Dubai came to the world’s attention only a few years ago, writes Daniel Brook in A History of Future Cities . It looked like an unprecedented miracle: “The instant global metropolis with a ‘skyline on crack’ captivated the world with record-setting skyscrapers, indoor ski slopes, and a stunningly diverse population. With 96 percent of its population foreign-born, Dubai makes even New York City’s diversity - 37 percent of New Yorkers are immigrants - seem mundane. As a pair of American observers put it, Dubai is a city where ‘everyone and everything in it - its luxuries, laborers, architects, accents, even its aspirations - was flown in from someplace else” (5-6).

Dubai was new. The idea of Dubai was not: “For three hundred years, instant cities modeled on the West have been built in the developing world in audacious attempts to wrench a lagging region into the modern world.” In addition to Dubai, Brook looks at the establishment of St. Petersburg, Shanghai, and Mumbai. “The idea of Dubai” is “also the idea of St. Petersburg, Shanghai, and Mumbai,” and Brook thinks it’s “the idea of our time” too (9).

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