Dubai: The Nemesis of Sustainability

shoreline of dubai with hotelThere are a number of encouraging examples of cities trying to slowly evolve themselves into a vision of urban sustainability. Implementing bike infrastructure, upgrading the ecology of alternative transit, increasing recycling and addressing the state of our energy production systems are all noteworthy efforts being tackled by numerous cities around the world. But despite the show of goodwill, there are other examples that force one to wonder if we are simply taking two steps back for each that we take forward. The city of Dubai, rising in defiance to the surrounding environment of coastal deserts in the United Arab Emirates, stands as the hallmark of a digressing trend taking us farther away from the goals of a new cultural reality. As a poster child of modern ingenuity driven by the perpetual desire of humanity for unbounded excess, the city of Dubai casts a long shadow over our path to a greener future.

Originally sited for its coastal access to shipping trade, the city has exploded infinitely from its historical size. With the discovery of oil in the mid 1960’s money flooded into the region, beginning to fill coffers that could one day be leveraged to lift life and prosperity out of the sands. Over the past quarter-century Dubai has fashioned itself as a temple to the unusual feats of how nature can be bested by humanity. Islands can be coaxed to rise from the sea. Mountains of snow can sit amidst lashing heat. The world’s tallest tower can sit in the sand and be visible for miles around.While the city lacks a Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center or its own Universal Studios, make no mistake–the creation is just another Disneyland, an attraction meant to draw people from around the world to be awed and impressed at the surreal.


Prone to sudden, heavy rains, sandstorms and hot, arid temperatures, the surrounding landscape has provided no shortage of reasons for why not to build a city in the desert, but the gait of the government-funded movement has been unfettered. The fact that sand is not the ideal medium for siting high-rise development did nothing to temper the race to build a current estimated stock of 43.6 million square feet of office space. One thing that natural ecosystems and capitalism have in common is a concept of supply and demand, equalizing forces that help balance population or production. Dubai, however, seemed to ignore such indicators given that according to Jones Lang LeSalle, the current vacancy rate  for its commercial space is near 33%–a number that could rise as high as 65% with the new construction projects already in the pipeline. For comparison, the vacancy rate for office space in New York City was 11.1% in January and falling.

tallest building in the worldOf course, the crown jewel of Dubai’s high rise bonanza is Burj Khalifa, formerly known as the Burj Dubai and designed by architecture firm Skidmore Owings and Merrill. Towering 2,625 feet into the air, the building boasts the title of the tallest structure in the world. Amongst the 160 floors is a combination of residences, commercial office space, an observation deck and the Armani Hotel. Undeniably, the building is a testament to the capabilities of engineering. Getting glass and steel to stand a half-mile into the air in the middle of the desert is no easy task, one accomplished by using 110,000 tonnes of concrete to pour 192 piles that descend 540′ below the surface. Given the height of the building and high temperatures during the day, the pumping and pouring of the higher concrete floors was done at night where the curing process could be more gradual to avoid cracking and subsequent future instability. All impressive achievements, but necessary?

And yet within months of opening, the observation deck at the tower has already been closed to tourists indefinitely while precise reasons for the closure were unspecified. I found one tourist’s disappointment rather ironic.  “It was the one thing I really wanted to see. The tower was projected as a metaphor for Dubai. So the metaphor should work. There are no excuses.’’ On the contrary, I think that the fact that the tower is a metaphor for Dubai is exactly why it does not work. It is a city destined to be punished for its misguided battle against an inexhaustible force: nature.


dubai villa wasting water

A picture of water conservation

Unsurprisingly, there is not enough natural water to supply a city of over 2 million people in the desert. Instead taking such an impediment as cause for consideration, the city looked to the oceans. As of 2007, the city had a desalination capacity of 188 million gallons per day. Ocean desalination is a fleeting attempt at cheating the climate, requiring enormous amounts of energy. In her essay featured on The Oil Drum, former Mayor of Huntington Beach, CA, Deborah Cook notes that “The next worst idea to turning tar sands into synthetic crude is turning ocean water into municipal drinking water. Sounds great until you zoom in on the environmental costs and energetic consequences…There is no more energy intensive water source than ocean desalination.” It is important to note that Dubai residents are not exactly the image of conservation. With their swimming pools, fountains and lush green lawns, the emirate used 10% more water than the average American (formerly the largest consumer in the world) and six times more per capita than nearby Jordan as of 2009. Hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil and gas will be used to power these efforts in the years to come.

