Revealed: Expo 2020's legacy plans

Expo 2020 this week announces its vision to create a sustainable new city in Dubai once the mega-event concludes. In an exclusive interview, Expo's senior vice-president of legacy Marjan Faraidooni talks Arabian Business through the emirate's biggest real estate project for decades
Expo 2020 this week announces its vision to create a sustainable new city in Dubai once the mega-event concludes.
By Sarah Townsend
Sat 09 Sep 2017 05:30 PM

A striking domed plaza, tree-lined boulevards, gleaming office blocks and lively parks: this is the long-term future of the site that will host the World Expo in three years’ time.

At this week’s annual Cityscape property conference, the team behind Expo 2020 will unveil a detailed masterplan to redevelop the site in the years following the six-month exhibition, which begins on 20 October 2020.

Under the ambitious plans, a chunk of the space will be repurposed and developed into a two million square metre ‘city’ called District 2020 – intended to commemorate what organisers hope will be a hugely successful global event, and to create a thriving community for decades to come.

District 2020 will house a combination of office, retail, residential and leisure developments, as well as healthcare, education and events spaces and other public facilities. The idea is to create a relaxed, campus-style business community, where multinational corporations rub shoulders with local technology start-ups and pioneering research firms.

In an exclusive interview with Arabian Business, Marjan Faraidooni, senior vice-president of legacy impact and development at Expo 2020 Dubai, outlined her vision for the long-term future of the site.

Key components of the Expo site include the three thematic districts — the Opportunity District, Sustainability District and Mobility District

“I envisage an Emirati guy wearing a backpack and Skechers trainers, cycling to work on his bike; I see families in the park and the central pavilion; school kids and workers going from one building to another, lots of interactions taking place. I imagine a down-to-earth neighbourhood that I would like to visit myself, to walk around in and meet interesting people.”

Faraidooni and her colleagues have been drawing up plans for the post-2020 existence of the site ever since Dubai won the hosting rights in 2013. With the government pumping hundreds of millions of dirhams into staging the Expo, its legacy is just as important as the event itself. Cities across the world are littered with the remnants of major events that had little or no positive impact on local communities once the gates closed — and Dubai wants none of that.

Lessons from the past

The 2004 Olympics in Athens is one such example. As the birthplace of the Olympic Games, Greece forked out a huge $9bn on the sporting extravaganza. Thirteen years on, the once-gleaming Olympic venues lie abandoned and covered in weeds, an embarrassment for a country that not long afterwards plunged into an economic crisis from which it is barely recovering.

Other examples of events with ill-conceived legacy plans include the 2012 London Olympics. In this instance, promises to create affordable housing for Londoners were dashed by cash-strapped local authorities who instead favoured the development of exclusive luxury homes. Italy’s Expo Milano 2015, meanwhile, was marred by public protest over the costs involved (see box, page 31).

On the other hand, events can bring enormous regenerative benefits to host cities and their people. Shanghai Expo 2010 put the Chinese city on the map for international business and tourism, acting as the catalyst for a massive overhaul of its saturated public transport system. New road, rail and airport infrastructure slashed journey times to, from and across the vast metropolis, which is home to more than 24 million people.

Similarly, the 1992 Barcelona Summer Olympics rejuvenated the previously rundown Spanish city, which has enjoyed a reputation as one of Europe’s most culturally diverse and vivacious cities ever since. The Montjuïc Stadium regularly plays home to major sporting and music events, while facilities for tourists and business travellers alike have been upgraded across the board.

Bearing in mind this chequered history of past mega-events, the organisers of Expo 2020 Dubai are under pressure to get their legacy plans right. But these cautionary tales also mean they have plenty of past experience — good and bad — to draw from when it comes to planning the future of their site.

“Legacy is a big term and when we try to define it, we think of it as twofold,” Faraidooni explains. “First, we have a responsibility to ensure we plan for an exceptional event that will have a positive impact on all those who participate in and visit it. But, at the same time, we must ensure that whatever we do leaves behind a meaningful legacy.”


