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growth around the world

In the second half of the 20th century, a shifting world order left colonial powers weakened and created opportunities for growth in developing nations. This growth was largely concentrated in and around cities. Increased global mobility and transnational capitalism contributed to a reconceptualization of the goals of urbanization, as well as a reframing of the social and spatial constituents of both national and urban identity. The concept of ‘global cities’ emerged, as did the pressure for less developed countries to claim global urban status. In many cities, a tension emerged between expressions of the local and the global, as well as the experience of the local and global citizen. While certain cities used nostalgic elements rooted in local culture and history to express place or pride of nation, others incorporated modernist and more global elements to elevate the national onto the global stage. Various actors were involved in these processes, often with divergent goals. This paper examines growth and development in the United Arab Emirates and Brazil in an attempt to compare and contextualize the influences which dictated urban growth in these two countries and the social and spatial effects this growth produced.

Abu Dhabi and Dubai  

Although the United Arab Emirates did not become a unified political entity until 1971, the seven sheikdoms were culturally enmeshed prior to unification as a result of their shared tribal history and colonial influence. The ‘trucial states,’ as they were known at the time, signed independent treaties with the British Empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth century which designated Britain as the official ruler the states and granted the colonial power exclusive rights to any oil discovered within them. Nominally, these treaties granted the sheikdoms relative autonomy over governance and development; however, British influence proved significant in shaping their growth, especially in the case of Dubai.[1] As Elsheshtawy puts it “During the 1947-1971 period… [Dubai] remained more or less a British protectorate, a status enhanced by a series of political measures and development projects.”[2] The first Master Plan for the city was drafted by the British architect John Harris in 1960. It included the provision of a European-style road system, a distinct use-based zoning of the town areas, and the creation of a new town center.[3]

Upon the discovery of oil and aided by a second plan devised by Harris, Dubai began to expand its urban core into something more fitting of its nascent international status. Harris’s second plan was more ambitious than the first, characterized by large scale infrastructure projects including the creation of the largest manmade harbor in the world, as well as the designation of large zones for singular and exclusive uses. The growth that followed this second plan has been primarily suburban in nature, rooted in megaprojects. These projects are branded as ‘Arab’ through the use of symbols and decor that express a yearning for a more traditional past. This can be seen in the palm fronds of in the design of The Palm-Jumeirah or the inclusion of Islamic motifs in modern skyscrapers.[4] Despite these touches, Elsheshtawy makes the case that Dubai’s urbanism has emerged as primarily global in its identity, claiming a cohesive cultural hybridity between West and East that is in fact highly stratified based on wealth amid lingering colonial distinctions. He further explains that Dubai has been predominantly constructed around a culture of global consumerism and that little is done to make the everyday urban environment more hospitable for its inhabitants.[5] Instead, “The city is…being re-created through the gaze of the tourist, the look of multi-national corporations, and the stare of real estate development companies.”[6]

The neighboring Emirate of Abu Dhabi has a more conservative history than Dubai and was closed to foreign influence for much of the twentieth century. Early development was heavily restricted by Sheikh Shakhbut. The first influx of oil wealth was used to improve basic hygienic systems, while modernizing influences such as the generation of electricity were perceived as corrupting and refused.[7] Growth between the 1960s and 1980s was primarily focused on creating an urban environment suitable to the emirate’s formerly nomadic population, as well as establishing regional, but not global, prominence for the city. Sheikh Zayed, though less restrictive in his approaches to city planning than his predecessor, was still committed to rooting growth in the Emirate’s conservative Islamic tradition. Even through what Elsheshtawy refers to as the third phase of growth, in which ‘instant development’ ensued and Abu Dhabi’s transition ‘from village to an actual city, recognizable internationally…’ was finalized, Abu Dhabi relied on Arab planners.[8] The Egyptian born and Saudi trained Abdel Rahman Makhlouf was employed as Director General of Town Planning and designed not only the ‘national house,’ but also the modern souq, or market, both of which were mean to address “the city’s primarily nomadic population, and...settle them within an urban entity.”[9] While discussing a cultural center built near the Hosn Palace, Elsheshtawy writes “the architecture is a response to the conservative climate present at that time – an attempt to re-interpret traditional ‘Islamic’ architecture – in many ways reflecting similar trends in the region. Building façades are plain with small window openings; where large areas of glass are used, deep arcades provide shelter from the sun.”[10]

Recent rulers, however, have sought to claim a more global status for Abu Dhabi, often to the detriment of its once revered Arab character. A new master plan was created in 1990 by the Abu Dhabi Town Planning department, with aid from international planning agencies and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). It further separated the city into zones based on Anglo-American typologies, and encouraged buildings in the neo-orientalist style, reminiscent of the symbols used to contextualize Dubai’s megaprojects.[11] The Emirate has also increasingly corporatized development and amended property laws to a more western model, which has further facilitated outside investment.[12] Today, the city is notoriously dominated by sky scrapers which speak to its reach for a global identity far more than its either nomadic or Islamic roots.

