Expo 2020: the afterparty

The future of the Expo 2020 site was unveiled this week at Cityscape Global 2017 in Dubai.

There are no surprises in this “world-class” development that will be formed within the masterplanned area of Dubai South after Expo 2020 closes. Called District 2020, it is described as “a long-term economic contributor for the UAE as a home for innovators, original thinkers and pioneers, creating jobs and attracting investment”.

So it’s another mix of residential and commercial space (65,000 square metres of residential, 135,000 commercial) with entertainment facilities, hotels, and a conference/exhibition centre.

A bit like many other developments in Dubai? Of course not: District 2020 “will facilitate modern ways of living, blending work and recreation in an ecosystem that fosters closer connections – physically and digitally”.

You might have heard that kind of hyperbole before, but there are a couple of big pluses for this particular neighbourhood. For one, the aftershow party has been part of the strategic thinking for the Expo site from the beginning: Reem Al Hashimy, UAE Minister of State for International Cooperation and DG of Dubai Expo 2020 Bureau said as much – “back in 2013 when we won the bid to host this great event, we set ourselves two clear objectives in line with our leaders’ vision: to stage a World Expo that would amaze the world and build a lasting legacy with a global destination that offers a new alternative for urban living.

“We have created District 2020 to achieve that goal. It has been a key part of our planning from the very start, not just for our Legacy team but the entire Expo organisation.”

Around 80 percent of Expo 2020’s site infrastructure will be reused for District 2020.

The other attractive feature is that Expo 2020 had to set new standards in design, sustainability, connectedness and all the other attributes of urban development that reflect the Expo ambitions. These have to be of top quality, too, for they’re meeting international standards rather than local preferences. Expo 2020 is Dubai’s calling card for the world.

So, for instance, every building in District 2020 will meet or exceed the LEED Gold standards for sustainability. Many of them will be architecturally distinguished.

The Expo 2020 Sustainability Pavilion, designed by Grimshaw Architects, was supposed to become a hub for promoting innovative technologies but instead will apparently live on as a ‘Children and Science Centre’.

There’s no word yet on what happens to the Mobility Pavilion (Foster + Partners) and the Opportunity Pavilion (BIG), but the original brief called for designs that were flexible enough to stand as landmark structures after the event finishes. The Santiago Calatrava-designed falcon-shaped UAE Pavilion will also be retained.

There’s actually an argument that the location of District 2020 will be equally important to its role. Even in a digital, globally connected world – and District 2020 is promised 5G from the off, which suggests it will have one of the first 5G mobile networks in the world – there’s a need for physical communications, for people and things to be moved around; and District 2020 sits between what will be the world’s largest airport (Al Maktoum International Airport may be modest now but is planned to become massive very quickly) and what is already the Middle East’s largest port (Jebel Ali).

As business hub, District 2020 will boast facilities for all sizes of enterprises – including micro-offices for startups as well as glossy statement buildings for the multinationals. Expo 2020’s main conference and exhibition centre will be developed and run by Dubai World Trade Centre (DWTC) as Dubai’s second major exhibition space – it will have a direct connection to the District 2020 metro stop, too.

District 2020’s central Al Wasl Plaza

On the residential front, about a third of the development will be residential space with 45,900 sq m of parkland (“equivalent to six football pitches”) as well as 10km of cycling track. Al Wasl Plaza, location of the three starchitect-designed pavilions and host to the Expo 2020 Dubai opening ceremony, will be its centre as the site for “shows and concerts, while also providing a relaxing space for people”.

And of course District 2020 will also be home to “world-class education, academic and research facilities” as well as “museums and galleries”.

At least District 2020 should be more or less fully formed from the off, with less of the piecemeal building and infrastructure insertions that characterise so many of Dubai’s pop-up cities. This could be a pleasant place to be from day one.

Will District 2020 be a free zone itself? That would seem essential to attract both international businesses and entrepreneurs who will want 100 percent foreign ownership and full control over their profits. But maybe District 2020 won’t be large enough to warrant free zone status in itself; you don’t necessarily have to be physically located inside the free zone to run a business from there.

Expo 2020 will run from 20 October 2020 to 10 April 2020 and aims to attract over 25 million visitors. The site’s transition to District 2020 will begin as soon as Expo 2020 closes – work is scheduled to start on 11 April 2021.

Grimshaw’s Sustainability Pavilion


Opportunity Pavilion by BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group)Foster + Partners’ Mobility Pavilion

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