 Marjan Faraidooni, vice-president of legacy impact and development at Expo 2020 Dubai

Faraidooni outlines how she and her team have looked deeply into the history of past expos to understand how teams addressed post-event planning and the concept of legacy.

“What became clear to us was that the organising committees with bold visions, which went beyond the three- or six-month event period, were the ones with the biggest chance of creating a successful legacy,” she says, adding that it was also important for the teams to have “a stable leadership and the right vision and be willing and able to work together to execute the plans”.

The four-step approach

The masterplan for the site’s redevelopment is just one of a four-pronged legacy strategy devised by the team. This incorporates economic, social and reputational legacy, as well as physical. Programmes for those components have yet to be formalised, but are intrinsic in the work being undertaken in the run-up to and during the event. This includes creating new jobs, involving Dubai’s young people in the plans, and working to strengthen diplomatic ties with participating nations.

Faraidooni cites the first ever World Expo, held in London’s Hyde Park in 1851, as an example of a mega-event with a spectacular legacy. The Great Exhibition was a celebration of the British Empire at the time, with stuffed elephants, steam engines and the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond, as well as other relics and global innovations exhibited in a huge crystal palace.

Expo 2020 Dubai will also be an avenue for local  and regional businesses to showcase their innovations to a global audience

The year after the expo, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert founded the V&A Museum, which houses many of the original exhibits and still attracts millions of international tourists each year. The event rejuvenated the surrounding neighbourhood of South Kensington, which remains economically buoyant to this day.

With three years to go before Expo 2020 Dubai opens its doors to an estimated 25 million visitors, Faraidooni’s team have already achieved a great deal. From the outset, it was decided that 80 percent of the site would be repurposed — the remaining 20 percent largely constitutes temporary items, such as security channels and gates — and key structures were earmarked for retention, including the Sustainability Pavilion intended to showcase sustainable technologies.

In April, the legacy team announced a deal with Siemens AG under which the electronics company will establish its global logistics headquarters at District 2020. This has been described as a coup for the Expo team by people close to the deal. “For a big German corporate that does not do things on a whim, this is a very significant investment and a marker of the sheer scale of promise offered to them,” one source says.

District 2020

At Cityscape this week, Expo 2020 Dubai will unveil the full breadth of its legacy plans, including the entire masterplan for District 2020, new images and a dedicated logo. The latter is an update of the Expo logo, inspired by a ring found at a 4,000-year-old archaeological site in the desert. The logo features the tagline ‘Connect, Create, Innovate’, based on Expo 2020 Dubai’s underpinning theme of ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future’.

Arabian Business can reveal the key components of the legacy masterplan here. Located in Dubai South, 20 minutes from the new Al Maktoum International Airport and Jebel Ali Port, Expo organisers are marketing District 2020 as the perfect place to establish a new business and research hub in the fast-growing emirate.

The dome-shaped Al Wasl Plaza will celebrate local culture and values while at the same time imagining the future

District 2020 will retain iconic Expo structures after the event, including the central Al Wasl Plaza, which will be transformed into a multipurpose events space; the three themed pavilions — Opportunity, Mobility and Sustainability — the latter of which will become an interactive children’s science and nature museum, and the falcon-shaped UAE Pavilion, which will continue as a visitor attraction. In addition, there will be other academic institutions, museums and galleries. 

The conference and exhibition centre, to be part-built for the Expo, will be completed with a final build out of 180,000 sq m. Siemens, of course, will set up its global logistics headquarters there, and Expo 2020 Dubai is expected to announce a similar deal with another corporate shortly after Cityscape.

In total, District 2020 will  cover two million sq m excluding the conference centre, house 135,000 sq m of commercial space (equivalent to 70 percent of the total build out by the host country), and 65,000 sq m of residential space. The pre-existing space is being used for countries’ pavilions, and most will dismantle and take those with them when they leave.