Brazil: Sao Paolo and Brasilia

While Emirati cities have been referred to as tabula rasas due to the lack of urban structures that predated their growth in the late 20th century, Brazil had a long history of both urban and suburban development before World War II.[13] It too, however, experienced mass growth in the second half of the 20th century that would radically transform its urban centers. This transformation took on a variety forms, from the expansion of existing cities, as in the case of Sao Paulo, to the creation of new ones, as with the example of Brasilia. The growth in this era was primarily defined by the desire of Brazil’s elite class to create a new type of space for itself, and by the Brazilian government’s desire to use cities to redefine the standing of the nation on the global stage. Lawrence Herzog refers to urban expansion of Sao Paolo as “a template for globalization and urban growth in Brazil, if not the rest of the world,” though in some ways this development was in fact highly specific. The development was influenced by the city’s situational advantage as a British capital that was a holdover from the 19th century as well as the availability of cheap European immigrant labor.[14]

Like Dubai, Sao Paolo became a hub for international investment. “It quickly became the preferred headquarters for national and multinational corporations – with twenty-five of the Fortune Top 100 corporations in the world.”[15] The effect of this inpouring of international wealth was the creation of what Herzog calls a ‘skyscraper region,’ established through private development. Although Brazilian residential suburbs were modeled on the 19th century garden cities, these were translated into ‘forest[s] of high rises,’ as urban violence drew the wealthy up and away from the city streets.[16] Public space in these suburban enclaves is scarce, and life is highly automobile dependent. Both socially and architecturally, buildings have little relation with the culture of Sao Paolo that predates its eminence as a global city. Their spatial orientation instead echoes that of American suburbs, more appealing to a transnational populace and an elite Brazilian class with international ambitions.

“Many of these communities” Herzog emphasizes, “are notable because they lack a sense of place and exist in denial of their surroundings, with more emphasis on security than forging a connection between the home and the surrounding neighborhood.”[17] These elite suburbs are an uneasy amalgam of the American suburb and the modernist tower in the park, all of which is encouraged by corporate interests. Ironically, the interpretation offered by these vertical cities takes these theories to such an extreme that it obscures both the driving social narrative of the suburban typology, livable communities, and the egalitarianism inherent to modernist principles.

If Sao Paolo is the Dubai of Brazil, its growth driven primarily by corporate interests, Brasilia might be painted as the Abu Dhabi – a city born out of the state and  driven by top-down ambitions. However, its conception was far from traditional or local in its inspiration. Brasilia was planned as a modernist city, complete with a city plan modeled after a sure sign of modernity: the airplane.[18] Its chief planners, Lucio Costa and Oscar Neimeyer, separated the city out into single-use zones and superblocks based on an American plan for Radburn, New Jersey. They interspersed these zones with communal apartments towers inspired by Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse of 1935.[19]

Herzog writes that “Brasilia symbolized to the world everything the Brazilian government wanted to promote about itself –- an economically dynamic nation on the move, capable of creating public works and reinventing itself as a modern industrial nation, not a poor underdeveloped one.”[20] With time, however, many came to see Brasilia as an elitist city that excluded the poor in pursuit of creating this image of a wealthy modern capital with international design appeal. Although residences were meant to be located within walking distance of public facilities, no public transport had been created to move citizens to different parts of the city. As a result of the Euclidean rigidity and formalism of its superquadras, Brasilia, much like the suburbs of Sao Paolo, failed to foster a hospitable streetscape or truly accessible public spaces.[21] The poor who migrated to this new capital were pushed into ciudades celulares, or satellite cities while the originally planned area was reserved for the upper class.[22]


The idea of nostalgia has acted as a shadow to the emergence of global cities, entwined with their development by becoming a stage in which to showcase global ambitions. In the regions discussed, nostalgia was utilized both by local planners and outside influences in attempts to either reinforce national identity on a global stage or contextualize anonymous locales within other urban references. Although Abu Dhabi and Brasilia both represent attempts to fortify national identity through urban form, the goals of those who developed these two cities were distinct. While in the former, the state imbued the urban form with a nostalgia for its traditions, in the latter the state focused on urbanism rooted in the nostalgia of the West, in an attempt to gain the repute it saw aligned with these values. Sao Paolo’s suburban enclaves and Dubai’s growth too represent a claim to a foreign nostalgia, but they were also curated by corporate international forces in such a way that might attract a global populace. Ironically, the effect of these urban plans has been the creation of spaces in each of these cities which are considered inhospitable and often inaccessible for all but the homogenized global elite. These cities have succeeded in emerging as sites of globalism and in doing so morphed not only the urban geography, but also the local cultures for whom they claim to wax nostalgic.

Ada Voss Rustow is in her last year of the Master of City Planning at Penn where she is specializing in Environmental Planning. Prior to beginning her MCP, she worked in international development in New York City and with an urban planning and development organization in Palestine. She is interested in issues of coastal resilience, regional water management, and sustainable urban development in the Arabic-speaking world.

By Ada Voss Rustow


The road was known as Abu Dhabi road when it was first developed as it linked the two emirates and was the site of one of John Harris’ most significant projects in Dubai: The World Trade Center. Today the road is lined with luxury skyscrapers.

Source: Imre Solt

View of downtown Brasilia

Source: Author

 1 Yasser Elsheshtawy. ‘Redrawing Boundaries: Dubai, an Emerging Global City’ from Planning Middle Eastern Cities : An Urban Kaleidoscope in a Global World. p. 174.
2 Ibid, 175.
3 Ibid, 179.



[4] Ibid, 170.
[5] Ibid, 169.
[6] Ibid, 193.
[7] Yasser Elsheshtawy. ‘Cites of Sand and Fog: Abu Dhabi’s Global Ambitions’ from The Evolving Arab City, Tradition, Modernity and Urban Development. P. 267.
[8] Ibid, 268.
[9] Ibid, 278.
[10] Ibid, 270.
[11] Ibid.


[12] Ibid, 275.
[13]  Elsheshtawy, 269; Herzog, Lawrence A. ‘A Global Suburb in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil’ in Global Suburbs, Urban Sprawl from the Rio Grande to Rio de Janeiro. P. 171.
[14] Herzog, 170.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid, 176.


[18] Ibid, 187.
[19] Thomas Deckker (2016). “Brasília: Life Beyond Utopia”. Architectural Design, p.3.
[20] Herzog, 185.
[21] Ibid, 189.
[22] Ibid, 193.


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