Urban Life and Rising Commodity Prices
Urban Crossroads #79

These are times of rapid change. One manifestation of this is the ongoing dramatic rise in commodity prices, particularly oil and food items, which is taking place following a period of relative price stability and affordability that extended throughout the 1990s and into the early years of the new millennium.

The rise is partly due to increased global wealth, a good portion of which is coming out of the world’s two emerging economic power-horses, China and India. The economies of these two countries are growing rapidly, and a higher percentage of their sizable populations now has considerable disposable income and aspires to lead the same standard of living as the vast middle-classes of the Western world. Their emerging middle-classes are engaging in new consumption patterns that include buying more cars and more energy-intensive household appliances, as well as consuming larger quantities and more expensive types of food items. Considering that these two countries have over a third of the world’s population, these new consumption patterns are drastically affecting demand on commodities throughout the world, and placing considerable strain on their supply.

How does this affect urban life in a city such as Amman? Well, the world has become highly interconnected in ways unimaginable less than a generation ago, when international trade remained relatively restricted as a result of factors primarily connected to national protectionist policies. Even though we have come to live in a world with increasingly strict national boundaries that aim at keeping outsiders who are too poor or too different out, we also are living in an increasingly globalized and interrelated world. This world depends greatly on highly-advanced telecommunica-tions networks that span the globe, and is characterized by extensive levels of international trade featuring massive and continuous cross-border movements of people, capital, and goods.

These forces of increased globalization are impacting city life everywhere with tremendous force. The residents of Amman therefore are finding themselves strongly affected by changing consumption patterns taking place in China and India. The price of oil, which is Jordan’s largest single import item, consequently is skyrocketing. We all feel the pain of this increase most directly in transportation and in heating our homes, and indirectly in the rising costs of just about every available consumer product or service, particularly foodstuffs. Interestingly enough, even the international prices of food and of energy are becoming inter-connected in unexpected manners. This extends beyond the fact that energy is needed to produce food. For example, corn is being increasingly used to manufacture ethanol fuel, and no longer is only grown to feed people and animals, thus greatly increasing demand on it, and further pushing up its price.

As a result of the increase in oil prices, the energy needed for transportation (which often takes up about a quarter to one third of a country’s total energy consumption) is going up drastically, as is the cost of heating buildings. This eventually will force us to completely rethink the configuration of the city and its buildings. Compact cities where people only need to cross relatively short distances to get from one place to the other are far more efficient than sprawling ones where one has to drive and to traverse significant distances, whether to get to work, buy groceries, take one’s children to school, or visit friends and relatives. Ideally, it should be possible for us to satisfy a considerable part of our transportation needs on foot, which means we need an ample supply of pedestrian-friendly urban environments where distances are short, and where one can walk comfortably as well as freely and separately from automobile traffic. Some planners even advocate urban configurations where most regular destinations are located within a ten-minute walk from one’s residence. The Amman that existed before the proliferation of the automobile beginning in the 1970s in fact already fit into this model to a great extent, but since then, the city has expanded and grown, with much of the growth and expansion taking the form of automobile-dominated sprawl. Rethinking Amman from the point of view of pedestrian-oriented daily life now is a necessity rather than merely an intellectually-oriented theoretical exercise.

The skyrocketing price of heating fuel is increasingly making us face the unpleasant reality that Amman’s buildings, while generally structurally sturdy, leave much to be desired when it comes to energy efficiency. Since the cost of fuel remained relatively low until only a few years ago, most people simply chose to forgo investing in energy-efficient construction solutions, such as double-glazed windows, wall and ceiling insulation, as well as effective sealing and insulation for exterior door frames and windows, preferring to “save now and pay later.” However, the amount one has to “pay later,” over the life of a building, now is becoming unbearable. The option of initially putting more money in a building so that it consumes less energy in the long run has become an unavoidable necessity.

In addition to incorporating more effective insulation systems in building construction, architects and planners will now have to re-examine overall building layouts, neighborhood master plans, and zoning ordinances to achieve higher rates of energy con-servation. This includes issues such as the size and orientation of windows in a building, the use of landscaping as an energy-conservation method, and the proximity of buildings to each other. For example, to achieve maximum energy efficiency, windows should be located along the south, should be shaded from the summer sun, and should not take up more than ten percent of the area of the room they serve. Strategically planting the right type of trees around a building can greatly contribute to energy conservation. Deciduous trees, for example, provide shade from the harsh sun during the summer, when their leaves are out, but let in the warm sun during the winter, when they shed their leaves; and evergreens provide protection from the cold winter winds. In addition, a dwelling that is part of an apartment building or a row of attached town-houses is “protected” by the other dwellings from above and / or the sides and therefore consumes less energy than a dwelling of the same size that is a free-standing house and thus exposed to the elements from all sides.

Even rising food prices can have an effect on how the city is configured. The subject of urban agriculture here comes to mind. As the term implies, urban agriculture is about planting food in the city. Cities have all types of unused open spaces that easily may be adapted for planting vegetables and fruit trees. Even the roofs of buildings may be used for planting (although, in this case, securing adequate water-proofing for the roofs needs to be ensured). A good part of the water needed for urban agriculture, particularly for fruit trees, may be supplied through simple gray-water systems, which rely on redirecting household water already used for washing to plants, and which available research indicates is safe in terms of health concerns. Urban agriculture increases the amount of food available within urban settings and provides it at very affordable costs. It also presents the added advantage of providing produce that does not consume energy for transporta-tion from distant farms to consumer centers since the produce often may be grown literally next door to where consumers are located. In addition, urban agriculture can effectively contribute to greening the city and moderating its climate. Also, in the case of planting on roofs, the planting soil provides an additional layer of thermal insulation for the building below.

Challenging times obviously bring with them considerable difficulties, but they also may be viewed as hidden opportunities. This definitely applies to the rise in the price of oil and food. While this rise presents the serious risk of negatively affecting many people’s economic well-being, it also may provide an overdue opportunity for rethinking how a city such as Amman is configured, how we move through it, how we construct its build-ings, and how we use its empty surfaces, thus offering the city’s residents more cost-effective, efficient solutions for daily living and also a higher quality of life.

Mohammad al-Asad

April 3, 2008