Failure of the Master Plan

There is a criticism of Dubai that the city has evolved from a tabula rasa in the desert into an exclusive “generic twenty-first century metropolis” with no attempt to control urban development through a master plan. What many critics do not know is that Dubai has laid out numerous master plans since 1960, all of which have gone unnoticed because they failed to anticipate the rapid growth of the city. However, a better criticism may be to question how beneficial a master plan is to a city.

The first master plan of Dubai was assigned to British architect John Harris in 1960 by Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum. By this time Dubai’s population had reached an estimated 40,000 and the city was entering what is referred to as its second development phase. Dubai in 1960 did not have much infrastructure, lacking paved roads, utility networks, running water and modern supply ports, with few telephone lines.[1] In response to the needs of the city, Harris’ master plan introduced a road system, zoning of the town into areas for industry, commerce and public buildings, residential quarters and a new town center. The road system would weave the old town into Dubai’s future growth as opposed to razing the old city: it was considerate of the historical district of Dubai.[2] The modest design of the 1960 master plan was quickly enhanced upon discovery of oil in 1966. The updated plan of 1971 included a tunnel and two bridges across the Dubai Creek and the vision for Port Rashid. The zoning areas from the original master plan were increased in size while new zoning areas such as health, education and leisure arose. Additionally, the landmark World Trade Center was designed by John Harris himself and was the tallest building in the Arab world from 1979(its opening) until 1999.[3]

John Harris and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum

The Harris master plan would quickly prove insufficient for Dubai’s rapid growth development.  The population of Dubai in 1954 doubled from 20,000 to 40,000 by 1960, driving the need for the first master plan. By 1968 the population had grown by another 20,000 people. The census recorded populations of 183,000, 370,800 and 674,000 in 1975, 1985, and 1995, respectively. With a growth of over 300% in 20 years, the Dubai Municipality prepared a 20-year plan (The Dubai Structural Plan) that aimed be flexible and adapt well to changes. The plan created a grid network of roads which can be seen in the form of the city today. ‘Spatial Growth Alternatives’ are developed into the plan, allowing for flexible extensions of zones and the creation of new nodes.  There were concepts for green corridors, connections to the water, and other sustainable features that were not realized. Mixing the nationalities among residential districts was also proposed via policies encouraging 75/25, local/expatriate living in residential areas and relocating nationals to the inner-city. This idea of desegregation was also never realized. Furthermore, the housing needs for expatriates is addresses but virtually unsolved, as the immigration policy for bringing family members to Dubai is kept in tack. The failure of the policies is mainly due to the plans inability, once again, to predict or keep up with the massive growth of the real estate sector.[4]

The Harris Master Plan

The Structural Plan

Elsheshtawy, in his book Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle, asks the question, “…has the plan been responsible for the city’s current lack of urban form?”[5] It can be argued both yes and no. On the one hand, Dubai has implemented over five different development plans since the mid 1980s, all of which have failed to accommodate for the rapid growth which has been occurring since the 1960s. The plans have all been envisioned without any three-dimensional aides/ guidelines. But for the most part, the main issue with these plans is that they fail to create criteria for social equality. Even without rapid economic development, there is no mention of these essential urban design elements in any of the plans.

On the other hand, one can argue that a master plan is not essential to a city’s success and in some cases can actually deter the growth and prosperity of the city. Dubai is an economically successful city, reaching growth rates in GDP and population at unheard of rates and for the most part it can be seen as an unplanned city. Below the surface of its superlatives is an urban landscape void of any life and full of social inequalities. However, can a city progress with its successes and return with incremental urban design strategies to fill in the gaps and fix its problems? The case study on New Belgrade referred to Stealth’s anti-planning position, focused on infill in areas of weak urban form rather than an overarching idea that may not suit the entire city. Now compare Brasilia and Abuja. Both cities were intensely master planned, relocated capital cities of their respective countries and both found themselves idle in a short period of time after their conception. The overarching idea of the master plan froze them in time, leaving them unsure of how to progress forward without straying, especially when dealing with the informal sector. Dubai’s treatment of the informal sector is no worse than that of Brasilia or Abuja. The master plan, in all our case studies, has proven incapable of solving the informal sector. Therefore, Dubai’s unrestrained economic growth may prove beneficial in the long run, if the optimistic new 2020 plan follows through (described below).

This past October 2011, The Dubai Executive Council (DEC) approved the Dubai Urban Development Master Plan-2020 that has been in the works since 2007 by Australian firm URBIS. Dubai Municipality has announced that it will establish a ‘Supreme Urban Planning Council’ to streamline the urban and environmental planning process.[6]The three key modules for the 2020 plan are: a vision for Dubai, an integrated city and regional development planning framework and a legal and institutional framework. The vision hopes to improve social, economic and environmental sustainability by directly addressing transportation, housing affordability, culture integration and waste management; the first plan to mention any of these key issues.[7] The opening of the world’s largest automated metro system in September 2009, currently operating 2 of its planned 5 lines is a glimpse towards a sustainable, connected Dubai.[8] However there is limited information available about the 2020 plan and it’s secrecy is unsettling, especially in contrast to The Abu Dhabi Plan 2030 that has been made available to the general public for review and comment.

Foot Notes

[1] Len Chapman “John Harris. Architect of Dubai as it used to be.”

[2] Len Chapman “John Harris. Architect of Dubai as it used to be.”

[3] Yasser Elsheshtawy, Planning Middle Eastern cities: An Urban Kaleidoscope in a Globalizing World (New York: Routledge, 2004) 178-79.

[4]  Yasser Elsheshtawy, Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle (New York: Routledge, 2010) 112-116.

[5] Elsheshtawy. Dubai. 116.

[6] “Executive Council Approves 2020 Dubai Master Plan.”

[7] Elsheshtawy. Dubai. 116-121.

[8] “RTA”

Works Cited

Chapman, Len. “John Harris. Architect of Dubai as it used to be.” Dubai as it used to be. n.p., 2008. Web. 14 Nov 2011.  <

Elsheshtawy, Yasser. Dubai: Behind an Urban Spectacle. New York: Routledge, 2010

Elsheshtawy, Yasser. Planning Middle Eastern Cities; An Urban Kaleidoscope in a Globalizing World.  New York: Routledge, 2004.

“Executive Council Approves 2020 Dubai Master Plan.” Construction Week Online.  N.p., 4 Oct 2011. Web. 16 Nov 2011. <;

“RTA” Government of Dubai.n.p., 2011. Web. 4 Dec 2011. <;


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