In his new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Pulitzer-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman urges America to lead the green revolution, which he portrays as an international struggle for power (pun intended) akin to the Cold War's space race. He worries that China might outpace the United States, but in fact the Middle East may be giving both countries a run for their money. Ironically, while Americans dream that going green will liberate us from Arab oil, some Arabs fantasize about liberating themselves. Abu Dhabi, one of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has become a leader in renewable industries, and Foster + Partners' planning of Masdar City as the world's first zero-carbon city signals bold ambitions for sustainable development.

But any progress made in Masdar could be compromised by the explosive growth, about 75 miles to the northeast, of the UAE's largest city, Dubai. Two decades ago, Dubai was a dusty coastal plain on the Persian Gulf. Today it is the Manhattan of the Middle East. Its population, which has doubled in the last 10 years, continues to mushroom, as does its skyline.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Credit: Shuli Hallak

Supposedly up to a quarter of the world's construction cranes are located there, and, like the city itself, everything being built is big. Very big. The Dubai Mall will be the largest shopping center in the world, with over 9 million square feet of retail space. Dubailand will be the largest amusement park, twice the size of Disney World. The Palm Jumeirah, a 3-mile-by-3-mile artificial island, allegedly can be seen from the moon. Dubai will have the largest metro, the largest airport, the longest waterfront, and the largest indoor skiing facility—because a place where the annual rainfall totals a couple of inches and the temperature routinely surpasses 110 F simply must have great snow skiing.

Impossibly high skyscrapers are sprouting up like weeds—literally, in the case of Dubai Towers, four sinuous structures rising reed-like on the water's edge.The world's tallest building, the Burj Dubai, soon may be overshadowed by the Nakheel Tower, which, at a proposed 3,900 feet, would be nearly three times the height of the Empire State Building. While the other Manhattan went vertical because of space limitations, Dubai reaches for the sky just to show off, gazing at its own seaside spectacle like an urban Narcissus.

"Dubai is Vegas on steroids," says Douglas Kelbaugh, who moved there last month. He stepped down as dean of architecture at the University of Michigan to become executive director of building and urban design for Limitless, a UAE-based developer with a worldwide portfolio. The city's rapid construction, Kelbaugh feels, has produced a spate of ostentatious buildings with little connective tissue between them, a condition he calls "dense sprawl."

"Dubai is burdened by the postwar American model of superblock, superhighway, single-use zoning, and subsequent lack of road and street connectivity," he says. "If we don't deal with land use and transportation, we'll come up short. We can't solve these problems one building at a time."

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Credit: Shuli Hallak

I caught up with Kelbaugh in early November at a University of Pennsylvania conference, "Re-Imagining Cities: Urban Design After the Age of Oil." Hosted by the Penn Institute for Urban Research and sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, the symposium brought more than 300 participants from around the globe to brainstorm about how the changing climate is changing cities. "The biggest and scariest takeaway from this conference," Kelbaugh told me, "is the lack of time compared to the magnitude of the problem."

His new home, the UAE, provides a dramatic case in point. Its per capita impact on the environment is roughly six times the global average—another "world's largest" distinction. Most of this comes from carbon emissions, so, ironically, oil is providing the Middle East with great wealth but poor health. Kelbaugh has written that the pursuit of "More, Bigger, Higher" has led architects to "a joy ride of consumption and exploitation."

Nowhere is "More, Bigger, Higher" more explicit than in Dubai. While desalination and cogeneration plants are creating an efficient infrastructure, modest conservation seems to justify overblown development. It may take less energy to operate these buildings, but it takes more to build them in the first place, so green tech has become a green crutch. "We're still talking about making marginal changes," says Kelbaugh. "We have to radically transform how we think about the built environment." Kelbaugh hopes Dubai's Arabian Canal, a Limitless project planned by Peter Calthorpe, will provide a strong model for a dense, walkable, mixed-use community with diverse transit. "We have to get smarter about where and why we need buildings. Build less, but build better."