Dubai 2040: A plan to redefine what the Middle East expects from cities

A master plan announced this week will devote 60 per cent of land to nature and widen public transport links

Government of Dubai Media Office – 13 March 2021: His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, today launched the Dubai 2040 Urban Master Plan that maps out a comprehensive future map for sustainable urban development in the city. Aligned with the UAE’s vision for the next 50 years, the Plan is focused on enhancing people’s happiness and quality of life. Wam

In her 1961 book The Death and Life of American Cities, the renowned 20th-century urbanist Jane Jacobs opined that we expect too much of new buildings, and too little of ourselves. In the cities of the Gulf, which during Jacobs's lifetime sprang up from almost nothing, marvellous buildings have been, to the contrary, an expression of just how much people expect of themselves.

In Dubai, a trio of buildings are often cited as illustrating the city’s journey to becoming a cosmopolitan centre. The Dubai World Trade Centre, its first skyscraper, was built in 1979 to extend the skyline to a previously uninhabited area, and to blend modern design with the region’s traditional architectural principles. Two decades later, the twin Emirates Towers were built to thrust Dubai into a new millennium with something bolder. And a decade after that, the completion of the Burj Khalifa gave the city the tallest building on the planet.

The notion that the world’s top floor should sit above Dubai is fitting for a city that aspires to be an economic beacon and a magnet for global talent. For the next 20-year chapter, however, the city is keeping its eyes affixed to what happens on the ground.

The Dubai 2040 urban master plan announced this week is the seventh since 1960, but it is unique among its predecessors for confining further development largely to existing urban areas. While tourist, commercial and industrial areas will expand, 60 per cent of Dubai is set to be allocated for nature reserves and natural areas. Public beaches, an important intersection point for nature and urban life, will increase by as much as 400 per cent.

Existing urban areas, meanwhile, will be grouped into five zones with overarching themes, including heritage, business and finance and hospitality and leisure. The thematic element, the master planners hope, will help to realise a larger, diversified urban economic ecosystem.

For many in the city, one of the most critical elements of the plan involves public transport. In spite of the considerable progress made thus far on building a world-class metro system, Dubai’s residents have long had to contend with the realities of living in a car-dominated society. As the city’s population boomed, traffic congestion and mobility inevitably grew more challenging.

As Jacobs also wrote in her book, however, “traffic congestion is caused by vehicles, not by people in themselves”. Dubai’s “people-led” plan aims to ensure that 55 per cent of the population will come to live within 800 metres of a public transport station, and to increase the number of cycle lanes available.

The end goal of Dubai’s plan is to reconcile ambitions to continue the city’s urbanisation with the desire to achieve a more holistic approach to quality of life and harmony with nature. The city ought to be the best in the world not only to work in, but to live in, according to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Dubai’s Ruler and the UAE’s Vice President.

That aspiration is important not only for Dubai and the UAE, but the region as a whole. The Middle East has one of the youngest, most rapidly urbanising populations in the world. In the GCC alone, more than 85 per cent of people call cities home. As their expectations continue to rise, it will be important for planners to think ahead for the next 20 years, and beyond. What has been announced in Dubai this week is certainly a good place to start.