Karrie Jacobs


March 18, 2008

What Would Jane Jacobs Do in Dubai?

A sample of the Sheikh Zayed skyline.

You know what Dubai looks like, right? It’s one big construction site, with a zillion Manhattan-sized skyscrapers going up at once. The photo above, a stretch of the main drag, Sheikh Zayed Road, as seen from the pool deck of my hotel, is a fair sample. Multiply the newly constructed towers in the photo by, oh, a thousand and you might begin to imagine the scale of development there.

After five days of running around the city (well, actually, riding in taxis), interviewing architects and developers who would speak casually about their plans for new sections of town that will someday be home to a million or more, I came to a new appreciation of the term “mind-boggling.” By my last evening in Dubai, I was convinced that no project as ambitious as Dubai had ever been undertaken in human history, but for all the intensive planning and all the bold architectural gestures, I wasn’t at all sure that the end result would be recognizable as a city.

And I began to wonder, what would Jane (no relation) Jacobs think of all this? What would Jane Jacobs do if she were here?

That first question is harder to answer than it might seem. Clearly she would hate much of the heedless tower-mania. But real the answer would depend on whether she regarded the contemporary, relatively sophisticated approach to mixed-use place-making as an improvement over the sterile environments churned out by the urban planners of the 1960s. And whether she thought that systematic place-making could ever result in authentic places being made. I’m not sure what J.J. would think because, to be quite honest, I’m not even sure what I think.

The answer to the second question, however, is obvious: What would Jane Jacobs do in Dubai? She would go for a walk.

And so I did. Looking out my hotel window, I’d noticed lots of people trekking to work in the morning, streaming out of the low rise neighborhood that was situated between the traffic-clogged swath of Sheikh Zayed Rd. and the Arabian Gulf. So, a bit before sunset on my last evening in town, I followed the homeward bound pedestrians into what turned out to be a vibrant, very real working class neighborhood, like one that you might find in any city (see below) and wondered if this rare enclave of ordinary life could weather the massive real estate boom going on all around it.

A street scene in a neighborhood called Al Satwa.

A view of Sheikh Zayed’s towers from lowrise Al Satwa.

Dubai vernacular.

Speaking of J.J.,  a Metropolis column I wrote in 2006 about The Death and Life of Great American Cities was included in a little compendium called Block by Block: Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York published by the Municipal Art Society and Princeton Architectural Press in conjunction with a Jane Jacobs exhibition.
The exhibition closed a month or so ago, but there’s an event coming up on March 27 at the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan in which cartoonist and playwright Ben Katchor, essayist Philip Lopate and I discuss Jane Jacobs, New York, the future, and maybe even Dubai.

That’s Thursday March 27, 7-8:30 at the Strand (12th St. and Broadway).

Oh, and while I’m plugging, here are a few articles I’ve published recently:

May the Best Logo Win, in Salon.

The Thrill is Gone, in Metropolis.

San Francisco’s Eco-Evolution, in Travel + Leisure