There are a number of encouraging examples of cities trying to slowly evolve themselves into a vision of urban sustainability. Implementing bike infrastructure, upgrading the ecology of alternative transit, increasing recycling and addressing the state of our energy production systems are all noteworthy efforts being tackled by numerous cities around the world. But despite the show of goodwill, there are other examples that force one to wonder if we are simply taking two steps back for each that we take forward. The city of Dubai, rising in defiance to the surrounding environment of coastal deserts in the United Arab Emirates, stands as the hallmark of a digressing trend taking us farther away from the goals of a new cultural reality. As a poster child of modern ingenuity driven by the perpetual desire of humanity for unbounded excess, the city of Dubai casts a long shadow over our path to a greener future.
Originally sited for its coastal access to shipping trade, the city has exploded infinitely from its historical size. With the discovery of oil in the mid 1960’s money flooded into the region, beginning to fill coffers that could one day be leveraged to lift life and prosperity out of the sands. Over the past quarter-century Dubai has fashioned itself as a temple to the unusual feats of how nature can be bested by humanity. Islands can be coaxed to rise from the sea. Mountains of snow can sit amidst lashing heat. The world’s tallest tower can sit in the sand and be visible for miles around.While the city lacks a Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center or its own Universal Studios, make no mistake–the creation is just another Disneyland, an attraction meant to draw people from around the world to be awed and impressed at the surreal.
Prone to sudden, heavy rains, sandstorms and hot, arid temperatures, the surrounding landscape has provided no shortage of reasons for why not to build a city in the desert, but the gait of the government-funded movement has been unfettered. The fact that sand is not the ideal medium for siting high-rise development did nothing to temper the race to build a current estimated stock of 43.6 million square feet of office space. One thing that natural ecosystems and capitalism have in common is a concept of supply and demand, equalizing forces that help balance population or production. Dubai, however, seemed to ignore such indicators given that according to Jones Lang LeSalle, the current vacancy rate for its commercial space is near 33%–a number that could rise as high as 65% with the new construction projects already in the pipeline. For comparison, the vacancy rate for office space in New York City was 11.1% in January and falling.
Of course, the crown jewel of Dubai’s high rise bonanza is Burj Khalifa, formerly known as the Burj Dubai and designed by architecture firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill. Towering 2,625 feet into the air, the building boasts the title of the tallest structure in the world. Amongst the 160 floors is a combination of residences, commercial office space, an observation deck and the Armani Hotel. Undeniably, the building is a testament to the capabilities of engineering. Getting glass and steel to stand a half-mile into the air in the middle of the desert is no easy task, one accomplished by using 110,000 tonnes of concrete to pour 192 piles that descend 540′ below the surface. Given the height of the building and high temperatures during the day, the pumping and pouring of the higher concrete floors was done at night where the curing process could be more gradual to avoid cracking and subsequent future instability. All impressive achievements, but necessary?
And yet within months of opening, the observation deck at the tower has already been closed to tourists indefinitely while precise reasons for the closure were unspecified. I found one tourist’s disappointment rather ironic. “It was the one thing I really wanted to see. The tower was projected as a metaphor for Dubai. So the metaphor should work. There are no excuses.’’ On the contrary, I think that the fact that the tower is a metaphor for Dubai is exactly why it does not work. It is a city destined to be punished for its misguided battle against an inexhaustible force: nature.