The World Wonders of Excess:

And then there are the islands. Oh, the islands. Construction began on the Palm Jumeirah island in June 2001. 94 million cubic meters of sands, 7 million tonnes of rock and $12 billion later, we have artificial islands in the shape of a palm tree. Eventually the island will be joined by the finished likenesses of Palm Deira and Palm Jebel Ali. At this point, Dubai World would not have to worry about being outdone by foreign endeavors (who else would build islands in the middle of the ocean) so they had to resort to trumping themselves. Started in 2003, the 300 world islands have risen from the waters only to halt in construction as Dubai developer Nahkeel recoils from $26 billion in debt.We can only hope it is never repaid.

world and palm islands from aboveEach of these islands requires the dredging of the ocean floor to lift sand up onto its new home. The damage to the aquatic ecosystems in the form of waste, pollution and noise must be far-reaching. Not to mention we have already seen what can happen when people decide to build a city on a Louisiana swamp lying somewhere in the vicinity of sea-level. While the coast of Dubai may not be in a prime path for hurricanes, creating a series of islands against the natural correlation of water movement in the middle of the ocean is destined to have future problems of maintenance and structural issues. We are in a world where regardless of the fact that island nations are at risk of being eradicated due to rising sea levels, oil funds are put towards building new islands in the water.

Perhaps the only thing that can trump the world’s tallest tower and man-made islands is Ski Dubai, an interior ski resort fashioned right in the middle of the desert. The experience comes equipped with multiple trails, life-like snow, chair lifts and temperatures of -5 degrees Celsius. Once again, the structure is architecturally impressive due to the level of engineering required to keep snow from melting with outside temperatures as high as 50 degrees Celsius (that’s 122 degrees Fahrenheit.) The wall is actually a double-skin construction with two high-insulating layers separated by an air-gap that serves as a buffer for heat transmission. In theory the system is similar to a double-skin glass curtain wall like the one in One Bryant Park that faces the New York Public Library and holds small interior gardens. Nevertheless, it should have been enough to know that such a feat could be accomplished. There is no pride to be taken from achieving a luxury at a limitless cost of energy and resources.

As an oasis of extravagance built as a tourist trap, Dubai is a frightening reality. There is no better urban example of disregard to the environment as it resets the limit of how far from rational evolution we will travel before we decide to turn around and retrace our steps. This is not the example we should be setting for developing nations who may soon encounter the ability to craft their own cities in the landscape. I find any mention of “sustainability” linked to this city insulting and degrading. Such efforts are beyond simply “greenwashing,” but rather dipping a project in a vat of green tinted resin before dumping the waste into a landfill built over an aquifer.

But we can travel up 160 floors on elevators going 25mph to look out over a series of islands completed fabricated by humans! Aren’t you impressed? Quite simply, no. I already have the utmost of confidence in humanity’s abilities in science and technology without wasting $4 billion to make a giant spire in the desert. Perhaps there is a silver lining yet. Dubai’s very existence epitomizes the opposite of sustainability. Its logical course is destined for failure with 25% of its economy based on property and construction–a service that is limited and threatened by rising vacancies and a world recession. Such an urban downfall may help hit home the concept of such hollow endeavors and help justify the efforts of local cities to distance themselves away from new urban theme parks. Maybe the loss of billions of dollars in investment capital may help lenders not make the same mistake again when some group of innovators decide they want to build a resort at the bottom of the ocean or open golf course on the slopes of a volcano or plant a massive orange grove on the peaks of the French Alps.

Photo Credits:,

105 Responses to “Dubai: The Nemesis of Sustainability”

  1. I remember when I first saw pictures of Palm Jumeirah – it’s downright disturbing. I couldn’t bring myself to live there if someone paid me.

    • You only say that because you’ve never been there and you lack understanding that land reclamation is done by experts. I’ve been on Palm Jumeirah and stay in one of the villa’s. No experience is better.

      • I think we’re trying to make different points. In my mind, there is no experience that exists merely for the production of human leisure that would justify the energy required to desecrate natural, aquatic ecosystems in an effort to fabricate a habitable environment that is in no way sustainable merely for the sake of being able to say that it was done. Its degree of wastefulness has few equals and the amount of enjoyment that it brings to sunbathers or swimmers seems largely irrelevant.

      • hey. i lived in dubai for 2 years and i found it to be an extremely fucked up place. the buggers staying on palm jumeirah have no conscience.

    • I have to ask how many of you have ever been or lived in Dubai, it is a strange place and maybe unsustainable, but it is also a wonderful place and does givea lot of jobs to people who truely enjoy being there. As to unsustainable, the whole standard of living of western european society is unsustainable and will all collapse eventually, as we use up the worlds natural resources, Dubai is just a magnification of this, no worse no better, so don’t pick on it unneccessarily. If the world doesn’t plunge into the abyss, and we manage to find other forms of energy (fusion?) then there will always be Dubai’s as man strives to create something extrodinary.

