We all have clear opinions about the quality of life in our neighborhoods. A main challenge is how to quantify that quality of life.
Let me begin by defining what makes a neighborhood in terms of area. There is no single definition for a neighborhood. For some, it is no more than a stretch of the street on which they live. For others, it is much larger than that. The largest extent of a neighborhood is the area around your home that you feel is generally familiar and easily accessible to you. This often consists of an imaginary circle with a diameter of about one kilometer, with your home as its center. A kilometer is a distance that many people feel comfortable walking and for which they do not feel the need for using a means of transportation. It should be noted, however, that one kilometer often is longer than the distance that most people feel comfortable walking in Amman. This is because of the various impediments to pedestrians that exist in the city, such as dysfunctional or non-existent sidewalks and heavily-trafficked streets that are difficult or impossible to cross.
So how do we assess the quality of life in such an area that can occupy as much as three square kilometers? On a most basic level, people need essential services relating to running water, sewage disposal, electricity, and garbage collection. Equally important is protection from violence, criminal and otherwise. If these services and such protection are not available, urban life simply collapses.
Once these basic services are provided, the quality of life in a neighborhood essentially depends on zoning and land use policies, and on how effectively and efficiently these policies are implemented. Zoning and land use policies determine the density that exists in the neighborhood. This translates into how much of the neighborhood is built up and how much consists of open spaces or of streets. For the built-up areas, these policies determine how large a building may be in terms of footprint and height. Zoning and land use policies also determine the uses that are allowed in the neighborhood’s buildings and spaces.
If a neighborhood is cut up by high-volume, high-speed roads, daily life in it can easily become nightmarish and unsafe. Also, if a neighborhood cannot accommodate the cars that end up parking along its streets, this will be a cause of considerable congestion that translates into stress and tension for its residents.
Planners are increasingly calling for regulations that allow for relatively high building densities and for mixed uses. It is more efficient to provide infrastructure services for a relatively large number of people located in a small area than for the same number of people if they are spread over a larger area. Also, high density arrangements mean that people need to travel shorter distances than in low density areas. Different facilities that city residents need are then situated close to where they live, and can be reached on foot. These include shops, restaurants, health clinics, places of work, places of worship, places of recreation, schools ….
To benefit from this proximity, it is important that people can walk safely and comfortably through their neighborhoods. This translates into the need for good quality sidewalks as well as safe and comfortable street crossings.
Of course, there is a limit to how much density a neighborhood can handle, and there are uses that simply cannot be mixed. Too much density can mean that a neighborhood’s infrastructure services will be overwhelmed and that too many people will be squeezed in a given area for comfort. Too much density can mean that available water, sewage, and electricity services will not be able to adequately serve everybody, that garbage cannot be collected efficiently, and that streets cannot accommodate the pedestrians and vehicles that need to move through them, let alone the vehicles that need to park along them. It is still surprising how much density can be comfortably accommodated in a given area. A good example is the city state of Singapore, where over five million people live in group of islands with a total area of 710 square kilometers (less than half the area of Amman), but still enjoy an enviably high quality of life.
As for mixing uses, a chemical factory definitely should not be placed next to a kindergarten. There in fact are many functions that should not be located close to each other. Generally, tremendous care and special arrangements are needed whenever allowing any function that produces too much traffic, garbage, noise, and pollution to be placed anywhere, particularly in or close to a residential area.
Zoning and land use policies also need to guarantee a good amount of easily accessible public green open spaces. These spaces are not a luxury, particularly considering that most residents in a city such as Amman now live in apartment complexes. People need access to the outdoors for both their physical and psychological well being. Children in particular need green open spaces where they can play, meet with other children, and let out their pent-up energy.
Finally, people need to know that they have an influence over developments affecting their neighborhoods, whether these developments consist of new uses, buildings, or streets. This usually is best achieved through neighborhood organizations that allow neighborhood residents to come together and organize to discuss issues that are of importance to them, to make decisions on these issues, and to collectively communicate with city officials about them.
So, if we are to assess the quality of life in a neighborhood, we need to answer the following questions:
- Are basic services relating to security and basic hygiene provided?
- Are there decent, effectively and efficiently-implemented zoning and land use policies that determine what may be built and where it may be built?
- Do these zoning and land use policies allow for healthy densities, studied mixed uses, and open public spaces?
- Do these policies protect neighborhoods from abusive uses and behavior (e.g. uses that pollute or generate too much noise, traffic, and garbage)?
- Are residents able to come together and have a say in what happens in their neighborhoods?
If the answers to these questions are affirmative, then the ingredients for a healthy neighborhood are in place. If not, the quality of urban life will suffer, and, in some cases, may completely deteriorate.
Cities and their neighborhoods are places where people from very diverse backgrounds live close to each other. The greatest cities of the world are ones with high levels of such diversity. City residents, however, need to negotiate complex arrangements between each other that allow them to live in proximity to each other and to share the spaces of the city, while being able to maintain their ways of life. This requires both compromise and acceptance of difference by all. If too many residents end up retreating into their private worlds and ignoring the public realms of the city, or if too many residents end up imposing intrusive behavioral habits on the city and on its inhabitants, any civility that may exist in urban life falls apart and the quality of life in the city suffers. Judging from the history of cities around the world, this can happen very easily.
September 30, 2012