Amman: How Big Is Too Big?
Urban Crossroads #87



According to the Greater Amman Municipality, the city’s population is expected to surpass the six million mark by 2025. This assessment is based on examining Amman’s growth patterns during its modern history and projecting these patterns over the next decade and a half. The history of modern Amman dates back to the 1870s, when it was resettled after being deserted for centuries. As late as the 1920s, it only had about 5,000 inhabitants, but since then, the city’s population has grown spectacularly to reach its current level of about 2.5 million. Its growth has been fueled not only by high levels of natural population increase, but also by migration from other parts of the country and from neighboring countries.

Whenever it seemed that Amman’s growth would revert to more manageable levels, developments in the opposite direction would take place, particularly regional crises that result in the movement of a few hundred thousand people into Jordan, with most settling in Amman. One manifestation of this growth pattern is that the city’s population growth has not been evenly distributed over the years, but has experienced sudden spurts connected to the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars, the 1990 – 1991 Gulf War, and the instability affecting Iraq over the past five years or so.

If Amman’s population rises to exceed six million by 2025, this would translate into an average yearly projected growth of over 6%. Jordan’s natural population increase of about 2.3% accordingly would account for less than half that growth, while most of it would result from migration, either from other parts of Jordan or from outside it.

I would take a more optimistic view that goes against this inductive form of reasoning. Fertility rates in Jordan are going down, and one maintains hope that the region will achieve a level of political stability that would end or at least greatly limit coerced mass population movements across borders. However, since such optimistic aspirations regarding the region have consistently failed to materialize, planning on the assumption that there will be more of the same makes sense.

The Amman municipality accordingly is developing its current masterplan to accommodate considerable anticipated growth. Such a proactive approach is welcome as it strives to address projected future scenarios at an early stage rather than engaging in crisis management after the fact.

Still, even if the assumption that Amman will undergo high levels of population growth is correct, and although forward thinking strategies are preferable to crisis management and firefighting efforts, this approach may be criticized as being too deterministic. It accepts that the city’s growth is inevitable, that it is beyond the control of municipal authorities, and that nothing can be done to prevent it. To a certain degree, all this is true. Natural population increases, migration to the city, national policies of administrative centralization, and regional political developments all fall outside the sphere of municipal influence. The best that municipalities can do is to proactively plan for accommodating these developments rather than struggling to deal with them after they take place. The problem facing Amman, however, is that an already large city may too quickly become too large to effectively manage.

This brings me to the issue of ideal city size. There is considerable debate as to whether there is such an ideal size and what that size would be. On the one hand, a city needs to be large enough to achieve a critical mass in terms of population and spending capacity to support a reasonable variety of urban activities and services. These include adequate employment opportunities, infrastructure services, educational institutions, healthcare services, cultural facilities, shopping and entertainment outlets, as well as physical connections (primarily via airports and train-stations) to other cities and countries.

On the other hand, once a city becomes too large, the unpleasant face of urban life becomes more apparent. Crime rates and pollution levels go up. Feelings of alienation amongst the population increase. Of great importance is that movement through the city becomes extremely burdensome. Distances become too far and traffic congestion becomes endemic. Traffic problems in particular increase exponentially rather than incrementally as a city grows. It therefore is much easier to address the urban traffic challenges resulting from doubling a city’s population from half a million to a million than from three million to six million. In this context, it is worth noting the view expressed by economists that economic activity benefits from proximity and localization rather than urbanization. Urbanization allows higher levels of proximity and localization to exist, but when a city becomes too large and widespread, these positive factors are lost.

Returning to the six-million population mark projected for Amman, it should be mentioned that there are numerous well-functioning metropolitan areas with populations of well over six million people, many of which are considered amongst the world’s greatest urban centers, as with Berlin, London, New York, Paris, and Tokyo. These, however, are wealthy cities that belong to the world’s advanced economies. In contrast, megapolises of the developing world, such as Cairo, Karachi, Lagos, Mexico City, and Mumbai, are not faring well and often suffer severely from urban problems such as poverty, pollution, crime, as well as traffic gridlock.