    • just think of how that money would’ve helped the middle east if they invested it in public works and infrastructure, education. Imagine this: the Palestinian annual budget is 4.5 billion Why don’t these guys invest in Palestine? And this country thinks that by not recognizing Israel helps anyone? they’re doomed:

  2. Good article.

    Dubai IS sustainability:
    – For construction firms that make the structures, not matter how environment unfriendly they are
    – For architectural firms that make such designs, and can boast of having made them, whether they are used or not.
    – For builders of the Palms and the World, who can sell exotic houses …
    – To people with too much money to life ratio
    – To global worming
    – and on a positive note, to the construction workers from south Asia who build a decent life for themselves and their families working on such projects.

    Unquestionably, makers of the New Dubai have a vision, but they are starting from the wrong side of it.

    • I agree with everything you say apart from your last bullet point. Dubai is a city built on slave labour; workers are forced to live in small, windowless dormitories with triple bunk beds, at 8 to a room. Their surroundings are like that of a concentration camp. Their passports are confiscated so they do not leave and they are paid a fraction of what they are initially promised. There is no such thing as a “decent life” for a foreign worker in Dubai and his family, who may never see him again.

  3. Great post! I’m so happy someone has acknowledged the artificiality of this environmental disaster. Dubai epitomizes the crass extravagance of the last quarter century. What could they possibly be thinking?

    • dubai is brilliant it is very green very friendly very happy very nice to live in so get a life go instead ofjust reading on the computer

      • Jerry, did you read the article or just catch the title and jump to the comment section? If there are green/sustainable elements of this city that the rest of us are missing, please point them out to us.

  4. This is a story book nightmare of capitalism gone too far. If only Aesop was still around to turn this into a fable.

  5. A good post about this horrifically tragic and also bemusing example of capitalism (or perhaps the industrial growth myth?) gone too far.

    Just as sad, but far more natural, is what this place will look like in 50, 30 or maybe even 15 years. We say the word unsustainable so often, I think few of us remember what this means; unsustainable systems must, by definition, collapse. Because they cannot be sustained. They don’t get adjusted, or tweaked, or reformed. They are either changed wholesale or they collapse.

    Perhaps we should get an artists rendering of what unsustainability ultimately looks like in a place like this…

    • Gordon, thanks for stopping by. I couldn’t agree with you more. The result of this scale of downfall could be more than merely falling property prices and job losses. Some may consider it excessive, but I have to wonder if we could not liken the projected result to something like Detroit. Detroit built itself on a series of industrial practices that have proven incapable of being sustained indefinitely. Clearly, the city failed to evolve enough to weather a changing economic environment. Now the city is empty with owners walking away from homes that cannot be sold. Entire buildings are wrapped in plastic and used as billboards as a last ditch effort for generating revenue.

      When Dubai’s equivalent of an industrial base (property and tourism) fails, could the extent of the damage leave it as a series of hollow structures waiting for a new reason to be used? It is possible.

    • If the systems are left to their own devices, then yes they will collapse. The biggest problem today is that people keep using more money/energy/resources to keep these things going, and that’s where the damage is done.

  6. Excellent topic and very well written. I often pontificate about how water works, namely the desire of some humans to live in places where there isn’t enough. Like Dubai and Las Vegas. Meanwhile one-sixth of the people on Earth don’t have access to potable water.

  7. when I first saw pictures of Palm Jumeirah….. it was like a nightmare for me….

    personal assistant

  8. Wow! Dubais seems an exciting place! I wish I could go there some day! Thanks for the article!

  9. Great article. Oil money breeds greed and sustainable thinking is out the window. Dubai is EGO-centered thinking at it’s best not ECO-centered thinking that takes the long view of how our actions affect our world and those who live here.

  10. awesome my cuzin livs in Dubai.

  11. This is very interesting. I’m bookmarking it to read in-depth later. Thanks.

  12. The building is just awesome . My dream place to stay in with my family.

    Great Article. I really enjoyed to read it

  13. From the bottom of my heart Dubai is one of the worst places in the world. I spent nearly a year in their court system after visiting for two days. The amount of disturbing things that go on in that country couldnt be documented in this post.

  14. Largest building in the world right across a pond from the Revolutionary Guard, can you say target.

  15. Wow, I’m a geology major and I can tell you that the palm islands are one the most ecological, geological stupidities humanity has ever created. The power of the tides and the ocean will eventually destroy them. I don’t even know what to say.

  16. You know it’s completely ironic that in a world that is ‘supposedly’ becoming socially-conscious of the environmental impact of our infrastructures that the same culture would obsess over Dubai. I don’t know if it’s just the media rehashing what has fascinated human interest in the past or if the media is just responding to current human interest. My thoughts would state the latter. I find it an abhorrent contradiction and if I were to use that as sole indicator of ‘actually’ how socially-conscious of the environment we are then we have overestimated our progress.

