The urban landscape is one of evolution and metamorphoses. The first movement of human beings into urban environments marked a leap in human progress and a tremendous set of problems associated with urban life. Over the years, mankind established new approaches to urban development that revolutionized life for all who inhabited the shared living spaces of massive cities. These practices became critical for survival as political, economic, and military shifts around the world drove massive change. The canvas of the modern city is one that tells a story of hardship, renewal, innovation, and transformation.


Now: Downtown Dubai — Credit: Mo Azizi /
Then: Outside downtown — Credit: Cagri Kilicci /

Dubai is situated on the desert coastline of the Persian Gulf, and, in the 1960s, it very much looked the part of its climate. In 1966, large reservoirs of oil were discovered, allowing the state to claim sovereignty before it eventually joined the new United Arab Emirates.

Now: Palm Islands — Credit: Mike Fuchslocher /
Then: Palm Islands — Credit: Mario Hagen /

Oil funds allowed for massive development projects with record-breaking budgets. Huge expanses of land previously occupied by sand dunes and the occasional goat were suddenly transformed into spectacles of architecture and modern luxury. Dubai in the later part of the 20th century saw the appearance of luxury hotels, an indoor skiing resort, and man-made islands adorned with exorbitantly-priced real estate.

Kowloon Walled City

Now: Old South Gate — Credit: Wing1990hk [CC BY 3.0 (]
Then: Kowloon Walled City — Credit: Forgemind ArchiMedia / flickr

The walled city of Kowloon, Hong Kong, began its existence as a military fortress of the Song Dynasty over a millennium ago. Populations fluctuated up until the 20th century. Turmoil in surrounding China, first from Japanese invasion and then from civil war, drove countless refugees toward Hong Kong. Many wound up in the walled city for protection under its continued status as a British colony. Later efforts to drive the inhabitants out of Kowloon proved unsuccessful, and in 1948 Britain ceded active involvement in the city, leaving it in a purgatory of ownership and authority. Kowloon saw massive population growth and development within its tiny borders with little oversight. Eventually the fortress festered into the world’s most densely populated and crime-ridden capital. In 1987, the British and Chinese governments made a joint decision to tear down the derelict slum. Today the land is home to Kowloon Walled City Park.

Now: Mountain View Pavilion — Credit: Yd712015 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]


Now: Packard Automobile Factory — Credit: Albert duce [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]
Then: Old City Hall — Credit: Historic American Buildings Survey

In 2013, Detroit filed the largest municipal bankruptcy in history. The decline of Detroit has been part of a larger pattern of urban decay in Michigan as the state continues to struggle with the water crisis in Flint. The Rust Belt has become a symbol of modern American crisis with shifts in labor, technology, and economic instability. Modern Detroit continues to push into decline, though it was once a hub of modernity and development. In the early part of the century, the city was the capital of automobile development. Detroit saw a population growth of over 500% over the course of 30 years. With a steady influx of income, the city was known for luxuries to accommodate auto executives, unions with high quality labor rights, and a bustling art and music scene.


Now: Marina Bay — Credit: Nattee Chalermtiragool /
Then: Ann Siang Hill — Credit: Botaurus [Wikimedia / Public domain]

A combination of natural flora and brilliantly executed urban planning make Singapore Asia’s most eco-friendly and lush city. On the Sustainable Cities Index from 2016, Singapore ranks second in the world. Though Singapore counts itself among world leaders in conscientious urban development, it wasn’t always the case. Singapore was another Asian nation impacted heavily by World War II.

Now: The Supertree Grove at Gardens — Credit: S-F /
Then: Japanese 25th Army — Credit: Imperial War Museums

Housing conditions preceding the war were already poor, and the added blow of conflict worsened the crisis. Slums and squatters became commonplace. The formation of the republic of Singapore in 1965 started with a heavy push for urban revival that brought the city to where it is today.