What can we learn from Dubai?

What can we learn from Dubai?

By Mark Waldon

35 years ago Dubai built its first high rise building – an unremarkable white building of around 20 storeys. It seems unfathomable now that the city boasts dozens of high rise buildings, many at the highest end of architectural excellence. The city also exhibits several of the world’s finest hotels, and 2 of the 5 most amazing buildings in the world – the 7-star Burj al Arab and the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.

In addition to buildings that are worth the airfare alone, there is a space-age transit system, a freeway system that deals effortlessly with a city of 2 million people, and the best shopping malls in the world. An unremarkable and quaint city in the desert has morphed into the world’s most modern city. What can Australian cities learn from this?

There are 2 answers. The negative answer would be … nothing… that we don’t have the incredible funds that have come to the UAE through oil production, and that we don’t have an unlimited supply of cheap foreign labour. I think the positive answer would be far more valuable – that we can learn a lot about having vision and determination and following through.

Dubai has achieved its great progress on the back of substantial oil revenue. However, other nations of the world in similar positions have squandered such resource booms. The success of Dubai is that their leader, Sheik Mohammed, didn’t go down the path of other failed resource rich leaders. He had a vision of Dubai after the oil ran out. That vision was of a state that would have new reasons for being – tourism and commerce.

When you see how Dubai has transformed itself in just 3 decades, you begin to wonder why we have such a ‘road block’ with (for example) just 1 infrastructure project – the east-west tunnel in Melbourne. Dubai has tackled far more difficult feats of engineering many times. For Dubai, there is no argument about road vs rail – they have prioritised both. The coastline was not an obstacle – it has been integrated into the city with new island estates off the coast, and also new canals that create harbour areas inland.

Dubai deals with its heat as it deals with all obstacles – it solves them. Any building or facility that people visit has underground parking, or shaded parking areas. Bus stops are covered and air-conditioned. And there is an emphasis on beauty and urban design. Where roads are partly submerged and rely on extensive retaining walls these are presented, not as concrete walls, but as tiled walls with murals.

Australia has a good record with urban design and architecture. In fact some of our best planners, architects and engineers have worked in the UAE. And indeed, Australian cities and towns have areas that are the equal of Dubai for urban design and beauty. The difference appears to be taking these values into the suburbs and demanding the best infrastructure in all areas. Our obstacles are partly political, but they also reflect a lack of will to properly fund infrastructure.

Another impediment to Australia achieving the greater architectural excellence exhibited in Dubai is restrictive planning controls and third party appeal rights. In Dubai good designs are approved and started straight away. Compare this to the vacillation of Councils as their constituents exercise judgment on design matters they know nothing about. Consider the merry-go-round of VCAT.

There are whole swathes of suburban Melbourne that are ripe for redevelopment with a modern architectural idiom. However, our backward looking planning controls require adherence to neighbourhood character, no matter how dull that character is. Our architects could be producing exciting buildings in the ‘burbs’ but instead are asked to fit in, be safe, don’t stand out.

What can we learn from Dubai? In 35 years Dubai made itself into a model city of the future. For that to occur in Australian capital cities, it will require a significant investment in infrastructure and a braver attitude to design.