Urban Sprawl
Urban Crossroads#3

I have heard from more than one source that a group of foreign urban planning specialists who visited Amman during the 1950s expressed concern regarding Amman's fast rate of growth. They warned that if such growth were left unchecked it would engulf a number of then independent towns and villages, such as Sweileh, Wadi al-Sir, and Jubeihah, and would destroy the agricultural land and natural landscapes located between them and Amman. Accordingly, they recommended that green belts be zoned between Amman and those towns. Obviously, their recommendations were totally ignored, and Amman succumbed to that nasty urban ailment known as urban sprawl.

Urban sprawl is defined as haphazard growth resulting from real-estate development at the outskirts of the city. It very much is a result of the automobile age. Before then a city could only grow so much before distances between its inner and outer parts became prohibitively lengthy to cover. With the advent of the automobile, "there ain't no distance long enough," and urban centers may extend almost indefinitely.

Urban sprawl often begins along the roads or highways connecting human settlements to each other and eventually creates a continuous link between them. This kind of growth is economically feasible since these roads or highways usually bring with them additional forms of infrastructure including electricity and telephone lines. However, it unfortunately also destroys the agricultural land and natural landscapes located along those roads and highways. It also eliminates the autonomy of the smaller human settlements it reaches. Urban sprawl creates a situation where independent villages, towns, and even cities are eaten up by the expanding larger city, and often results in that notorious urban monster, the megalopolis.

By the 1990s, if not earlier, Sweileh, Wadi al-Sir, and Jubeihah already were eaten up by Amman's growth. The agricultural land (which is in very short supply in Jordan) and the attractive scenery located in the area all were viscously destroyed and buried under layers of concrete and asphalt. Moreover, Sweileh and Wadi al-Seir, of which I have childhood memories as very pleasant towns to which my family would take us to buy fruits and vegetables or for picnics, are now characterless, rather shoddy satellite extensions of Amman.

It may be too late to do much about Sweileh and Wadi al-Seir. However, we urgently should address the sprawl emerging along the highways connecting Amman to nearby cities such as Salt and Madaba, both of which are less than an hour's drive from the capital. Sprawl already is eating up the sides of those highways. Of course, some will say that these cities are too far from Amman to worry about sprawl linking them to it. However, that is exactly what people said about Sweileh and Wadi al-Seir a few decades ago. If the present rapid rate of growth for Amman continues, the thought that Amman may extend to reach those cities would not be at all fanciful, and Amman may very well end up as a massive, uninviting, and unmanageable megalopolis.

The solution for preventing such a scenario is a straightforward one: designate the areas between different urban centers as green belts that serve as agricultural land or recreational parks. Certain European countries, such as The Netherlands, have successfully used greenbelts to protect their cities, towns, and villages from the horrors of urban sprawl. However, implementing this straightforward solution is not as simple as it might seem. It clearly was not implemented in certain parts of the northeastern United, where continuous built up areas extend for hundred of kilometers along the Atlantic seaboard. In Jordan, as with other places, owners of real estate naturally resist any restrictions on what they view as their freedom to develop that real estate in the manner they see fit. A piece of agricultural land is worth much less than an equivalent one that is divided up and zoned for residential, commercial, or industrial uses. It is an issue of financial gain, and human nature unfortunately more often that not gives preference to private gain over public good. However, the relevant officials and the public should resist such unrestricted development, which unfortunately is what is taking place in Jordan. The solution might begin with raising awareness and initiating public debate about urban sprawl. However, we do not have much time, and within a couple of decades, there might not be much land around Amman to protect.

Mohammad al-Asad

April 29, 2004