Urban Planning and Daily Stress
Urban Crossroads #65

A recent survey asked various working people in North America about the main sources of daily stress in their lives. Many cited the daily commute to and from work. Jobs often are located in the central areas of cities, but because housing costs usually are abhorrently expensive there, many people only can afford to live in outlying suburbs. These people therefore spend considerable amounts of time, cost, and energy going to and from work, with total daily commuting times of two and three hours being commonplace. Considering that the average work-day amounts to eight hours, this translates to spending 15 to 20 minutes commuting for every hour spent working.

Many working people therefore have to wake up very early in the morning to make it to work on time. By the time they return home in the evening, they are exhausted, and have no energy left to spend quality time with their families or to engage in rewarding activities. Their evenings often are reduced to quickly making something to eat, hastily doing household chores, and, if there is any time left, sitting down in front of the television to try to wind-down after a long tiring day. Such a daily routine is far from ideal. It is stressful; it results in a phenomenal waste of time; and it reflects wasteful transportation patterns. It leaves much to be desired regarding the more leisurely and rewarding life that modernity promised the working person.

This troubling scenario also shows the incredibly tight relation that exists between urban planning decisions and the quality of life we lead. It is a manifestation of the monumental failure of modern urban planning approaches that have allowed excessive urban sprawl and the dependence on the automobile to dominate urban life, and that have promoted single-use zoning over mixed-use zoning solutions that provide affordable housing in central parts of the city.

For the longest time, we in Amman have been spared this sad state of affairs. Amman remained a relatively compact city in comparison to North American ones. Places of work and places of residence have been located relatively close to each other. However, as Amman began its latest wave of phenomenal growth during the 1990s, this has begun to change.

Even before Amman’s tremendous recent expansion, we also have to keep in mind that not all those who work in Amman live in it. I am thinking of the thousands of people who live in Zarqa because housing is more affordable there, but work in Amman, where work opportunities are more abundant. They have to go through the agonizing daily commute between the two cities. Many do so as passengers in ‘Coaster’ buses with their notoriously reckless drivers along the visually blighted 25-kilometer Amman – Zarqa Highway. It is an incredibly stressful experience, and no one should have to go through it.

Fortunately, some positive developments are taking place in Zarqa. The first is the Amman – Zarqa light rail line. The project is greatly overdue. There have been efforts at realizing this line before, but they were unsuccessful. This time around, it seems there is considerable seriousness about implementing it. Such a rail link will help reduce congestion along the Zarqa – Amman Highway, and will make the daily commute between the two cities a far easier, more comfortable, and less stressful experience than traveling by bus or automobile.

The other positive development affecting Zarqa and its dependent relation to Amman is the Madinat al-Sharq urban development project. The project is located on the old Zarqa army camp. The camp was vacated only a few years ago, and the area is being developed by the government-owned company Mawared as a multi-use urban center. The plan is for Madinat al-Sharq to cover an area of 2,500 hectares and support a population of 500,000 people by 2025. It will significantly increase the housing stock in Zarqa for various income groups. Equally important is that the project will include significant commercial zones with office and retail space. All this will create considerable job opportunities in Zarqa, and will allow an increasing number of people to both live and work there, rather than to have to live in Zarqa and work in Amman, and to go through the agonizing daily commute between the two cities.

As an exercise in wishful thinking, I suggest that a third project be added to these two, which is to create a green belt between Amman and Zarqa. This would prevent urban sprawl from linking the two cities, and would guard the autonomy of each. It also would create a green lung between Amman’s two major centers of urban population instead of the visual blight that currently characterizes a good part of that stretch. If these various projects come to a successful fruition, we will see a reversal in the deterioration of the quality of urban life in Zarqa, which probably is Jordan’s most overburdened urban center.

While there is room for optimism regarding Zarqa, developments relating to the daily commute within Amman and its suburban expansions are not at all encouraging. In addition to the gridlock traffic from which a growing number of streets in Amman suffer, commuting distances in the city are increasing at a disturbing rate.

An example of this is the massive housing developments that are mushrooming along Airport Road. In these projects, the North American model of suburban development is beginning to take root in Amman. Housing is becoming excessively expensive in the more centrally-located areas of Amman. The price of apartments has risen drastically over the past few years, and the single-family house, or what Ammanis refer to as the “villa,” has become a luxury that only the most affluent can afford. Housing developers understandably are moving in to address the situation, and are offering various types of housing at more affordable prices, but housing that also is located at considerable distances from Amman, primarily along Airport Road.

Airport Road already is a heavily congested artery, which not only connects Amman to the airport, but also functions as part of a main north-south highway that crosses all of Jordan. The recent widening of a segment of Airport Road has not done much to alleviate pressure along it (remember the fundamental rule that expansions in road capacity rarely keep up with the increasing vehicular demand on roads). As those housing projects served by Airport Road will be completed, the increased traffic resulting from them will make vehicular movement along the road unbearable. The recent 23-car pileup along Airport Road is one manifestation of the traffic stress from which the road already is suffering even before the completion of these projects.

The complexities and challenges of urban life are never easy to address, and there are no magical solutions to them. Still, there always should be a strategy of positive engagement with ongoing challenges. Such a strategy should aim at diagnosing existing challenges, mapping out current trends, and devising plans for future scenarios. The housing developments being constructed along Airport Road soon will create very difficult conditions for those who need to move along the stretch of road located between them and Amman proper. Time already is running out, and there is a need to address as soon as possible the issue of accommodating movement between these housing projects and the more central parts of Amman. Otherwise, many residents of Amman will be subjected to a new major source of daily stress.

Mohammad al-Asad

February 9, 2007