    • Thanks for your comment. Despite being frustrating, your conclusion makes all too much sense. I think the media has its own spin on things that does not adequately display the repercussions of the events that it reports on, but I believe the trouble is not really on their shoulders. I think that a large part of the real problem is that too many people mistake what sustainability (or even environmental-consciousness) really is. These efforts are not a technological fix to supplement a wasteful lifestyle–which is how the solution is perceived even by most of the those that even wants to address the issue. Using CFLs, buying a hybrid and erecting some wind turbines does not make building Dubai okay.

      Sustainability is holistic concept of balance, describing a notion of function that can continue indefinitely. Almost nothing about our current society operates in such a fashion so that means reaching a sustainable, or environmentally/socially conscious state will involve concrete lifestyle changes from how we currently live. As a result, many things that “can” be done (and these are things far less awe-inspiring than building a metropolis in the desert) probably should not be done.

  17. Thanks for sharing this article!

  18. Well written and well said!

  19. This post is interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  20. Excellent article!

  21. Great article! I’ve been to Dubai a number of times and I remember the last time I was there I asked my cousin why the U.A.E wasn’t investing in renewable energy technology as that is the “oil of the future.” The thing is, the Dubai we know today is the vision of the late Sheikh Makhtoum who died in 2006. They saw a way of sustaining themselves after the oil ran out was through tourism. Therefore they embarked on this project to create what we see as Dubai today. Unfortunately in the past decade, as investors saw the opportunity to make money, the dream was blown out of proportion and things went a little too far. But as you said hopefully this will be wake up call for them and they’ll start developping a more sustainable Dubai.

    • Hyder, thanks for coming by. I’m very glad you brought up the question of renewable energy because it is one I was asking myself. We look at these collection of spectacles that this city has constructed and it makes one wonder what else they could have bought for all of that cash. Clearly, responding to the surrounding climate conditions would leave solar power as a viable suggestion. Let us take the recent Chinese solar project announced by First Solar that proposes a 2,000 MW array at a cost of projected cost of $5-6 billion. That would mean that instead of a bobbing palm tree, an insulated snow-cone and a needle that touches the sky, they could have constructed as much as 6,560 MW of solar capacity. That is almost six times the amount of photovoltaic capacity in the United States as of 2008.

      • Wow! that’s incredible! I also stumbled upon this video the other day on bloom box. check this out

        Don’t know if it works but it’s a fascinating concept. They are having a big unveiling in about 13 hrs according to the website. Should be interesting.

        So true about the palm trees too. I am originally from Kenya and once as we were driving to a farm on the coast, close to the Tanzanian border, my uncle was telling me how unfortunate it was that people were cutting down palm trees to make space for cash crops. The palm trees themselves are gems, there are so many things you can do with them but they also take a long time to grow.

  22. Very well put. Humanity has to live in harmony with nature, not compete with it. The quicker we see the end of the road, the quicker we can start a revival process. Thank you.

  23. Interesting post. Dubai is one of my dream vacations and this kind of makes me re-think it. I almost feel an air of 1970s Vegas about the whole situation. Thanks for sharing!


    • I think you should still go and see Dubai. It’s marvelous! The only problem is for how long? And that’s the issue that this article was touching upon. I recommend you go during winter time such as December, the weather is much more comfortable at that time.

  24. I don’t want to be Captain Negative here, but this all seems a bit unfounded. Yes, capitalism is disgusting in its extravagance and there are a million better ways for this money to be spent. But as far as “environmental sustainability” I’m not exactly shocked and horrified after reading this. The first half seems to be talking about how difficult it is to build and maintain a city in the desert. But is it bad that man has done it? Are you saying that the population of the Middle East and other such inhospitable places should not urbanize, just because nature didn’t intend it to be that way?

    As for the rest, arguments like “the damage to the aquatic ecosystems… must be far-reaching” fail to move me, just because they seem rather vague. Do you have any specifics? I would totally agree with you if you do; I’m a rampant environmentalist, which is why I clicked on this post. But I’m also an optimist, and it’s a habit of mine to play devil’s advocate when I see what seems like unnecessary fatalism. Yes, Dubai is a big, commercialized city, but big cities are kind of a necessary part of the world nowadays. So in relative terms, is Dubai really all that bad for the environment? Is it worse than Beijing or the metropoles of India? I don’t want to be an asshole, but there are so many horrifying things in the world that it seems silly to be horrified by something when you don’t have to be.

    • Ben, my sincere thanks for your reply. These are exactly the kinds of issues that arise as a result of projects like these.

