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How District 2020 is the future of urban planning and development

In line with Dubai's 2040 Urban Master Plan to develop healthy and inclusive communities, District 2020 will also be UAE's first 15-minute city.

How District 2020 is the future of urban planning and development
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

At the end of this month, Expo 2020’s legacy site will be repurposed into District 2020, a smart and sustainable integrated city “centered on the needs of its urban community.”

District 2020 is in line with Dubai’s 2040 Urban Master Plan to develop healthy and inclusive communities, provide sustainable mobility, and encourage walking and cycling as a means of transport. It will also be UAE’s first 15-minute city – an urban planning concept in 15-minute proximity to work, home, and basic amenities.  

Drawing on American-Canadian author and activist Jane Jacob’s work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, French-Colombian scientist and professor Carlos Moreno developed the concept of a 15-minute city in 2016. 

A 15-minute city is defined as an urban planning concept where human needs can be met within a distance of 15 minutes by foot or bicycle. The model aims at designing or redesigning urban areas to improve the quality of life of residents. Firstly, reducing dependency on automobiles and eliminating traffic congestion, carbon emissions, and air pollution. Walking and cycling incorporated into the daily routine also offer better health, wellbeing, and social cohesion. 

Apart from proximity to services, the 15-minute city planning framework also considers the diversity of amenities available, an optimal density (number of people per square kilometer), active participation of residents in developing their city, and ubiquity to affordability.


During a six-to-nine-month transition period, the Expo 2020’s 260,000 square km site will be transformed into a mix-use community – 80% of the physical infrastructure will remain intact, making way for residential and commercial developments. The site will also include hospitals, schools, mosques, food and beverage, retail stores, community-centered events and experiences, and 45,000 square kilometers of green and open spaces. 

The plan also includes 10km biking paths, 5km jogging paths, a 4km autonomous vehicle route, and a dedicated metro route running to and from District 2020. In October, the city will open its doors to residents (housing 145,000 people), co-working spaces, and startups to foster an innovative ecosystem that will diversify Dubai’s economy. 

Considering Dubai’s summer, shading, natural ventilation, and evaporative cooling will be used in open spaces.

15-minute cities came into prominence during the Covid-19 pandemic as leaders and policy-makers were forced to reevaluate the livability of cities. Last year, C40 Cities published a post-pandemic guide for urban planning and development. 

Rashed AlMulla, an urban researcher and consultant, says that Dubai’s open borders and Covid-19 resilience attracted a lot of new residents to the city.

“Cities are now competing on livability and the quality of life that they can provide for residents and future generations,” AlMulla says.

While digital infrastructure (sensors, data collection, and artificial intelligence) is at the core of smart cities, AlMulla says that a 15-minute city has a very human-centric approach. “It is focused on the resident and his needs.” 

“How close, in proximity are the services that he needs, and how can he access them? Amenities like supermarkets, laundry, and cafés have to be within a walking or cycling distance of 15 minutes, and that pushes cities to reorient themselves to stay attractive,” adds AlMulla.


While District 2020 was designed in alignment with 15-minute city principles, AlMulla believes that some parts of Dubai – like Karama and Jumeriah Beach Residence – can be thought of as 15-minute neighborhoods, with several amenities and services accessible to residents within the 15-minute radius.   

“These smaller ecosystems are already working, but now the question arises: How do we expand the concept of an environment-friendly and sustainable city and make it easier for other cities to reorient themselves to this urban model?”

As a way forward, he believes that it will take some time to see how 15-minute cities in the region fare, and developments like District 2020, Ajman’s 15-minute City, and Saudi Arabia’s NEOM will serve as testbeds for sustainable urbanism that other cities in the region can emulate. 

Globally, the 15-Minute City has been adopted successfully in Paris, with 180 kilometers of bike lanes and banning car traffic along with parts of river Seine. Similar principles are in development in several cities – 20-minute neighborhoods in Melbourne, human-scale City in Buenos Aires, and complete neighborhoods in Portland, Oregon. 

Dr. Juan M. Terrazas, dean of the College of Engineering at CETYS University in Baja California, Mexico, studies the interdependence of smart cities and 15-minute cities. “A 15-minute model is an enabler to the smart city,” he explains.

“It is the building block for a smart and sustainable city – everything a person needs is in a short distance from them. If you multiply a 15-minute neighborhood, you have decentralized clusters that significantly improve the quality of life for the cluster.”

“It is the way forward for sustainable solutions,” Terrazas adds.

With a team of eight professors, who hail from different expertise in mechatronics, electronics, and renewable energy engineering, Terrazas is working to envision solutions towards United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Given the two-year-long pandemic, he says, a particular urgency to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. 

Like AlMulla, Terrazas believes that if implemented successfully, the 15-minute city model will help build resilience to future pandemics, offer better infrastructure, and reduce inequality in services like online education and hospital bed occupancy. Speaking on the challenges in designing or redesigning 15-minute cities, Terrazas notes that it requires investment by the government and private institutions and consideration for residents’ current and future needs. 

Another challenge may be the inequality in services offered in a low-income neighborhood versus the quality of service provided in a high-income neighborhood, thus exacerbating inequalities in societies. 

In the context of Dubai, AlMulla believes that some challenges to a successful implementation of a 15-minute city are socio-cultural attitudes towards walking and cycling. 

However, with a push for a more vibrant, healthy, and sustainable city, he notes that the Road and Transport Authority has increased cycling tracks in urban areas, and residents are trying to embrace cycling – not just as a hobby – but also for transport.

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Shaistha Khan is a freelance culture writer who writes on Saudi Arabia, the GCC, and South Asia. Her work has appeared in BBC Travel, Al Jazeera, TRT World, Aramco World, Teen Vogue, and more. More