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The future of DXB: airport could be turned into a city

DXB airport Dubai Airports
An aerial shot of Dubai International Airport. It is near some of the city's most densely populated neighbourhoods
  • ‘Citywide’ plan needed for DXB
  • Potential for affordable housing
  • Lessons from Athens and Singapore

The $35 billion plan to turn Al Maktoum International into the busiest airport in the world has everyone talking about the remaking of Dubai South.

Perhaps a bigger challenge is the redevelopment of the city’s main airport – Dubai International, or DXB.

DXB is near some of the city’s most densely populated neighbourhoods and the working-class area of Sharjah, with easy access to the metro. The site holds the promise of transformative urban renewal, but it requires careful handling to avoid becoming a white elephant. 

A mixed-use neighbourhood of affordable housing and retail and entertainment options is how industry pros envision DXB’s future, following what is likely to be a lengthy planning, design and construction process.

Underpinning that process should be Dubai’s goal to increase its population to nearly 6 million by 2040 and the extra pressure that will place on already sky-high property prices, according to Simona Azzali, an associate professor in the Architecture Department at the Canadian University of Dubai.

“Dubai is known for its wealth and luxury, but, like any large city, it also has areas that are less affluent,” Azzali tells AGBI.

“Because of the proximity of the airport to the old city, this land offers redevelopment opportunities to address this affordable housing shortage.”

Groundwork is to start this month at the Al Maktoum site, to make way for an airport expected to accommodate 150 million passengers in 10 years and upwards of 260 million upon completion.

Prices are poised to increase in Dubai South in response to booming residential and business demand, and development is already picking up pace. 

Less clear is what will happen to DXB, apart from closing down. 

Paul Griffiths, Dubai Airports’ chief executive, has already said he doesn’t see a “business case” to keep two airports running side-by-side. 

Ammar Al Assam, chief executive of Dewan Architects, agrees: “I don’t expect the current airport to continue to function as a passenger airport simply for these reasons of seamless travel in a one-hub airport.” 

Dubai Airports
Paul Griffiths, CEO of Dubai Airports, has said DXB is likely to close after the expansion of Al Maktoum

There are some projects around the world DXB can look to as it reinvents itself, though none of quite the same scale. 

The 800-hectare former military base of Paya Lebar in Singapore – another global city facing an affordable housing crunch – is scheduled for redevelopment in the 2030s, to make space for a mixed-use neighbourhood.

Outside Athens, work is underway to turn the old international airport, which was shuttered in 2001, into an €8 billion urban centre named the Ellinikon. 

For nearly 20 years Jeddah has been redeveloping its old airport – which closed in 1981 – into a 12 sq km city district. A similar project was recently launched in Riyadh.

DXB encompasses a larger area, at 17.5 sq km, without accounting for the logistics and industrial facilities around it that might follow the airlines when they move to Dubai South.

Citywide approach

According to Amer Mneimneh, who leads Aecom’s Middle East urbanism and planning practice, the sheer size of the area up for redesign will require a citywide approach to ensure that whatever emerges benefits Dubai as a whole. 

That could mean parks as well as entertainment and sports venues in addition to mixed-use development, all with historic preservation in mind. 

“There are some buildings that have sentimental value for Dubai that may have to be retained or repurposed,“ Mneimneh says.

The likely removal of height restrictions from the DXB flight path and the expected drop in noise may facilitate development by supporting more density in the surrounding area too, says Mneimneh.

There is time, of course, since the airport will remain in operation until Al Matkoum’s first expansion phase is ready in 10 years or more, but planning for such a massive endeavour must start as soon as possible.

Redeveloping infrastructure meant for aviation into an area fit for urban living and designing roads and transportation will be among the first challenges.

“I don’t think this is for a developer-led kind of approach, this would be more of a citywide land-integration process, where you go to subdivision, then assign certain zoning, then from there you go into programing, and into density,” Mneimneh says.

“Probably something that will be released back to the urban fabric in stages.”

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