Dubai and New York are both grand, vertiginous cities. So why is only one of them full of surprises?

A tale of two cities: Dubai and New York. Image: Getty.

I am in the United Arab Emirates, commentating on England’s Test series against Pakistan. Not long after the first day’s play in Dubai, I witnessed a revealing scene. A few dozen England fans – a good portion of the crowd – had to wait 90 minutes outside the ground for a taxi. Some people were at street level and the system short-circuited.

Cities are usually set up to supply the needs of crowds. Dubai is predicated on the absence of pedestrians. No wonder it’s a celebrity hot spot. Amenities and services exist in a vacuum. If you find other people irritating, Dubai is very attractive.

Why didn’t the cricket fans walk? The hotel was 20 miles away and the temperature was 36°C. People do not walk anywhere here. They leave their air-conditioned homes, enter air-conditioned cars and arrive at air-conditioned malls or restaurants – then reverse the process. Desire is stripped back. What do I want and where can I get it? It is said that you can buy anything in Dubai, but only if you know exactly what you want.

Literalism reigns. Dubai is broken up into purpose-built ghettos. There is an Academic City, a Golf City, an Internet City, a Motor City, a Studio City, a “celebrity city” (the Palm), a Design District. Interaction between these “cities” is limited by swaths of desert. Geographically, they are miles apart. In feel, they are even more remote.

On the way to the cricket ground in Sports City, we drove through Media City. One building was branded: “Dubai Creative Clusters Authority”. Even creativity must be consciously and deliberately “clustered”. In most cities, the recipe for creative clustering is buying coffee and flirtatiousness. In Dubai, in place of the humble queue, there is an authority and a car park.

Literalism is overlaid with gigantism. Everything must be the world’s biggest. Dubai has the world’s highest building (the Burj Khalifa), the biggest mall (the Dubai Mall), the biggest Ferris wheel, the unlikeliest ski resort (22,500 metres of snow slopes in the desert), the biggest floating water park. And what are they like? Dubai Mall is like a large mall, only larger. The Burj Khalifa is like a very tall building but taller. If you have an imagination, there is little to see.

If you are lucky – and not one of the working poor who sustain the rich’s standard of living – there is huge material comfort. Hotel rooms are enormous, more spacious than apartments in normal cities. I have zoomed along seven-lane motorways in cars designed to seat seven ample bottoms. Restaurant chairs resemble cinema seats.

You can look after your body easily. Man-made beaches are sprinkled liberally around Dubai (one of the triad of ever-present fake “B”s in the region – Breitlings, beaches and breasts) and gym culture is well developed. Yet I felt oddly claustrophobic and caged, despite swimming and trips to the gym. Eventually I realised what was missing: I had scarcely walked anywhere, at least not outside. I was ungrounded.

I came to Dubai via New York, an accidental counterpoint. I was attending a party to mark the 75th birthday of the philosophy professor William James Earle. I met Bill in 1998 when I was 21 and new to New York. A mutual friend had told me that there was no better way to come to understand and love the city than by getting to know Bill and his circle of friends in St Mark’s Place in the East Village. So it proved.

Bill’s fourth-floor “walk-up” apartment, across the street from W H Auden’s old flat, is a narrow rectangle centred around four weathered Le Corbusier chairs. The walls are covered with books on almost every subject (sport is almost entirely ignored). Aesthetically, it is unmistakably modernist but without the usual coldness. The layout of the apartment – at 850 square feet, it is about the same size as an Abu Dhabi hotel room – conspires towards conversation and reading. There are always more things (usually books) than space. One lesson of Iris Murdoch’s novels, as Bill would put it, is that untidy lives are more open and interesting.

When I first visited his apartment, it all seemed exotically bohemian. An ­Oscar, a present from the choreographer Jerome Robbins (who had won it for West Side Story), was tucked into a recess in the wall. Scarcely a day went by without a visit from a beautiful ballet dancer. Eventually, I realised that it was just how they lived – a lifestyle founded on a commitment to the arts, strengthened by unlikely friendships, nourished by surprising connections between people and ideas. Though the effect was an enviably interesting lifestyle – a kind of downtown salon – nothing was just for show. It was a rational kind of bohemia. Why live a less interesting, narrower life?

What a contrast in urban experiences. In St Mark’s Place, a tiny space supports literature, friendship and surprise. In Dubai, massive expanses are filled with literal utilities and dead ends. Even the skyscrapers serve different needs. Manhattan’s high-rises, squeezed into an island of fixed dimensions, owe something to necessity (as well as one-upmanship). In Dubai, where apartments are often uninhabited and the population density is low, there is no need for skyscrapers at all – but they give the city the perception of urban grandeur and perception is everything.

Cities at their best curate serendipity, just like a bookshop (where you might buy the adjacent book) or a newspaper (which might draw your eye to a surprising subject). You go looking for one thing and find something else. There were few places less likely for a young English professional cricketer to call home than the East Village in New York. That taught me the importance of surprise.

In Dubai, surrounded by world records, I have not felt a trace of wonder. Its trademark is inverse serendipity: you get exactly what you came for.

Ed Smith is a columnist for our sister title the New Statesman, where this article was originally published.


CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.