      I would say that in a perfect world, no, we would not be building cities in the desert at all. How different is it from building cities in Antarctica? There are simply too many opportunities to settle where the climate is not such an adversary. But as you say, people are there. It is their home, so we move from there.

      As an architect, I am not at all against urbanity. On the contrary, the density and reflexive benefit that people can capture from cities makes them more sustainable and efficient than living in the suburbs. However, I think there is an important different between living within a harsh climate and living in spite of one. If one is going to build in such a demanding setting, I think that means certain concessions and responses are made. If the only way to meet water demand is pull millions of gallons from the ocean then every house does not need a swimming pool.

      As Dubai’s projects have proven, our level of capability and ingenuity can solve any range of problems and our culture has been tackling the problems of solar gain, efficient cooling, water conservation and electrical efficiency for quite some time now. But this is not a city that is built as an indigenous response to the desert. Instead of starting a city with the goal of making an efficient city in the desert, they clearly began with how to create a theme park. None of the projects listed in this article are necessary in making a “successful” urban landscape.

      I would wonder why the city is not employing more sun shading? Brise-soleil? Why is most glass not tinted and reflective? Why are we seeing buildings in metal and glass rather than stucco or terra-cotta panels that can absorb and rebuff solar heat gain? Why doesn’t every home have solar panels instead of a swimming pool? Could more of the city be underground? Why aren’t cisterns and rain-water capture incorporated into every building? The reason is certainly not because it’s cost prohibitive.

      I am just thinking out loud here, but when you start collecting these potential ways to address an extreme climate you can see how one could end up with a very different image of a city than what ended up being realized–a city that does not spit in the face of the desert but explores ways to live in sync with it. I think the answer is yes, Dubai is really relatively bad for the environment. It is a poor urban model that undermines the goals of building more ecologically responsive cities.


  25. Very good and nice pictures.Dubai is superb and become new era modern city now.I like these another landmarks of Dubai.Hopefully I can explore it soon.Thanks for the article.

  26. FAb FAb FAb article – and so well written.

    It was somewhere that I too thought it would be nice to go one day.

    You have made me think twice about it!

    Thanks – and I mean that in both a sarcastic – and sincere way ;-)

  27. I have visited Dubai several times and I love it more and more by every visit. Good Post.

  28. very nice article…I visited Dubai about a year ago on my way back from Australia to Germany and it kind of got me the moment I saw it – it is all so unreal and I thought that I would open my eyes every minute and be awake again…
    the first comment from jenclinton says she could not live there even if she was paid for – I agree that it probably would not be my first choice for my sunset years but still an opportunity for the 20s and 30s I guess…
    Thanks for the information in your blog – it kind of completed my knowledge about Dubai… :-)

    (my brandnew blog is online:

  29. great projects and countries need to get the honour.

  30. I was so impressed by the Burj al Arab hotel when I first saw a picture of it in an architecture book. But it did not get at the environmental aspect of Dubai’s story. Thanks so much for the eye-opener that is your post. What an appalling waste of energy and money. And such hubris. As others have said, if the weather doesn’t bring them to account, they have neighbors who might. And I wonder how well the people who clean the laundry and collect the trash are paid in the midst of such artificial splendor. What is the quality of the schools and health care for their children? I have my suspicions.

  31. I live in the United Arab Emirates….Dubai looks great from the outside but in the inside a racist country.

    There are jobs that only the nationals can be employed like Typing Centers….

    People who work here are modern day slaves who have to pay indirect taxes like sponsorships….

    Nationals in the UAE even if they are illiterate and uncivilized need only build a flat or become a sponsor of a company to be a millionaire….

    Now the government is complaining to France and other European countries about the issue of Hijab and the swiss Minaret ban and about immigration when in Dubai, the display of Christian religious symbols are banned and the government is doing a Emiritization drive penalizing companies who do not employ a percentage of UAE nationals…

    Even in the recent Dubai Tennis Women’s championship, an Israeli player was forced to play in a secondary tennis ground just because she was a Jew….

    They talk at the UN and at various International gatherings about many thing that they themselves oppress in their own countries…

    Don’t be a fool to believe that their smiling faces are real but in reality they are to hide themselves about these issues

  32. Man!!! I’ve always been an admirer of Dubai… but I never thought the way you do… its really frightening…

  33. Great article. I’ve been to Dubai and it is something to see. Unique and extravagant things. But I also can’t wait to see what happens to them as the years go by.

  34. absolutly wonderul and articulate. first time i’ve read your blog. ah but now the bar has been set. please don’t disapoint me.

