July 25, 2014

Dubai at night

Dubai has grown out of the desert. Credit: Martijn Barendse / Flickr Creative Commons

Take a look at these four cities. What do they all have in common?

St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg

Saint Petersburg was founded in 1703 by Peter the Great. Credit: Oleg Kovalenko / Flickr Creative Commons

Shanghai

Shanghai

In the nineteenth century, Shanghai became the world’s fastest-growing city. Credit: Sam Gao / Flickr Creative Commons

Mumbai

Mumbai

Mumbai served as the cosmopolitan hub of the British Raj. Credit: Deepak Gupta / Flickr Creative Commons

Dubai

Dubai

Dubai has been transformed into a Vegas-esque skyscraper-studded global hub. Credit: KhanSaqib / Flickr Creative Commons

All four emerged from nowhere – farmland, swamps, or deserts. There was also a group of people or an ambitious leader – from Tsar Peter the Great in St. Petersburg to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum in Dubai – with a vision that their city would be a city of the future.

In 1703, Peter the Great oversaw the construction of a new Russian capital, carefully modeled on Amsterdam, that he believed would launch Russia into the modern world.

In the nineteenth century, Shanghai became the world’s fastest-growing city as it mushroomed into an English-speaking, Western-looking metropolis.

Meanwhile, Mumbai served as the cosmopolitan hub of the British Raj and morphed into a tropical London at the hands of its pith-helmeted imperialists.

Most recently, the sheikh of Dubai has endeavored to transform his desert city into a Vegas-esque skyscraper-studded global hub.

Daniel Brook, author of “A History of Future Cities,” says that “Over and over and over, you see these people from places that perceive themselves as being behind going to places where they perceive them leaping into the future and then go back to try to emulate them.”

As technology progresses, cites are less limited by their geography. In the age of shipping, New York City’s large port made it an ideal location. Dubai, on the other hand, was limited by its small port. However, in the age of global air travel, Dubai has an ideal location. Essentially, “geography matters, but technology matters as well and the technology can also determine what’s a good geography.”

However, it’s not all big-city glamour. There’s a downside to these sparkling metropolises and their rapid growth.

“Especially in Dubai today, a lot of the indigenous population is quite vocally – at least to the extent that you can be vocally against anything in an autocracy – quite vocally against what the city has become,” notes Brook. “They’re quite skeptical of what the sheikh has done with the city.”

Although cities flourish and decline based on many factors, there are lessons that cities in the West and the East can learn from each other.

New York’s largest Chinatown neighborhood, for example, features a new development with the kind of multi-level urbanism that you see in East Asia. On the ground floor is a fruit stand, above it a restaurant, and above that a karaoke parlor. “This is such a perfect form of urbanism for New York,” says Brook, “and yet New York had to learn this lesson from China, and I think there’s a lot of hope in that.”

Guest:

Culture, cities, Daniel Brook, history

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