People walking at Expo Dubai 2020; People walking at Expo Dubai 2020;

Expo 2020 Dubai, Dubai

Designing a sustainable legacy for Expo 2020 Dubai

Held in Dubai, the 2020 World Expo attracted over 24 million visits in six months. The site has since been chosen to host the United Nations Climate Change Conference – COP28, which will run from November to December 2023.

Arup worked with HOK and Populus to develop Dubai’s bid to host the Expo, including creating the concept masterplan. After the judges chose the United Arab Emirates, we undertook detailed masterplanning for the event and the site’s legacy as an integrated, mixed-use community: Expo City Dubai.

Given the number of visitors anticipated, one of our largest challenges was providing for efficient travel to and from the site, while also minimising carbon emissions. Throughout the project we focused on the Expo’s three drivers of progress: sustainability, mobility and opportunity.

Project Summary


24 million visits

90.9%of cumulative waste successfully diverted from landfill

80%of infrastructure reused in Expo City Dubai

An essential part of Dubai’s winning bid

We were invited to support the bid team in 2012, working alongside architects HOK and sports consultancy Populous. With just four months to go in the bidding process, we combined extensive local knowledge with expertise from the London 2012 Olympic Games and other major events. This enabled us to help Dubai’s bid stand out.

Our innovations included ideas such as sustainable urban drainage systems and automated logistics – not all of which had been implemented in Dubai before.

Capacity was key. The site had to function equally well on a peak day with up to 250,000 visitors as on quieter days. Yet building infrastructure to accommodate vast crowds would increase the carbon and costs. We therefore explored different scenarios and helped everyone reach agreement on targeting an average of 100,000 visitors a day.

People walking around Expo Dubai 2020 People walking around Expo Dubai 2020
We brought our pedestrian modelling expertise to predict crowd movements around the site – taking into account Dubai’s warm climate.

For the final stage of the judging process, we supported the Dubai team by hosting a workshop for the visiting delegation. Using a bespoke set of our Drivers of Change cards, we explored with the hosts how Expo 2020 Dubai could influence the world.

Detailed planning that turned the vision into reality

When Dubai was chosen as the host city, the next phase began. In 2014, we were reappointed alongside HOK to develop the detailed masterplan and assist with gaining planning approvals from the Dubai Government.

We succeeded in securing government approval for the masterplan within the 12-month programme. Additionally, there were very few technical concessions – the vast majority of the forward-looking ideas Arup had proposed were signed off.

To explore options for transport planning, we mapped out the visitor experience right from arrival at the airport. Dubai has long been a car-centric city, and at that time limited coverage was provided by the two recently opened metro lines. We proposed a new metro line extension reaching all the way to the Expo site. This approach also connected several developments along the route. Bringing public transport to previously car-dependent communities helped to generate larger, longer-term reductions in carbon emissions.

Image: The inside of the Expo 2020 metro station.

We developed the Expo’s comprehensive sustainability strategy, setting out ambitious objectives, KPIs and targets that will set the bar for future developments in the region. As part of this process, we also created sustainable building design guidelines for the buildings and pavilions.

Our remit included planning for security, logistics, the Expo Village and its legacy configuration. We also brought our pedestrian modelling expertise to predict crowd movements around the site – taking into account Dubai’s warm climate. And we were instrumental in designing the Japan Pavilion, which won the Expo’s Gold Award for Large Pavilion Design.

People walking at Expo Dubai 2020 at sunset People walking at Expo Dubai 2020 at sunset
The site had to function equally well on a peak day with up to 250,000 visitors as on quieter days.

Reducing waste sent to landfill

After supporting Dubai’s bid to host Expo 2020, we then worked directly with Expo City Dubai to assess, model and advise on the implementation of the event’s waste management strategy. Major events typically generate large volumes of waste. These include construction materials from building, fitting-out and dismantling venues, as well as food and drink packaging used by visitors.

To maximise reuse and recycling, we created a user-friendly computer model of the complex material flows. During Expo 2020 we conducted unannounced site visits, feeding data from these inspections back into the model. Combining this with feedback from the waste management company and real-time data, we could easily see whether the waste KPI was on track to achieve the targeted waste diversion from landfill rate.

The event was designed to be free from single-use plastic water bottles. Instead, visitors used water refill stations, saving approximately 500,000 single-use bottles. All this ensured that the Expo 2020 met its key target to divert 85% of waste from landfill. Our work was recognised by Expo 2020 with a Delivery Excellence Certificate.

Expo 2020 was ultimately delayed due to Covid-19 and ran from October 2021 – March 2022. At the end of 2023, Expo City Dubai will once again host visitors from across the world as nations gather for COP28.

Find out how we help host cities deliver major events and capitalise on their legacy.