In an LA Times article, architecture critic Christopher Hawkin writes about his trip to study Dubai:
Like many first-time visitors, I expected to find in Dubai a messy, vital hybrid of architectural and urban strategies, reflecting the city’s history as a regional crossroads and trading center. I could hardly have been more wrong. Dubai is not some Middle Eastern Venice, a polyglot city where the combination of construction workers from Pakistan, bankers from London and Hong Kong and tourists from around the world creates a mash-up of contemporary urbanism.
[. . .]
One major reason that the city has been divided up this way is that the emirate’s ruling family, led by Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, controls all the major real estate companies operating here. In Dubai, the urban planners and the developers are essentially one and the same. Market ambition and civic ambition are similarly intertwined: Sheik Mohammed has often been called Dubai’s chief executive. Instead of building a monumental city hall or war memorial, Dubai builds shopping centers and office towers at a monumental scale.
In the heart of most cities, the biggest piece of land that a single developer is typically able to control is one square block. (In a dense, layered city, of course, the average parcel is far smaller.) In Dubai, whole districts of the city, many covering dozens of square blocks and hundreds of acres, have been given over to single developments. Seeing architectural diversity within any project as a threat to the bottom line, their creators usually hire a single firm to design them around a recognizable theme: the golf community, the office park, the vaguely souk-like waterfront combination of retail outlets and condominiums.
Currently, the relationship between builders and policy makers in Dubai has led to a strange pattern of development and has resulted a compartmentalized city rather than a conglomeration of neighborhoods. If the city does not recover its position as a tourist destination, it will be difficult for it to diversify its economy because current land use is not suitable for typical residential or business uses.
The unnatural development that a lack of competition has created in Dubai shares similarities with ideas promoted by garden city planners of the early 20th century. Garden city planners believed an organized, planned utopia would be preferable to the apparent chaos of cities that grow organically. Although the idea of a highly stylized and planned city may theoretically seem this sort of development does not lead to livable cities.
If Dubai seeks to be merely a tourist attraction rather than a vibrant city, this glitzy but impractical development model may succeed provided that global economic prosperity returns quickly. However, such an undiversified economy means that the city would remain in a position to be particularly hard hit by downturns in the business cycle, as Las Vegas is in the United States.
In order to develop cities that function as more than amusement parks, competition between developers at the street level is necessary to facilitate the diverse needs of residents, rather than exclusively the desires of wealthy tourists. As a British businessman in Dubai explained in The Sunday Times:
Dubai has brilliantly exploited the boom years to build itself on to the map and into people’s minds. But Plan A is over now. The model only works in the good times. We need Plan B and we need it fast.
More on Dubai’s economy from the Economist, and on the city’s future prospects from Tyler Cowen (who has written on Dubai over 100 times).