The Urban Planning Moment
Urban Crossroads #60

                                         Master-plan for the urban expansion of Zarqa

                                       Master-plan for the urban expansion of Zarqa

Until recently, urban planning was not a sought after profession in Jordan. If a Jordanian architecture student considered specializing in urban planning (or urban design), as a number of architecture students elsewhere do, he or she quickly would have been discouraged from taking that path. There were almost no urban planning jobs available in the country. Urban planning strategies rarely were developed. Whatever activities took place in this regard not only were few and far in between, but usually were carried out by foreign consulting firms. Therefore, while Jordan has managed to produce decent architectural talent, the field of urban planning in the country remained extremely week, if not non-existent. The result was a vicious circle characterized by a shortage of high quality planners and a lack of demand for them.

This state of affairs finally seems to be changing. Since the new millennium, a series of urban planning initiatives have been taking place in Jordan. A good part of those initiatives belong to Aqaba, a city that traditionally has fared better than the rest of the country in terms of developing an urban planning tradition, and in terms of having a reasonably efficient implementation of the master plans created for it. As a result, Aqaba not only has a more ‘orderly’ look and feel than the other cities of the country, but also has an infrastructure that for some time has been well-prepared for the current robust growth currently taking place there. In fact, Aqaba’s infrastructure probably is capable of accommodating up to three times its current population, which is approaching 100,000 inhabitants. This is in contrast with the other cities of Jordan, where land-use patterns are rather chaotic, and infrastructure systems seem to be bursting at the seams.

Currently, a series of ‘sub-plans’ are being developed for Aqaba. Although a number of master-plans have been developed for Aqaba as a whole during the past four decades or so, the relevant authorities in the city (the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority and the Aqaba Development Corporation) currently are developing master-plans for specific parts of Aqaba that provide an additional layer of detailed planning guidelines for issues ranging from land use to transportation networks. The rationale behind this thinking is to take a proactive, rather than a reactive, approach as the city is experiencing tremendous growth. Therefore, if an investor comes forward with a multi-million dollar tourism or industrial project, the authorities would direct the investor to specific locations for the project, rather than having such projects being haphazardly situated in various parts of the city. They even would be able to identify areas where housing for those affiliated with the project may be located. This is a win-win position since such plans direct the city’s growth in a sustainable and organized manner. It also assure investors that their investments will be located in areas suited for the intended investment, and that they are adequately served in terms of infrastructure services, whether water and energy supplies, waste disposal, or transportation networks.

Another interesting development relating to urban planning is taking place in Zarqa. Zarqa, which has a population of about 750,000 inhabitants, is Jordan’s second largest city. It unfortunately has suffered over the years from considerable congestion and pollution problems. The new urban plans developed for the city are connected to the sizable military camp that was located at its outskirts when built around the middle of the twentieth century. As the city grew, the camp became centrally located in relation to the city. A few years ago, the decision was taken to relocate the camp elsewhere, thus freeing up much needed breathing space for the city. A public-sector real estate development company, Mawared, which was formed to develop a number of government-owned sites in Jordan, has taken on the task of developing a new urban center in the place of the army camps. This new Zarqa, on which construction is underway, is intended to accommodate about 500,000 people over the next twenty years. It will contain adequate open spaces and public facilities, will be served by a public transportation system, and will have areas reserved for pedestrian movement. It generally will provide a much higher quality of urban life for the residents of the city than previously attainable.

This brings us to Amman, where no less than 40% of Jordan’s population resides (according to conservative estimates), and no less than 60% of its economic activity takes place. Moreover, Amman is becoming increasingly connected to the nearby cities of Zarqa and Rusayfa to its east, Salt to its west, and Madaba to its south. Together, these cities form a “Y” – shaped urban conglomerate that includes about 70% of the country’s population.

Amman unfortunately has not had much of an urban planning history, and more or less has grown in an unorganized manner. In fairness, it should be stated that over the past half a century Amman has had to deal with a number of sudden population influxes. In each of these instances, hundreds of thousands of people from surrounding countries have flocked to Amman to flee political instability. Under these circumstances, it may be argued that no amount of planning can fully accommodate such sudden population surges. Still, no clear planning strategies have been developed for Amman to address future scenarios affecting crucial issues such as land use or transportation.

For the longest time, the relatively small size of Amman allowed it to escape the consequences of not having any urban planning strategies. As a result, reactive, crisis-management actions usually provided acceptable short-term solutions to problems such as traffic congestion and urban sprawl. However, as Amman’s population has exceeded the two-million mark, (some estimate that Amman today may have as many as 2.5 or possibly 3 million inhabitants) such short term fixes no longer will do.

Decision-makers clearly have become aware of the seriousness of the urban challenges facing Amman, and are expressing a very serious will at tackling them. The Greater Amman Municipality consequently is embarking on a process that aims at developing a master-plan for the city. Such a plan will need to work concurrently on two levels, a short-term one that addresses immediate concerns and problems, as well as a long-term one that addresses issues relating to long-term sustainability. Of course, there is a need to ensure that the public-sector bodies in charge of implementing such a plan will have the administrative and technical abilities to do so. Therefore, capacity building programs that would accompany the process of developing a master-plan for Amman need to be put in place. Otherwise, the result will be similar to what took place about twenty years ago, when a master-plan was developed for Amman, but for the most part ended up being a theoretical exercise that was shelved to gather dust. The level of determination being shown regarding the upcoming plan allows us to take an optimistic position, and to be hopeful that a tradition of putting together and implementing an urban planning strategy for Amman finally will come into being.

Mohammad al-Asad

June 15, 2006