Courtesy Aaron Betsky

Dubai is trying to be a real city. It still has a long way to go.

I recently returned to the United Arab Emirates after six years. When I was last there, it was for the 2010 opening of the Burj Khalifa, the impossibly tall bundle of glass that is—for now—the tallest skyscraper in the world. The economy had already crashed, and the frenetic pace of construction that I had experienced there a few years before that had stopped. Few people knew if a city that had grown from a fishing and trading port at the edge of the Arabian desert to one of the largest logistics, business, and sin centers in the world, would now collapse back into the dunes, or merely pause and keep going.

The latter appears to have been the case, especially with the port and airport continuing their phenomenal growth, and with new construction cranes moving around, albeit sporadically, around the city. In the meantime, some of the areas that were new in 2010 have filled in, while others, such as Business Bay, remain empty tracts dotted with half-finished structures.

The developer of the land at the base of the Burj, Emaar, has changed the area's name to Downtown Dubai, and it has largely filled up with 5 million square feet of retail, mainly in the vast and still growing Dubai Mall; 4 million square feet of office space; a dozen (mainly very upscale) hotels; and over 9,000 units of housing. It is almost a neighborhood.

Courtesy Aaron Betsky

The Downtown Dubai’s design (by Arizona-based The Planning Studio) is both simple and bold: It is a vast circle, with at its core a lake both evaporating away and periodically spouting the usual dancing fountains. Its focal point, though it is not in the center, is the Burj, but that continual curve that dominates the site means that it is almost impossible to orient yourself to anything except the interior exclamation point of the tower.

Like most developments not only in Dubai, but most of the Arab Peninsula and Asia, Downtown Dubai suffers from one simple condition: Each building or set of structures has been developed as a discreet object, with its own parking, plinth or base, and internal services. Between these often huge objects are acres of a human-made desert of asphalt and paving, with only a few palm trees to offer a tiny hint of shade. The locals call the resulting fierce heat radiating up at you everywhere the "second sun."

Courtesy Aaron Betsky

What does work, in a kitschy sort of way, are those housing projects that are low-rise blocks organized around courtyards. Some of them are luxury hotels that cordon off their lushly planted precincts, but others are combinations of malls and housing that actually create something almost akin to neighborhoods. There are even supermarkets and coffee shops where what appear to be both locals and expats (though all of them rather wealthy) seem to mingle.

What is unfortunate is that the developers felt it necessary to theme these sprawls of living, shopping, and eating as something that appears to mix forms you might find in Andalusia with certain motifs borrowed from Lebanese or Syrian souks. The brown stucco, fake wood balustrades, and tile roofs break up the scale, but also create visual confusion and are as alien to their surroundings as the glass and steel skyscrapers looming over them.

Courtesy Aaron Betsky

What Dubai—and just about any city—needs is texture. Now that Downtown is more or less finished (I was there with architect Andy Bromberg, Assoc. AIA, who is designing the last remaining plot into a hotel with AEDAS), it seems that the task at hand should be one of infill. Cut open that pavement and let even just sand, which absorbs heat, take over. Populate the area between the developments with pop-ups. Extend the plinths with small shops and apartments, workshops and lofts. It is what would happen in a normal city and, given that Emaar, like most Dubai developers, based their Downtown on existing urban models, it would seem that it would be logical for them to open up and elaborate their blocks in this manner.

The real issue is that Dubai depends not only on spatial, but also on economic segregation. The workers who make all of the luxury possible live far away in barracks you never see. The infrastructure that makes all this works is largely hidden. Everywhere, including on the internet, Big Brother is watching. If Dubai is to grow, and to become a place that does not fade back into the sand when the oil money is gone, it will need to not only keep expanding its airport, but also open up and integrate the building blocks of its urban future.

Courtesy Aaron Betsky