been collapsed for intended use elsewhere. Swept up and refreshed after a reported 24 million visits, Expo City marks the next phase of attracting the public: legacy.

In the recent history of world expos, “legacy” has steered host cities’ master plans. The word directs attention to what kinds of lasting benefits will remain after the event closes. Expos, in this way, promise to bring their host cities new or updated districts instead of leaving them with a fenced-off void of hollowed pavilions and weed-strewn walkways. Dubai organisers were no different in declaring legacy as a key design driver. And the rush to reopen the site’s gates this month is part of the plan to keep momentum going.

One of the chief attractions promised this month (with an extra Dh30 entrance fee) is an ascent to the “Garden in the Sky,” Dubai’s nod to the standard viewing platforms at expos. Paris’s Eiffel Tower is the long-lasting example.

Dubai’s version is set to look over a construction site for the coming years. A construction site in Dubai functions as a kind of public theatre, something that corresponds with the city’s overall fascination with the new. The latest construction projects consistently garner media attention and anticipate higher rents and in-fashion restaurants and shops. In the process, the old can be left behind. Expo City offers a curious case: is it new or renewed?

Across the world, former expo sites, such as the one in Milan, have not always ignited into lively new urban districts. Planners all too often set their sights on locations far from the active city centre, with hopes that a global event will enliven an overlooked district. Legacy plans are often spiced with dreams of fluid transit connections and high-tech amenities.

Expo City’s ambitions are no different. Dubai Expo was beyond the last stop on the metro; an extension had to be built to reach the location. For the Expo’s six-month run, local residents committed to journeying out to a place that was once inaccessible. On the metro, they floated over the endless and once invisible rows of warehouses that keep the city’s stores and restaurants stocked. For many Dubai residents fortunate enough to have access to a private car, the Expo made for their first ride on the city’s greatest investment in public transit.

Dubai Expo’s leaders predicted the “most sustainable expo in the history of expos”. For that to be realised, the legacy project must be a realised success, and Expo City certainly has the potential to do much better than other host cities. It is not difficult to see Expo City becoming a lively district. The location, for example, could be ideal for families whose salary earners have offices in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The district comes with its own international airport and access to one of the region’s largest seaports, surely attractions for more global companies. A new city here has in fact been on the planning table since the 1970s, when Jebel Ali City was proposed as a home for a half-million people.

The location for Expo City could be ideal for families whose salary earners have offices in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi

There have been promising announcements of major companies who plan to open regional offices on the premises. And already larger tenants seem to be attracting smaller startups. The campus’s conference centre promises unmatched conference facilities in the region. Its touted data networks and no-cars transit system will feel advanced.

If you do pay the Dh30 to get to the top of Garden in the Sky, there is something else you might also monitor during your stay, namely how Expo City’s workers are repurposing the buildings that are scheduled to remain, and how they are giving new life to not-so-old buildings.

Retrofitting and renovations are globally urgent themes for Expo City to tout, and they are strategies from which the rest of Dubai can also benefit. What kind of effect can Expo City’s success have on the rest of the city? Will a new district merely expand Dubai’s offerings, or will it compete with already existing ones?

So often Dubai’s growth has been through expansion, and when older districts have been scheduled for renovation, it is often through spectacular demolition. In districts closer to Dubai Creek, there has been voiced interest in “preserving” certain buildings, often for their historical or cultural relevance. In this way, they are read as monuments, not unlike that Garden in the Sky, rather than as active places of human interaction. Some of the larger buildings that get attention in this way are the World Trade Centre, the Phoenicia Hotel, and perhaps the whole strip of building lining Deira’s creek edge. Many mourned the loss of Golden Cinema, the National Bank of Dubai, and Al Maktoum Hospital. These buildings could have benefitted from a strategy for survival, like, for example, one speculative proposal of a new life for the Dubai Petroleum headquarters as an art museum.

According to the World Green Building Council, the building and construction industry is a gargantuan polluter in countries all over allegedly responsible for 36 per cent of global energy consumption and just under 40 per cent of energy-related carbon emissions. Production of steel, concrete, aluminum, and glass to make new buildings are some of the most energy-demanding materials that humans manufacture. Once a building is complete, that carbon consumption is “locked in” along with the building’s ensuing systems for cooling and maintaining it. At the end of a building’s “life cycle,” demolition throws all those expended resources to the wind, with the expectation that a new project will only increase energy consumption.

Many of Dubai’s existing and older districts are well alive, even if they also show signs of disrepair. Their deterioration only compounds the allure that new districts can have.

Expo City plans to be an example for the rest of the world for how expo sites can be incorporated into a city’s fabric. One might also hope that Expo City could become an example for the rest of the city, by acknowledging that, once a new building is built – even before it is built – there needs to be some imagination about its future.

Published: September 01, 2022, 4:00 AM
Updated: June 08, 2023, 7:51 AM