Urban Future: Planning the City of Dubai, 1977-1981

Felino Palafox, Jr.
Principal Architect - Urban Planner
Palafox Associates, Makati

A desert and creek with not a single kilometer of paved road — this was Dubai in the 1960s. His Highness Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum had a vision of a "Modern Dubai" and had given us planners, architects, and engineers five important tasks: 1) Design Dubai as if there is no oil; 2) plan a city for two million people (the population was 270,000 in 1977); 3) create a garden city out of the desert; 4) travel around the world and learn from the best practices we can adopt; and 5) bring Dubai from third to first world and make it a pacesetter city in the Middle East and North Africa in 15 years. Looking back after 41 years, Dubai now is a global gateway city and a polycentric metropolis.

To make Dubai well into the 21st century in less than 15 years, models I visited, observed, and studied such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Seoul, San Francisco, Zurich, and Geneva, among other model cities that became first world in less than 15 years, were adapted. In 1977, Dubai was already building seaports, dry docks, airports, tall buildings, industrial parks, landscape gardens in the desert, tree-lined boulevards, etc. In less than eight years, Dubai port became one of the most significant ports.

From all 2,000 cities in 74 countries I have visited and observed, I have learned that successful cities have five ingredients: visionary leadership, strong political will, good planning, good design, and good governance. Dubai is a good lesson to learn—from an instant city out of the desert to a polycentric metropolis.