Zoning
Urban Crossroads#4

 A multiuse neighborhood in Aix-en-Provence, France that houses shopping, residential, and office functions. (Mohammad al-Asad)

A multiuse neighborhood in Aix-en-Provence, France that houses shopping, residential, and office functions. (Mohammad al-Asad)

Zoning policies define admissible land uses in the city. The main idea behind zoning is the separation of incompatible activities. Among other things, it aims at preventing nightmare scenarios such as having a chemical factory located next to a kindergarten.

Classic single-use zoning practices are based on placing differing activities in separate parts of the city. Therefore, the city would have areas designated almost exclusively as residential, commercial, industrial, cultural, institutional, ... etc. The logic behind single-use zoning is that certain activities cause considerable traffic, pollution, or noise, and therefore should be kept away from ones that do not.

However, single-use zoning policies, although still predominant, have come under considerable criticism. They result in having sections of the city being used only during certain hours. For example, residential areas would become almost deserted during much of the day as most of their inhabitants go off to work or school. On the other hand, areas primarily consisting of offices would become deserted by the evening, when people return to their homes. Also, single-use zoning creates zones that are at a distance from each other, and as a result, considerable time and fuel is spent as people drive or are being driven from one zone to the other.

Multi-use zoning has been put forward as a healthier alternative for the city. Accordingly, different activities are allowed to exist in the same area, provided certain requirements are met, which is why multi-use zoning also may be referred to as "performance zoning." For example, a commercial enterprise would be allowed in a residential area as long as it satisfies certain -often strict - requirements such as providing enough off-street parking, and not causing high levels of pollution or noise. Such establishments also may be required to make improvements in their area, such as planting trees in the vicinity and ensuring the cleanliness of the streets and sidewalks around them.

A favorite example among planners of mixed-use zoning is the building with shops at street level, and offices and apartments above. Such an arrangement is very common in cities throughout the world. In Amman, it was common to have buildings in the downtown area that combined shops and apartments. Another example is Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I lived for a number of years, specifically in an apartment that contained offices and apartments. Because of such a compact arrangement of activities in the city, just about all of one's needs are located within walking distance. Therefore, I was able to easily walk to classes, to work, and also to shopping, cultural, and recreational facilities. This arrangement also creates an urban setting that is continuously lively and inhabited, and one would find people walking along the streets from early morning to late at night.

In Amman, the ideal among policy makers seems to be single-use zoning. We therefore are presented with areas that are zoned as residential, commercial, industrial, ... etc. Of course, for one reason or the other, this system is not always well implemented, and one regularly comes across conspicuous exceptions. For example, the immediate residential area in which I live includes a sizable computer-teaching center and a banquet hall (primarily used for weddings). Still, I would argue that these activities, although not supposed to be there according to single-use zoning practices, are not as intrusive to a residential area as one might expect. True, both establishments bring considerable traffic and cause parking problems for their immediate neighbors. Also, a disturbing amount of noise (cars honking and music playing) accompanies each wedding at its beginning and its end (which usually is after midnight). However, the banquet hall is sound proofed, and once the wedding guests are inside the building, we as neighbors do not hear the incredibly loud music that usually accompanies weddings and celebrations in Amman. In fact, both the teaching center and banquet hall can be accommodated within the neighborhood without negatively influencing the quality of life in it, assuming strict performance standards affecting parking and noise are applied. Moreover, if these establishments are required to carry out the improvements mentioned above, such as planting trees and cleaning their surroundings, they even might become a welcomed, rather than barely tolerated, component of the neighborhood.

Interestingly enough, the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA) is exploring possibilities for multi-use zoning. For example, ASEZA has developed ordinances that allow establishing home-based businesses, but subjects them to specific performance standards. Therefore, homes hosting businesses are prohibited from displaying large signs. Also, businesses involving considerable service or retail activity are not allowed. Such zoning ordinances are a very positive development, and make it possible for a number of working people such as computer programmers, artists, accountants, and various consultants and professionals to officially work from their homes. This means they would save on rent. They also would be able work while staying with, and taking care of, loved ones such as children or older parents. In addition, people working out of their homes contribute to easing traffic congestion problems, much of which are caused by those commuting from and to work.

Mohammad al-Asad

May 6, 2004