Parcels of additional land from the 200-acre Expo site is to be sold off to third parties for further development, but Faraidooni declines to reveal exactly how much will be made available. She adds that repurposing Expo buildings will take around three to six months, after which time tenants can commence fit-outs.

Under the plans, office space will range from hotdesks and ‘micro-studios’ for start-ups and SMEs, and every building will meet rigorous LEED Gold standards for energy and water usage and carbon emissions, to make them as environmentally friendly as possible. Meanwhile Expo 2020 Dubai’s real estate department will set guidelines for third party builders, to ensure design continuity across the city.

“With 200,000 sq m of built-up space, that’s a lot — that’s no joke,” Faraidooni says. “So we’d like to give people who want to be part of this project some guidelines that fit in with what we are trying to achieve. For example, we might give them options for building facades or materials that best meet the look and feel of the city.”

District 2020 will also have a dedicated ‘Route 2020’ Dubai Metro line, one of the first 5G mobile networks in the UAE, 10km of cycle paths, 44,000 sq m of parks and walking trails, a wellness centre, gyms, retail and food outlets and car parking to meet Dubai Municipality minimum standards, says Ahmed Al Khatib, senior vice-president of real estate and legacy. The whole city is contained within the Dubai South free zone, and is subject to that legal framework.

In terms of the types of companies Expo organisers are seeking to attract, Faraidooni says her team conducted research into UAE growth sectors and the opportunities Dubai already offers them. She says the team was determined not to create yet another Dubai Media City or Dubai Internet City, and instead sought to build the foundations for a new type of business hub based on industry collaboration.

“What I mean by this is that we didn’t think of just one industry, but of fruitful combinations of industries,” she says. “We looked at what the UAE is already good at — logistics and transport; travel and tourism; education, construction and real estate — and saw that those industries require the input of technology companies to make them more competitive.

“It’s not about creating a ‘Tech City’, but rather an environment that allows for meaningful collaborations between related companies that will be tenanting the city. We want large multinationals to think of District 2020 as somewhere they can innovate, for example by setting up their research and development (R&D) centres here.”

Faraidooni is adamant that Expo 2020 Dubai will not create ‘white elephants’ of the sort the Athens Olympics did. Referring to the four-point legacy strategy, she says: “This is it, this is how we’re preventing it. We’re mitigating that risk right now in everything that we do.”

With 2020 being the UAE’s Golden Jubilee year, the event has a further significance as a celebration of the nation’s history. Even the opening date (20.10.20) has been considered: add up the figures and you get 50.

Faraidooni says: “What’s going to be announced at Cityscape is the next phase of the journey we started [when we won the bid]. It will be a place that has life beyond the event. Expo is just one moment in history but this place will continue, as a city called District 2020.”

More than 200 countries and international organisations are expected to participate at the Expo

Past mega-events

What worked and what didn’t

Expo Milano 2015

Widely held as one of the most controversial expos ever staged in Europe, Milan’s troubled expo legacy is defined by a mêlée of lurid buildings gathering dust across 110 hectares of the Italian city’s outer limits.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets as the architectural pageant opened in May 2015, decrying the billions of euros sunk into contorted pavilions with banners slamming the expo as a “machine for burning public money”.

It was not until January 2017 that site owners launched the search for a team of developers to regenerate the site into a €1.9bn ($2.3bn) research park and university campus dubbed the ‘Human Technopole’.

Barcelona 1992 Summer Olympics

Barcelona boasts a striking success story for its 1992 Olympic Games legacy, which transformed perceptions of the city from an industrial waste-scape into a sunny seaside destination steeped in Catalan culture and global sophistication.

Around $11.4bn of investment in restructuring the city’s roads, sewage systems, parks and beaches paid off with Olympic infrastructure estimated to have created over 20,000 permanent jobs for locals.

Aside from improvements to Barcelona’s infrastructure and urban development, the city gained two miles of beach and a modern marina on its waterfront to replace previous sprawling industrial complexes.

With additional reporting by Shoshana Kedem

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.