Dubai Has a New Architectural Wonder And It’s Not a Building

Not far from the posh luxury hotels that line the beaches of the Arabian Gulf, downtown Dubai has long been a dusty hot spot whose main attraction was the towering spire of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, and the stores that fill the massive mall below it. That’s no longer the case.

As cities around the world have beautified their downtown waterfronts to attract residents but also the wallets of tourists Dubai had to go one step further: It had to build one.

With the Dubai Canal, the city has developed one of the more stunning examples of urban development–a pedestrian friendly retreat from the hot weather and the concrete jungle.

The project has injected new life into the area, making it inviting for tourists who stay in that part of the city’s hotels; and more habitable for the thousands of residents who it hopes to attract to the dozens of condo and apartment buildings sprouting up all around the Burj Khalifa.

Put it this way: It’s done the unthinkable and made you want to actually go outside and explore Dubai by foot, not really something you ever really wanted to do, given the city’s high temperatures and overall design, better suited to cars than people.

It's as if Dubai designed a public park for the selfie-obsessed Instagram generation.

A year after its official opening, the impact of the Dubai Canal can already be felt.

The zigzagging boardwalk along the two-miles of waterway routinely attract joggers and bicyclists. Pedestrians especially flock to a waterfall lit up in the colors of the United Arab Emirates’ flag that cascades down the sides of a highway cutting through the city.

It’s just steps from the JW Marriott Marquis, the Westin Dubai Al Habtoor City and W Dubai Al Habtoor City hotels. Further up the canal is the new Renaissance Downtown Hotel, Dubai, which features a lobby that overlooks the water.

Making a highway underpass attractive is a challenge but this is the city that built islands shaped like palm trees.

And in the case of the canal, Dubai has again innovated. Along its path is free WiFi, and stations with USB ports to charge smartphones. It’s as if Dubai designed a public park for the selfie-obsessed Instagram generation.

You can tell Dubai had big plans for its new waterway from the beginning.

From high above, you can spot the square plots that outline the footprint for skyscrapers that will eventually fill the spaces like properties on a Monopoly board. In fact, there are plans for more than 5,300 residential units and nearly 1,000 hotel rooms in the works, as well as a new mall and beachfront.

Buildings already line the boardwalk, with restaurants offering outdoor seating to guests who want to take in the shimmering lights reflecting off the water.

There still isn’t a lot of boat traffic, with the exception of a water taxi, ferry and dinner cruise or two. But just wait, more are surely on the way.

The entire canal project is an impressive feat of urban planning, perhaps only possible in a city like Dubai that has nothing but miles of empty desert to develop.

Dubai Canal
The Burj Khalifa towers over the Dubai Canal in downtown Dubai. (Photo: Marc Graser)
Dubai Canal
The waterfall stops to let boats pass under the Dubai Canal Bridge. (Photo: Marc Graser)
Dubai Canal
The Dubai Canal offers pedestrians free WiFi access and USB ports to recharge cell phones. (Photo: Marc Graser)

From high above, you can spot the square plots that outline skyscrapers that will eventually fill the spaces like properties on a Monopoly board.

The world’s smarter cities realize that their futures depend on more than turning every inch of land into a revenue generator. Residents need public spaces. Without them, cities just aren’t liveable. Or worth visiting.

One of the best examples of urban renewal is Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon River, a lush four-mile park with a stream that serves as the heart of the city, attracting over 60,000 visitors a day. Before its overhaul, the river was an unattractive underpass for an elevated highway, now removed.

To build a park of its own, Los Angeles has flirted with covering its congested 101 Freeway. It’s also considering building a retreat similar to Seoul’s along the lower banks of the Los Angeles River.

It’s funny what water can do. For an area that once felt like another Las Vegas, especially with the dancing water fountains blasting sky high in front of the Burj Khalifa, the Dubai Canal makes that comparison to Sin City now an unfair one.

Dubai desperately needs the canal to succeed as its leaders try to diversify its economy beyond a business hub, and one where tourism plays a larger role.

In addition to the canal, Dubai has erected a massive building appropriately called the Frame, which provides a birds-eye view of the new and old parts of Dubai. There’s also a new Dubai Safari Park, with an array of animals from the Middle East and Africa.

In fact, there’s a considerable amount of development under way across the city as Dubai prepares to host Expo 2020. Dozens of new buildings can be seen rising up anywhere you stand. Shanghai underwent a similar tourism-friendly transformation in preparation for the world’s fair in 2010, held on the banks of the Huangpu River.

Dubai isn’t done with its canal. Once complete, its boardwalk and connecting pedestrian bridges will connect to a new Jumeirah Beach Park, and four-mile running track.

One of the best parts of travel is the chance to be surprised with each subsequent visit. Just when you think you know a place, it introduces something new and gives you a reason to come back.

Dubai has managed to do just that with its new canal. And it surely isn’t stopping anytime soon. We’re already looking forward to what it comes up with next.