Dubai/ Impact of the John Harris Master Plan in Housing Planning I

The first master plan implemented in Dubai is designed by a British architect John Harris. The plan was implemented 21 months after the launch of Dubai’s oil industry. In the master plan, it was estimated the population growth will go up to 200,000 in 20 years. The major transportation means of people still remains by foot back then, however, there is an increasing urge to implement roads along with the urban planning.

John Harris’s Master Plan of Dubai (1971)

From the Dubai Development Plan Review (1971), a road network is being implemented to Dubai, the blue color indicates the housing land use. Although there is an expansion of urban planning towards the inland area, the focus of the city still remains around the creek. However, the road system provides opportunities for the future expansion of Dubai. Before the makeover of master planning in 1971, the architectural style possesses a strong Islamic architectural quality. However, John Harris recommended to gradually insert model amenities on the existing urban fabric. This also introduces a major change in the urban landscape of  Dubai after the 1960 plan where low-rise development is implemented.

In the later content of the master plan, mainly focused on the infrastructural development of Dubai through introducing flyovers, highway and carpark, emphasizing the importance of pedestrians and car separation. At a larger scale perspective, these road systems also define the current housing plan nowadays, centring the major development on the Creek.

Although the major development located in the Creek area, it shows that there is a need to further expand the housing areas to accommodate the growth of population. Therefore, the housing area expanded to the ‘up-Creek’ further inland at the coastal zone. These areas are reserved for the use of high-quality housing. This expansion also suggests the future growth direction of the city, moving towards the southern area along the Gulf. Nowadays, the city expands to the south along Jumeirah Road and Abu Dhabi road. In Harris’s plan, we could also see how the city expands through constructing low-density housing, for example, low-rise villas in Jumeirah, and be remaining the focus of city centre in high-rise architecture.

The above master plan is how John Harris envision Dubai’s urban planning. However, during the execution of the plan, we could see the difference between how John Harris planned and how the leadership in Duba carried out. As mentioned previously, John Harris would like to remain the focus of the city at the Creek in Dubai, while developing the low-rise building for the urban sprawl and expansion. However, it is shown that the leadership of Dubai preferred sprawl to density. This might be related to the domestic politics in Dubai as well as establishing a new status within a nation.

Firstly, the domestic politics related to the difficulty in obtaining land around the Creek. This is also related to the market value of the land around the Creek. The government might not be able to obtain land from those property owners. Therefore, they switched their focus in those lots where they are easier to obtain. Secondly, the urban sprawl emphasis the existence of Dubai in UAE, making it be comparable to Abu Dhabi and expressing the image of occupying the borders.

To conclude, by reviewing the master plan designed by John Harris, we could see how the urban plan affects the location of the housing areas and how road system connects different places making the city more convenient. It is also a question for us to reflect whether John Harris, a British architect could fully bring out the local culture of Dubai through city planning. It is also to be questioned whether the master plan of Dubai is one of the reasons changing people’s perception in terms of the national identity.


Reisz, Todd. “Future Flyovers: Dubai in 1971.” Architectural Design 85, no. 1 (2015): 100-05. doi:10.1002/ad.1859.

Virtudes, Ana, Arwa Abbara, and João Sá. “Dubai: A Pioneer Smart City in the Arabian Territory.” In IOP Conference Series: Materials Science and Engineering, vol. 245, no. 5, p. 052071. IOP Publishing, 2017.

2 Comments on “Dubai/ Impact of the John Harris Master Plan in Housing Planning I

  1. I have enjoyed this critical review on the John Harris’ master plan in 1971. It is interesting to know how a foreigner started a top-down urban planning in Dubai and came up with a proposal that emphasized on the urban vision with respect to the traditions, while the plan didn’t work out in practice due to issues on land ownership and political ambition of the government. I do agree it is in still in doubt whether this foreign architect could be able to preserve the tradition when planning towards the future to design a new city image and identity. Furthermore, we should start to question how much local culture and local buildings we would like to preserve and bring out and what the balance between the old and the new should be like for city like Dubai. In this way, the identity of the designer seems to become less important when we are clear about what we want to achieve through urban planning.

  2. This masterplan of Dubai in 1970s is right before the economic boom of the city, and it worths comparison between the vision by that time (when it was still a small town) and the current urban morphology. Which of the plans, the partially unrealised 1970s plan and the current plan, contained more of the “traditional” urban form of Dubai? The “starchitecture” in Dubai nowadays celebrates its wealth without much consideration of traditional cultural or historical context, as most part of the city was built on deserted tabula rasa. While it is inevitable for development at this speed to erase preexisting urban form to a certain extent, does the current situation in Dubai reflected its past cultural and historical heritage?

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