In this context, one may consider the results of the Mercer’s Quality of Living surveys, which provide a well-publicized measure ranking the quality of life in cities worldwide. All but three of the top 30 cities in that ranking have populations of less than 3.5 million (the three being Berlin, Sydney, and Toronto), and many of them have populations of less than one million or even less than 500,000. There clearly is a correlation between size and the quality of life in a city although it is very difficult to exactly quantify such a correlation. A few general assumptions still may be made: a minimum critical mass of a few hundred thousand residents is needed to allow for a variety of urban services and characteristics to emerge, but certain aspects of urban life such as those related to transportation almost always suffer as a city gets larger.

Of equal importance to a city’s size are the resources available to its municipal structure, both human and financial. A city with reasonable financial and human resources clearly is able to provide better services to its residents than one suffering from a shortage of such services. Even more important than city size is its rate of growth. If the rate of growth is too high, it will be extremely difficult for any municipal authority, no matter what resources are available to it, to keep up in terms of the urban services it offers. This issue of high growth rates is endemic to cities of the developing world. In fact, all but three of the cities included in the list of the world’s 100 fastest growing cities prepared by the City Mayors organization are in the developing world (the three are the US cities of Atlanta, Austin, and Las Vegas).

Regarding Amman, many aspects of urban living in it are in need of considerable attention, and the quality of its urban services have not kept up with the tremendous growth it has experienced, particularly over the past five years or so. This applies to public transportation, solid waste management, pedestrian access, and the regulation of large-scale developments, among others. The municipality is well aware of these shortcomings, and initiatives are being put in place to address them, but these initiatives remain in the early stages of implementation and it will take time before their results become fully apparent.

However, the idea that in addition to addressing Amman’s current challenges, which have been accumulating and increasing over time, the city will need to provide complete infrastructure support and urban services for another three to four million inhabitants over the next decade and a half is overwhelming. Good fortune may come Amman’s way, and the projected increase in population may not materialize; but if those increases do take place, it will be nearly impossible for the city to successfully accommodate them.

There accordingly is a need for national concerted debates and efforts that seriously address the issue of population distribution in the country. As Amman will not be able to accommodate a significant and sudden increase in population, such an increase, assuming it takes place, will need to be distributed amongst the country’s various urban centers, which means that cities other than Amman should be developed as nodes of population attraction.

Considerable efforts in this direction in fact have been made in Jordan over the past two to three decades. Two of the country’s most important public universities have been established in Irbid. Aqaba has been developed into a special economic zone that builds upon its position as an active national and regional seaport. To a degree, these efforts have been successful in that both cities have embraced their intended roles, but this success has not yet translated into a significant movement of populations into them.

There is a need to continuously revisit and reassess these efforts to see where they have worked well and where they have not. A large city such as Amman that takes on the role of political, administrative, and economic capital assumes an independent and powerful momentum of growth that usually is very difficult to manage. Moreover, cities generally evolve in an organic manner according to a complex mix of geographic, economic, political, and cultural factors, and attempting to control a city’s growth or decline often is a futile exercise, Still, if Amman is to become a positive model for urban living, there is no choice but to protect it from the pressures brought about by significant population increases and to distribute Jordan’s anticipated population growth amongst the country’s various urban centers.

This will necessitate a number of interventions such as establishing a high-quality national rail network that effectively links the country’s urban populations, creating green belts that protect the autonomy of cities adjacent to Amman such as Salt, and providing incentives in the form of employment opportunities as well as decent education, healthcare, cultural, and recreation services in a few Jordanian cities. Admittedly, all this is easier said than done and requires significant financial resources and effort. Still, if Amman’s phenomenal rate of growth is allowed to continue, the quality of urban living in it and in the other cities of the country will suffer considerably.

Mohammad al-Asad

December 5, 2008