Although airports serve to connect urban centers to distant locations, they also play an important role in defining patterns of development within urban centers themselves.
Airports are relative newcomers in urban history. Before them, the railroad station was the primary gateway to the city. The first railroad line appeared in England in the 1820s, and railroad travel was introduced to our part of the world a few decades later, in the 1850s, when Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez were linked by railroad service. Railroad service reached Amman during the initial years of the twentieth century with the construction of the Hijaz Railway, which connected Damascus to Medina.
During the 1950s, the airport began to take on the position of the major gateway to the city. Although in many parts of the world, airports and railway stations both serve as important points of departure and arrival for the city, in our region the airport more often than not has eclipsed the railroad station. In fact, railways currently occupy a relatively minor role in transporting people within the countries of this part of the world, let alone between them.
The airport and railroad station function very differently from each other in their relation to the city. Airports need much more space than railroad stations and cause more noise. Therefore, in contrast to railroad stations, which usually are located centrally within the city, airports need to be situated at a distance from it, where land values also are much lower than in the city.
A general pattern that occurs once an airport is constructed is that the road connecting the city to the airport becomes a spine along which expansion of the city takes place. After all, airport roads are heavily used arteries that usually are served by the necessary infrastructure services such as water, electricity, and telecommunications. It therefore is not surprising that such roads would attract considerable construction activity along them. In numerous cases, the expansion (or sprawl) of the city eventually reaches the airport and even engulfs it, thus making any significant expansion of the airport an impossibility. By then, the need arises for a new larger airport.
This is what has happened in Amman and also in other cities of the region. By the late 1970s, the old Amman airport at Marka had become too small to fully serve air travel to and from Jordan, but also too close to the expanding borders of Amman to allow for any significant enlargement. As a result, a new airport, the Queen Alia International Airport, was constructed further out, to the south of the city, and a new highway was built to connect the city to the new airport. Not surprisingly, a good part of the city's growth began to take place along the new airport road. If one follows the new airport road from its inception at the seventh circle, it is noticed that commercial, residential, institutional, and educational buildings (both schools and universities) all have emerged along its sides. The amount of traffic along that road has become so heavy that recently a stretch of it has been widened to accommodate three lanes of traffic (instead of two) on each side.
The results of such growth along the new airport road are double-edged. Along the northern parts of the road, near Amman, much of the preexisting agricultural has been subdivided to accommodate urban sprawl, and we therefore have lost and continue to loose agricultural land in that area. On the other hand, a few agricultural activities, and even forested areas, have been established along the middle and southern parts of the road since its construction. Also, the southern parts of the road pass through relatively arid areas. In this context, it would be a good idea to direct the growth of Amman or to establish satellites of it in those southern areas, where the destruction of agricultural land would be very limited. At this stage, development along airport road seems to follow an "anything goes" syndrome. It still is not too late, however, to control and direct growth along the road in a manner that is both economically and environmentally sustainable so as to control sprawl, preserve and even create green spaces, but still allow for the healthy expansion of Amman.
August 26, 2004