  35. It is understandable for a seemingly insignificant country, in a world dominated by the fame of the U.S. and other developed countries, to stand out as much as possible upon acquisition of vast wealth. And I thought America was the most wasteful on luxurious comforts; at least America charitably aids foreign countries . Notwithstanding the unnecessary human efforts to defy nature, but for Dubai to waste its resources on extravagant construction and beautification, what will they do when the oil depletes–for surely it’s not infinite? Simply rely on tourism? And how will they maintain their splendorous attractions? I think it’d be better for this country not to overly depend on their country’s beauty to maintain a sustainable economy.

    • Absolutely, Julia. Like I was saying to Be. There are countless ways that this city could have responded better to the environment and been none-the-worse for it. In my mind, it would have made the city infinitely better. It will be interesting to see what happens when the winds change and the economy of the city is put to the test beyond constant financing by the royal family.

  36. Really enjoyed reading your article, thanks. This sort of thing has gone on forever – maybe the druids said the same thing when their leader said “lets build a big stone henge”, the colleseum , taj mahal, and a whole lot more…. some people just have to much money.

  37. i like the way they made new islands for the building to stand on it is a new way to build and creat

  38. Timing. Amazing how little time elapsed before most people went from praising Dubai’s vision, creativity and hedonistic acumen to seeing it as a reflection of all that’s gone bad. Balance in all things, peeps.

  39. Thanks for an informative and revealing post. You don’t need to have a ‘green’ thumb to know this is bad news. Keep it coming.

  40. Excellent post. I know very little about that area.

  41. Excellent article. I just finished reading “Desert” by J.M.G. Le Clezio. What a devastating contrast. I wonder what will happen when the oil runs out? Future generations might gaze upon the remnants of these buildings much like we see the Pyramids, it’s just the god’s that have changed, from idols to greed.

  42. Oh, look!

    Now we have a Follywood.

  43. Maybe the whole thing is a “folly”, but really the manmade islands are pretty cool. The disruption to the aquatic ecosystems isn’t permanent, as the plants and animals will grow again in the surrounding water, and you gain more land for people to live on. According to global warming advocates, land is being lost by rising water levels anyways. What’s wrong with reclaiming a little? Plus you create jobs with the building and maintenance. Seems like a win-win to me. Even if it’s not that smart, they’re still pretty cool looking. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the environment. I’m just saying that the Disneylands of the world have some value, even if they’re not environmentally conscious. Not every city has to imitate Dubai, but the world takes all kinds.

  44. I remember watching a documentary about the Palm Islands, I couldn’t believe that people would actually do all that, or more over, be allowed to do all that. With the environmental impact, and considering the fact that it’s a waste of money…

    There should’ve been more protests against it. Hopefully in the future when someone plans something so environmentally degrading, there will be more people to stop them from worsening the already bad condition.

    Thanks for the post!

  45. And, on top of it all, it’s funded by oil.

  46. Wow, this is my first time to visit your site, which I clicked to from a link on WordPress’s samples page. I was there because I intend to launch a site next month.

    Anyway, I clicked on you to see your site design and because I wanted to get your take on Dubai.

    Happily, I can say I’m very impressed. Years ago, I saw parts of documentaries on the Dubai monstrosities. I loved reading your words expressing “my” thoughts. (smile here)

    And your (T. Caine’s) response to the strong “devil’s advocate” comment by Ben is most impressive.

    Now, I’m going to read some of your older stuff.

    Thanks for your informative eloquence.

  47. I think this article is very biased and targets Dubai unfairly in trying to demonise it. Every country and every single or most modern development has come at a significant cost to the environment. Coming to the question of is a 160 storied building is green or not. I would say if a 160+ storied is green if it consumes half or 1/3 of the energy of traditional sources of energy. Now to the question is it necessary to have a 160+ storied building, why not ask the same for every single modern day development from the car to polluting factories to airplanes to oil rigs to dams to cruise ships sailing the seas amd all the progress and every single modern city built in the last 100 years around the world. Was it really necessary? Didn’t we live before and flourish thousands of years prior?. By your measure every single modern city across the world and all the modern progress should be condemned because it’s had an impact.

    Point being the whole modern progress of last 100+ years has probably had an impact more than thousands of centuries prior to it. Let alone the whole modern day progress just being able to sustain the human population growing rapidly comes at a very high cost to the environment, since the very simple act of 2 billion+ people choosing to eat rice has an environmental impact. Forest needs to be burnt down (significant loss of wildlife and heterogeneous plantlife) for agriculture land and rice fields are a major contributor to methane gas causing global warming. So what do you do. Stop eating rice?

    I hope the article and all the other articles condemning modern progress is hypocritical to some extent since here is the ultimate truth the very use of the technologies (The PC, the blog sites, the data centers, the servers, the chips and everything else) used to write this article to raise environmental awareness is polluting to the environment. How is that for some dose of reality!!

