Abu Dhabi & Dubai: far from people-centred planning

2014-01-16 18.13.48-1I’ve spent some time in the Emirati cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, in conjunction to work (re: international negotiations on renewable energy and combatting ozone depletion). They are quirky places: desert cities full of massive skyscrapers, fancy cars and more restaurant chains that I knew existed. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are some of the wealthiest cities on the planet: with giant malls, indoor ski slopes, the world’s tallest buildings, reclaimed islands in the shape of palm trees and pearls. To many, they are cities of gluttony; and in some ways this is true. I’ve never seen so many Ferraris (or Starbucks chains) in my life. But this is hardly a critique solely of the Emiratis. In 2013, only 10-15% of Dubai’s population was native to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). My point is not to delve into why people move to the UAE, but more to examine how these fast growing desert cities are mapped out. In 1975, Dubai had 183,000 residents; today it is closer to 2,250,000. Abu Dhabi has not grown as rapidly (127,763 persons in 1975 and 1,000,000 today). However, both cities have expanded dramatically.

Dubai’s Skyline

2014-01-16 17.29.04Like in many cities I visit, I was interested to see how these rapidly growing desert cities are planned, how feasible it is to get around by foot or public transport, and how people use public space. I remember when I was in Doha, in neighboring Qatar; I was shocked at the rapid growth of skyscrapers and shopping malls, but also impressed with the walking spaces near the Cornish and in the old souq (market). Of course in the Middle East, it depends on what time of year you visit; I’ve been to the Middle East several times, but always in the months of October- January. Winters are pleasant, including for walking or cycling. Summers though make air conditioning justifiable. Still, just because you can’t cycle all year, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan a city for the 6+ months of pleasant temperatures. Conversely, in Stockholm or Copenhagen cycling drops every winter, but having a good cycle network (regardless of the season) ensues that it is possible to use when the weather allows.


In both Abu Dhabi and Dubai, I was surprised to find access to public transport and/or walking spaces; that is if you are staying in a central area. In Abu Dhabi, I would run to the waterfront every morning, between parks and green spaces, through pedestrian underpasses, and along the seaside. It was clean, safe, well-lit and maintained. I rented a bike and was impressed with Abu Dhabi’s central cycling grid – that is until it stopped suddenly. Still, despite the walkability and cycling infrastructure found in the city centre, each day we had to taxi to the conference venue. It was not along a bus route.

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Walkways in Abu Dhabi

In Dubai, we stayed closer to the metro, which features several lines and comes frequently. It’s well used, and features special sections for ‘women only’ and ‘Gold Star’ users – helpful during rush hour traffic. In Dubai we also walked, but this was more difficult. The sidewalks were narrow, sometimes non-existent, and the underpasses require pedestrians going a bit out of their way. Indeed, Dubai is a bigger city. But I was disappointed to see that walkability is so under-prioritized.

Attempting to ‘walk’ to the conference venue in Dubai.

I discussed Dubai’s ‘walkability’ with some friends, who pointed out that most destinations can be reached by foot, demonstrating that it is a pedestrian-friendly city. Indeed you can walk almost anywhere if determined or desperate to do so. But this requires going well out of your way to avoid the traffic and the numerous highways. Upon closer inspection, we noticed how easy it is for a car to drive to a destination, while the pedestrian routes weave people all over. You cannot simply cross the street; you sometimes have to walk several blocks to find the crossing sign. The city is also full of covered walkways. But again, one cannot exit at will, only at designated points.

IMG_0863We encountered this bittersweet reality, when attempting to dine at the base of the Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest building). After stepping off the metro, with the Burj in our site, it took an hour before we arrived. We first exited the metro into an air-conditioned covered walkway, which led directly into a mall. After 25+ minutes of trying to exit this mega-mall, we finally escaped, only to be woven by fountains and gardens. By the time we finally arrived, we had more than circled the Burj. While impressed with this gravity-defying building, walking around the Burj is a joke. Had we been on a carefree stroll, it was beautiful; if you are trying to get somewhere, it was impossible. A true pedestrian/ cycle city should be set up for both endeavors – for the casual stroll and stop, and for those commuting by foot or bike. Cities should not just prioritize slow transport in a few neighborhoods, but throughout their city, connected via a larger grid – thus making cycling and walking safe, convenient and viable.

Dubai’s Metro


That being said, on my last day in Dubai I hopped on the metro and wandered to the old souq. It was like entering a different world. The buildings were lower and livelier; the streets were full – of bicycles, carts, people. Tourists roamed and venders haggled. I was in my happy place. All of a sudden, I fell for Dubai. I took a small taxi boat (called an abra) to the old spice market, exploring small alleyways and stopping to watch the sun sink behind the city. It was beautiful. There were cafés, packed with people, and the classic Dubai hustle and bustle seemed very far away.

Abra transport
Exploring the old spice market, Dubai

Such places give me hope. It was obvious that people like the area. It was packed. It also speaks to a cultural significance of such spaces in Emirati culture (even though it was largely dominated by foreign visitors and venders). Moreover, in cities where almost anything is possible, the UAE has the resources and capacity for creativity. While historically an oil region, where gas is cheap and driving a status symbol, the Emirates are also (perhaps surprisingly to outsiders) regional environmental leaders. This became very apparent at the 27th Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer in Dubai, where parties finally agreed to start discussing Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) under the Protocol. Without diving into the complexity of this issue, it’s worth noting that it has taken over 5 years to even discuss the matter openly at their meetings. The Emirati leadership was recognized in part for helping discussions finally move forward. (If interested: check our Earth Negotiations Bulletin coverage.)

Between this and other actions, it became apparent that environmental issues are growing on the Emeriti agenda. With some of the best architects in the world, and a growing focus on environmental stewardship, it’s time to build those bike highways and super sidewalks, in addition to the world’s tallest buildings and man-made islands!

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Despite their modernity, these are cities of the desert.
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Testing out Abu Dhabi’s cycleways
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Abu Dhabi parks – full on weekends, empty on weekdays
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Along the Abu Dhabi waterfront, I encountered several fellow early morning joggers.
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Both Abu Dhabi and Dubai have underground pedestrian crossways to pass under freeways. They are often beautifully designed and full of art.
While I am happy that such pedestrian underpasses exist to allow for walking, they are rather inconvenient and only occur at occasional intervals.

4 thoughts on “Abu Dhabi & Dubai: far from people-centred planning

  1. Hello,

    I was pleasantly surprised to find your blog about sustainable cities. I am currently finishing a magazine which is launching june 25th. I found this post very relevant and am wondering if I could get your permission to use the post and some pictures in the magazine. We can discuss the details over email if you are interested.

    Erik Toresen
    World Urban Planning

    1. Hi Erik,

      Thanks and certainly feel free to use, just please cite accordingly – and I’d love the link to add it to my blog as well. Actually, it’s part of the reason I started the blog… to try to express my interaction (or lack there of) with the different cities I visit. Feel free to send me an email (jenn.lenhart@gmail.com) or contact me on twitter: @jenn_lenhart regarding the specifics. Best wishes from Stockholm!

  2. Interesting..and sad in terms of modernity and sprawl. Unless one stuck solely in the city (older) core, it doesn’t sound one could easily have a car-free life.

    1. Hi Jean! I’m so sorry I am so late to respond to this! September- December was a crazy busy time, and I sadly left my blog by the sidelines a bit. In any case, I totally agree. And yet, I also see many fantastic examples (e.g. tactical urbanism) that are returning cities to people. It’s a mix of hope and frustration at the same time. But I stay on the side of hope. And now, even more needed than before… given the way things are going. Scary, but persistent hope!

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