When looking at such a picture we are at first inclined to make a parallel with the landscape of Los Angeles. It is a foggy urban plain with a cluster of towers popping out over the horizon. This is Dubai from a perspective that is rarely shown, that of the city in the foreground, and its suburban expansions in the background. The towers are the Dubai suburbs, lined up on what used to be the main highway out to Abu Dhabi, now the centre of New Dubai and the urban fringe of Dubai. A picture such as this is significant because the central core of Dubai is almost never seen in the pictures of the huge developments going up in its suburbs. That is unfortunate, since the reason that these suburban developments are economically possible at their size is because they are growths of the old Dubai. The parallel with Los Angeles is therefore incorrect. Los Angeles followed the standard American model of urban growth, developing a central business district on a simple grid where the original center of the city was founded, then later adopted suburban sprawl to continue its growth and grew a cluster of skyscrapers adapted to this sprawl where the center once was. The policy of sprawl is blamed for the impossible traffic congestion that cripples Los Angeles, but generally what is meant by sprawl are the low-density housing subdivisions, office zones and other standard typologies of suburbia. The solution that was called for was more density, even though some geographers pointed out that Los Angeles was already one of the densest cities in America. The result of this choice has been dense sprawl: worse traffic, worse crowding and seemingly no improvement in quality of life.
Clearly the challenge of sprawl has been improperly identified. I will show that sprawl is not about density but about distance between complements, and the extremely rapid urban growth of Dubai, from a small fishing town to an urban metropolis in two generations, makes this visibly explicit.
Perhaps the most fascinating fact about Dubai is how natural and complex the old city seems to be despite having an entirely modern building stock. Most cities associated with a natural or organic morphology are usually pre-modernist cities of old classical or vernacular buildings, or at least preserve some of them. There are no such buildings in Dubai, the city having started its growth period in the 1950's. The only explanation for the natural form of the old Dubai is a natural process of growth.
The urban fabric of a city is a solution set, each building being a solution to a problem of a particular time and place. The city as a whole is a solution set for its population as a whole, and as times and people change new buildings are added to provide new solutions to these new problems. The reason that naturally grown cities have a chaotic morphology is the same reason why stock market movement is fractal; they are both adaptations to fluctuating circumstances, and they are both limited in size by the previous size of the system. That means that you cannot grow a city by a development that is bigger than the city's current state of maladaptation to circumstances. Attempting to do so will result in economic failure. Many very small development operations done in succession will be much more adaptive than one large development operation planned at one moment, since each operation adapts to the circumstances created by the previous one.
Because cities grow by correcting maladaptations, the new buildings turn out to be complements of the existing buildings. It makes no sense to make a building that is identical to one that already exists, and in natural cities that will never appear. Each building will be fitted to the particular knowledge of time and place, as Hayek would say. This particular knowledge is itself produced by the presence of existing buildings and the way people use them.
This process is not simply an economic abstraction, it also has morphological consequences.
Jumeirah is a beachfront suburb directly to the south of old Dubai that has become the home of the Anglosphere expatriate community as well as synonymous with upper-class lifestyles. Because it is more recent growth of Dubai's urban centre it has seen growth in operations of much larger sizes. You can tell that there are now "clusters" of identical buildings, nothing of the scale of a metropolitan subdivision yet, but the building individuality of central Dubai is no longer present. (Cluster housing development is also visible in, for example, the older parts of Las Vegas.) This is pre-subdivision scale, in that an operation creates multiple buildings without having a scale large enough to be "planned" and have status as a named development. For the purpose of the adaptation they bring, they are still only one event, only one adaptation subdivided into multiple buildings. And because they are much bigger than the previous development operations, they create more distance between themselves and the urban fabric they are adapting to. The scale of development is not big enough to be called sprawl yet, but the complexity of this neighborhood is not as advanced as that of the older city. While the buildings in Jumeirah are certainly complements of the whole city of Dubai, they are not complements of each other, which is true in the older city.
Left: Skyscrapers on Sheik Zayed Road, Burj Dubai site on lower left
Right: Palm Jumeirah, Dubai Marina megaprojects along with random subdivisions.
Here are Dubai's world-famous megadevelopments, which have been made possible as adaptations to Dubai's metropolitan scale. The development operations are enormous complements of the existing urban fabric, but the fact that they are all being built concurrently means that they cannot adapt and become complements to each other. With little surprise the traffic congestion on the Sheik Zayed Road that integrates them together has skyrocketed. The distance between complements has increased to the scale of the projects, and the only way to move from one to another is by driving down Sheik Zayed Road.
The skyscrapers going up are actually making sprawl worse the same way that a development of 100 houses extends sprawl. The idea that a skyscraper is a vertical city is a myth. Skyscrapers are identical floors of open space and rely on very large networks of complementary urban fabric to work properly. Skyscrapers can contribute to the complexity of a place like New York City because the urban fabric of Manhattan is very rich and can digest density and congestion gracefully, but in a city where urban fabric is undeveloped, as modernist plans for a Radiant City were, or has been de-developed, like the CBD of most American cities, skyscrapers throw congestion and traffic out to the whole city as badly as a housing subdivision.
The solution to sprawl is not increasing density, but increasing complementarity. That means breaking up existing housing subdivisions, office parks and shopping centers into smaller autonomous parts that can grow into buildings that are complements to houses, offices and shops as well as complements to the city as a whole. (This obviously implies abolishing zoning.) It means not trying to design everything that goes into one project, to let growth come to you and to accomodate it, to publicize the chaotic symmetry of old Dubai as a model of natural beauty instead of the iconic forms of the skyscraper cluster. The Dubai Palms and the Burj Dubai district may still grow into something natural and complex.