What does Dubai mean to the people that live there? Part 2

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The city of Dubai, then, continues to build up and out on a coastal desert, without assimilating any of the immigrant human capital that currently keeps it going. This article is a series of notes from an environmental, social, urban and carbon disaster that, at the same time, functions mostly as it was intended to and that is making its proprietors and its oligarchy both rich and influential in the real world.

Dubai, seen from space (or from the Burj al-Khalifa, which is nearly the same), reveals itself as an obviously planned city – one free of accidental junctures and awkward residual space. An easily legible logic of roads, highways and the two-line monorail Metro connect an archipelago of plug-and-play industrial clusters (with names like Media City or Internet City), office and retail space, and residential zones, all of which are rather strictly segregated by income level.

Nor are the lack of pavements – and the difficulty of walking anywhere – accidents. Most urbanists from the last forty years – including anyone from Jane Jacobs to Michel de Certeau – agree that a city is made or broken by the quality of the casual everyday walker’s experience.

The casual walker either sees a theatre of the street – in which different classes and occupations jostle for space in the common realm of the pavement, which is where much of life is lived out – or she sees what the Dubai Marina offers: a line of cliff-faces with balconies on them, clustered around a fake body of water, the street an exclusively utilitarian space filled with bins and waiting taxicabs.

The casual walker, experiencing a city street in Mumbai or Bogotá or Manila, might wish sometimes that it these places were as uncrowded or as rigidly kept as Dubai, but that would be a fleeting wish, because these cities are an honest window into the societies that make them, and, despite the varying degrees to which they empower their denizens, they all offer the basic premise of citizenship: enrich this country, and it becomes yours.

No one likes a paragraph that beings with the name of a theorist, but when I stepped out of my family apartment on the Dubai Marina – a space where expats are carefully corralled – a name half-remembered from architectural history hove into view: Michel de Certeau, a thinker of the everyday and of informal, underplanned spaces into which real life expands. These unmanaged spaces are where the leftover city reveals itself – think especially of the people who sleep under the unfinished Foreshore highway in Cape Town.

Looking at Dubai, I saw almost no leftover spaces over an extraordinarily large area, because the city is totally and defensively planned. The obvious question is: why isn’t Dubai better, then?

It is one thing for a newly-rich democracy to sprawl over a harsh landscape. Democracies excel at giving their citizens a deep sense of investment in, and entitlement to, the national future. Yet one need only watch the USA try to regulate guns or face its own debt to see that democracies are also a bad match for collective, decisive action to evade a collective threat.

Democracies are also bad at providing infrastructure and basic resources like water and electricity in the cheapest, most rational way, because of the complexity and expense of bringing thousands of actors (property owners, NIMBYs) round to a single vision. The strange thing about Dubai is that is has all the weakness of a democracy, without any of its strengths.

Dubai and the UAE, as rich states run by seven families empowered to build a blank-slate, blank-cheque state for millions of people to a single blueprint, did what few could expect of a monarchy: they bet against themselves and against nature. They chose sprawling developments and highways and vanity projects from the 1970s Christmas wishlist of Western cities.

In a horrible parody of the imminent disappearance of the Maldives, Venice and New Orleans, they dredged 33m cubic metres of sand from the coral and marine ecosystems to put new islands – The World – into the sea. They consumed nine times as much petrol per day as South Africans, and half as much again as Americans (CIA World Factbook, 2012) and lead the world in water consumption.

The naturally-cooled desert skyscrapers of Shibam, Yemen date from the 16th century. Image: Skyscraper City

They are building proudly backwards skyscrapers to environmental standards already thirty years out of date when they open their doors, whereas nearby Yemen had perfected self-cooling desert high-rises in the 1500’s. The city’s physical form has married it forever to cheap desalinisation, cheap air travel (how else would you reach Dubai?), cheap and abundant petroleum and cheap foreign labour. If any of these were to fail, so would the city.

The crux of the matter is that Dubai has bet against nature, and it has bet against politics. Instead of welcoming in immigrants and giving them a stake in its success, Dubai has kept immigrants immigrants. Instead of building a Hong Kong – a beacon of private property and due process into which the suppressed entrepreneurial genius of mainland China could thrive – Dubai has chosen to emulate Las Vegas, betting that visionary architects would bring us all around to the idea that it was a new way of thinking the city.

And yet, Dubai is very old-fashioned, for all its modernity. The theorists John Logan and Harvey Molotch offer a “social typology of place entrepreneurs” that is as useful in thinking about Dubai as it is applied to Cape Town. For them, there are three types of place entrepreneurs, or “people directly involved in the exchange of places and the collection of rents.

Serendipitous entrepreneurs are the ones who happen to own property that happens to be valuable to others, like early Johannesburg land speculators.

Active entrepreneurs seek out properties that they believe will have changing use values that will benefit them in future, like Chinese investors in African agricultural land.

Structural entrepreneurs believe themselves capable of altering the city to maximise the value of the spaces they own. Thinking about this briefly, it seems clear that the older and the more established a city, the harder it is for *structural entrepreneurs *to act: changing the place-value of land in London, for example, is impossible for all but the richest, most well-connected entities. Londoners are simply too aware, too numerous, too vociferous, too NIMBYist, too expensive to move for much to get past them. In Dubai, however, it seems no exaggeration to say that a considerable percentage of the entire Emirati elite consider themselves structural entrepreneurs, richesse oblige.

Building a Hansa city is risky: give people all sorts of rights and they will surprise you with their own energies and self-expression. Dubai’s paternalist rules are building a physical city that we cannot ignore – that is literally imprinted on the planet from space – underneath a set of institutions and customs and attitudes (deportment of the bankrupt, repatriation of the jobless, petromonarchy) that we are enthusiastic to forget.

Middle East Urbanism week shares insights and perspectives during Brett Petzer’s tour of the Middle East – specifically the Levant and the Arabian Gulf. From Petro Urbanism to the Arab Spring and more.

About Brett Petzer

I'm a tomorrow-city planner, urban journalist and French-English translator, who is damn keen to hear from you at brettpetzer.com

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