DUBAI 2002-2012/ Master Plan of DIFC: Flexible Framework to Incorporate Global Investment

In figure 1, we can see the old city center in the foreground and the new urban expansion in the background. The old town is in a natural and organic urban form with compact vernacular buildings. In the new urban expansion, the scale of development is impressively large and the buildings are designed and built by some transnational firms. These two kinds of urban fabric shape sharp contrast to each other and form the image of Dubai together.1 The old urban fabric reflects a process of natural growth and expansion, while the new one is a result from globalization trend.

Figure 1 Urban Fabric in Dudai: the New vs. the Old
Figure 1 Urban Fabric in Dudai: the New vs. the Old © Mathieu Helie, 2008

Before the setup of free zones, the development is mainly conducted by local people and local companies. On the contrary, the development in free zones are mainly driven by the power of globalization, resulting in different urban form. Take Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC), one of the most important free zone in new urban expansion as an example, we can see how globalization affects the master plan in DIFC.

Figure 2 Master Plan of DIFC
Figure 2 Master Plan of DIFC © Gensler, 2004

Different from the process of development that the old town went through, lots of transnational architecture firms, contractors and global investment are involved in DIFC development. The master plan of DIFC is done by a San Francisco based architecture firm Gensler in 2004. The aim of the master plan is to provide a flexible and well-connected framework for further development in DIFC². So, different developers, architecture firms and contractors can involve in the development process.

In the master plan, one of the most critical movement is breaking down the whole zone into individual districts.3 So the districts would be developed independently by different companies from all over the world. Meanwhile, to integrate the districts as a whole zone, it’s crucial to establish connection among them. In the master plan, a series of linked podiums are created to connect the individual buildings. The linked podiums is a key component in DIFC in terms of vertical segregation and horizontal connection. On one hand, the podiums separate vehicle circulation from pedestrian vertically. The podiums are next to the main road Sheikh Zayed Highway and the vehicle circulation is on the ground level below the podiums. Meanwhile a pedestrian boulevard is provided at the podium level cutting through DIFC from north to south.  By lifting up the pedestrian to the podium level, vehicle circulation and pedestrian are separated vertically. Therefore, vehicles could access DIFC from a safe, subterranean environment, leaving the podium level free for human circulation and activities without vehicle access.4.  On the other hand, the segregation of circulation allowed for a retail mall occupying the entire development to be built on the level immediately below the podium. Also parking areas are below the podiums, which could be linked together in a single climatically controlled environment. Thus, horizontal connection is established through the linked podium.

Figure 3 Linked Podiums in Master Plan of DIFC
Figure 3 Linked Podiums in Master Plan of DIFC © Hopkins, 2004

In the master plan, we can see the similarity to Ville Contemporaine designed by Le Corbusier. In Ville Contemporaine, Le Corbusier separated automobile and pedestrian vertically so as to celebrate “speed and power”. For the master plan of DIFC, the vertical segregation also reveals the significance of highway infrastructure in Dubai. As mentioned in “Free Zone Development and Urban Transformation”, the construction of the highway infrastructure provided the capacity of urban expansion. The free zones were set up along the highways and far away from one another. The highway infrastructures act as a key network connecting them together and help to activate surrounding areas.5

Figure 4 Highway Infrastructure as a Network
Figure 4 Highway Infrastructure as a Network © Peng Huiting, 2016


  1. “The Challenge of Dense Sprawl”, 2011,
  2. “How Dubai Became Dubai”, 2013,
  3. “Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC)”, 2004,
  4. “Dubai International Financial Centre, Dubai,United Arab Emirates”, 2010,
  5. Elsheshtawy, Yasser. Dubai: Behind an urban spectacle. routledge, 2009.


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