    I think all we can do is try to be more efficient in terms of our use. If we were to build a modern city with 200+ floors lets make it more efficient and green than a building made say 10+ years ago. To think of it that is what we are really doing. How really green is solar energy. Probably greener than turbine based hydro energy, right? To think of it all the chips and Photovoltaic cells used to make the solar panels are eventually going to be polluting since not everything is re-cycled..

    I think if you were to build a modern city from scratch you the least you could do is make it a lot more energy effecient than a city built 60 years ago. Which is what I see in Dubai. Is all of this required, probably not. But then so is 95% of other modern day progresses.

    • Rajesh, my thanks for your comments. On one hand, I would say that you are correct in that societies around the world are not short on examples that are ripe for criticizing their necessity. However, I would say that Dubai sits as an extreme that sets goals for their own sake, completely separated from any desire of evolving a society into a modern age.

      Building a 150+ floor tower is not an advancement. It is not a modern miracle, it is not utilizing new technology that required research and will help us do more things efficiently in the future. It is simply a feat accomplished for its own sake. Dubai is not short on land for development. The excess height accomplishes nothing that is indicative of progress. Only gluttony.

      And so you raise the same question many others have: how do you mitigate a rising population with the finite resources that we have available. Well one way is certainly that your new cities built from scratch (if you have to build them at all) should be built as efficient as you can possibly make them. If not, the results are easy to extrapolate out into the future. The other is to distance ourselves from the model of continuous growth which, in itself, is unsustainable. It may not be your/our problem right now, but it will be someone’s problem generations down the road.

      I do not think that responding in a “modern” or “progressive” way does not mean just doing more. It means taking the increased knowledge and experience that society has acquired to respond in a smarter way than we could have years prior. Taking a region of the world where many people cannot afford fresh water and building shrines to leisure with swimming pools and irrigated lawns is simply not smart. It makes no sense. Dubai is not efficient in anything it attempts and no cities should be built following its model.

      • Ok, Ted I dont think you adressed some of the questions I raised and also got the point that I was trying to drive at. You keep pointing at Duabi and the 160+ floors and the snow cone. I would again point out that it is better to have a 160+ floor bldg than 20 blgs that is 8 floors high (which I am guessing will not catch your attention or ire) from a stand point of efficiency (energy, waste management, and everything else) and also a smaller physical foot print. However lets keep that aside for the moment and consider this..

        Would I be ok in guessing Do you own a TV, Dish washer, Fridge, Car, PC like all of us do? Let me answer that for you, Yes! Do you consider them an excess, I am guessing you would not have them if your did, so answer here would be No? Now, if every single person in the world had those basic things that we here in America take for granted it would be an un-sustainable planet. From the vantage point of someone in an under-developed or developing nation living in a tin sheet house that is probably 10×10 feet housing the entire family that is an excess and may I borrow the way you put it “glutony”. So now are you ready to give all that up? Or I should ask why havent you given that up before raising your ire against Dubai? Doesn’t that bother you?

        I would honestly and sincerely ask you to do some introspection before just pointing your fingers at Dubai or some other place that looks like a very easy target to condemn.

        And it’s not that I dont care about the planet or think that all this is justified or do not take some steps in my day to day living to minimise my footprint on the environment but I would rather appreciate an article that outlines some simple everyday stuff that people could do to make the world a bit better than an article that condemns some country sitting in an ivory tower.. No offense meant. I rest my case..

      • Rajesh, First of all, as an architect I can tell you it is not more efficient to create one 160-story building than it is to create 8 20-story buildings. There is a reason why building a building that tall costs so much. The energy that is require to lift materials a half-mile into the air drastically outweighs the benefits of a “smaller footprint” when a building is that tall. For the technology that we have, there is a scale of diminishing returns when it comes to height and efficiency. Eventually the inverse relationship becomes true. Building a 1-mile-high building is even more inefficient than one a half-mile-high. Furthermore, that kind of vertical development by itself makes no sense without a surrounding development that ratifies the need to build taller. Vertical construction in an urban environment of density achieves the urban reflexive benefits of proximity that cities like New York and Tokyo can enjoy. But Dubai does not have that density, or a mass transit system, or an efficient energy grid. Building a 160-story building in the middle of Nebraska is not efficient, it is simply wasteful and in my opinion building one in a half-finished city in the desert is not a great example of urban direction.

        Yes, Americans have possessions and products that use energy while not being necessities of survival. In fact, many people in the world do, but just because people go beyond what they need to survive does not suddenly make all transgressions equal. That is like saying, well since we all use air conditioning do not point a finger at someone who uses air condition with all of his windows open. That doesn’t make sense. There is an inherent scale and degree of how much any given action affects the environment. Yes it is a question of perspective and as a result, has a subjective component, but that does not mean you do not start drawing the line somewhere. For me, indoor ski slopes and a swimming pools for an infant city in a region of the world that is taxed for drinking water is over the line.

        To use your ad-infinitum example, which do you think would be worse for the environment. If every city had a population with a dishwasher, fridge and a flat screen or if every city tried to temper acres of indoor space at sub-freezing temperatures so that people can ski locally? So does it bother me that Dubai desalinates hundreds of millions of gallons of water a year even though I have a TV? Absolutely. I think it’s deplorable.

        Dubai’s desalination capacity is 188 million gallons per day. Given that they are making more as we speak, let us assume they use it all. That is 68.6 billion gallons per year. Deborah Cook’s essay that I note in my article tells us that desalination is the most energy intensive water source, requiring 5,476 kwh per acre foot (which is 325,851 gallons.) This would mean is uses 1.2 billion kWh annually or enough to power over 1.2 million American family homes (or 4.6 million apartments the size of mine.) Let us remember this is for a city with less than 2.3 million people and we have only touched on a small portion of energy use required. You say you would like an article that highlights small steps that everyone could take to lessen their personal footprint yet it does not bother you that a city like this could negate all said small efforts for a country of people?

        Ultimately, I have to say I do not feel conflicted criticizing Dubai. This city could have been made in the image of sustainability, responding to the desert climate in an intelligent way. For whatever number of reasons this simply did not happen.


  48. Love reading your site, always find out random new facts.
    Emily R. from Husky Guide

    • Good stuff there. Do you think a super efficient water reclamation system would help? What about a reactor for power?

      • Craig,

        I think those are definitely the kinds of things that could play a role, but really should have been included at the beginning of the design process. If you look at what the landscape offers you, there is tons of sun, lots of heat and very little water. How do you design a city in those conditions?

        History tells us that masonry/terracotta can mitigate sun and heat much better than glass. More spaces underground or built into the earth create opportunities for shade while taking advantage of the fact that the earth is much cooler than the air once you get 6 feet down. If water is scarce, then why aren’t we capturing and storing every drop we can, not to mention minimizing swimming pools and fountains? Once we use the water, we should be utilizing as much as we can for greywater opportunities. Where are solar panels? Solar driven desalination?

        Since writing this article I found out that most of Dubai does not even have capacity for a wastewater treatment plant. Instead, large portions of the city have their sewage shipped via truck to treatment facilities. This has to be one of the most backwards infrastructure debacles that I have ever heard of and it underscores the city’s inability to support itself due to poor planning and a focus only on tourism and speculative consumerism.

        Madsar City addresses many of this issues much better. Their design study started from how can we make a self-sustaining city in the desert.

  49. Thanks the author for article. The main thing do not forget about users, and continue in the same spirit.

    • Thanks for that! I had noticed this article had been copied onto a bunch of other blogs with some being more clear with giving credit than others. A tip of the hat is always welcomed.

  50. Thats why I love capitalism. If you keep government out of it then these people can’t even get a project proposal before receiving a reality check. No one would waste their time.

  51. good good…this post deserves nothing :( …hahaha just joking :P …nice post :P

  52. What I don’t get (other than how we can have such an idiot for a president) is why would the Muslims even want this??? They have to know that it will only breed more anger towards them. The good news is this may be the straw that breaks the camels back to bring the U.S.A. back to a true United Country. I do feel so sorry for the poor souls that lost loved ones in 911, what a total slap in their face. I’m sorry.

  53. Excesses bring tourists to these places. What about Las Vegas?

  54. The article addresses a very fundamental question. Is all the glitz and glamor needed? Shakespeare might help us in this:
    “Oh! Reason not the need!” – King Lear

  55. In a hundred years I imagine 2 things: First, Tents and camels with a ghost city in the distant horizon and a beautiful sunset, or a sustainable atomic and hydrogen powered Jewel with a space port on a cool morning sunrise.

  56. As soon as they have a decent earthquake like in Christchurch or Japan the islands and any tall buildings are gone.

    The desert is not the ideal place for these things and building islands in the sea is a recipe for disaster.

  57. i was just surfing on net : Dubai and its construction against nature !!
    You really have remarkable points here man ….
    the way they are trying to cut off sea limits to extend land , is really unbalancing …
    you should never play with nature , !!!

    • The architecture looks awesome. The building designs look pretty. I don’t understand why more outward design of buildings like these exist in the world. But the way the buildings in Dubai functions and their purposes are going to cause an ecological disaster. I don’t see it surviving for very long. The building designs are very pretty but it’s just being built in the wrong part of the world. The desert is not a place to build such a habitat that will eventually collapse upon itself within 100 years.

  58. highly intriguing, I expect when more time to send out many replies to those who have commented


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