City Clusters

Urban Crossroads # 119

 

 

In his book Who’s Your City, urbanist Richard Florida mentions that when the populations of economically vibrant cities grow, their economies grow at an even higher rate. As such cities attract more skilled people, ideas flow more extensively, interaction between economically and culturally productive people increases, and economic wealth grows more rapidly. In other words, a city of one million residents has more economic activity than ten cities of 100,000 people each.

Cities, however, can only grow so much over any period of time. If a city’s rate of growth is too fast, it will be impossible to adequately enlarge its infrastructure and general services to keep up with its growth. Only so much expansion of road, public transportation, electricity, water, and sewage networks can be carried out in a given period of time. Many developing-world cities where population growth has gotten out of control are facing this problem. They essentially have become unmanageable.

Florida refers to another manner through which cities can expand the pool of skills needed for economic growth. Cities that are situated relatively close to each other can develop stronger connections. Together, they can form a mega-region that consists of a city cluster.

Such cities do not, and should not, become physically connected. Otherwise, the result is a seemingly endless megalopolis with no clear beginning or end. It would be an overwhelming urban conglomerate where it is extremely difficult for a sense of belonging or community to evolve, and where movement from one part of the city to the other becomes nightmarish. Each city in such mega-regions therefore should maintain its borders and identity as well as a degree of autonomy while fostering closer relations with the region’s other cities.

Florida points out a number of such city clusters that function as main engines of global economic activity. The world’s largest is that extending from Tokyo to Osaka in Japan. In the United States, the most notable cluster includes Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. In Europe, the largest is the Dutch-Belgian cluster that includes Amsterdam, Brussels and Antwerp. New important clusters are emerging outside the Western world such as that including Shanghai, Nanking, and Hangzhou in China, and that including Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo in Brazil. Each of these clusters can house tens of millions of people, with economies that can reach hundreds of billions - if not trillions - of dollars. Most are located within one country, but a good number of cross-border city clusters also exists.

How about this part of the world? For Jordan, any mega-region of cities would most naturally extend across the countries of Greater Syria, or what is known in Arabic as Bilad Al Sham (Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria). Bilad Al Sham historically had been one region, and moreover was part of larger political entities such as the Ottoman Empire, and before it, the Mamluk one.

The countries of Bilad Al Sham would form what may be referred to as a first "circle" of economic integration. An expansion of this circle of integration would include Iraq to the east, Saudi Arabia and the other countries of the Arabian Peninsula to the south, Egypt to the west, and Turkey to the north.

While one would assume that the geography and history of this part of the world would make such economic integration instinctive, political conditions greatly complicate things. The Arab-Israeli conflict continues to be a major destabilising factor in the region. Moreover, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and Iraq are undergoing different internal political challenges, and it will be some time before these challenges are overcome. In addition, the countries of the region have differing political and economic systems and legislative frameworks. All this makes integration very difficult to accomplish.

However, if the countries of the region are to achieve significant levels of economic development and sustainability, higher levels of integration is not an option, but a necessity. The economies of most of the region’s individual countries are too small, and they cannot achieve meaningful growth and sustainability without free access to outside markets, particularly those of their neighbours.

The closest model for achieving such economic integration in the region is the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. These are primarily wealthy oil-exporting countries, but their economies nonetheless have benefited tremendously from the arrangement of relatively open borders that the GCC has afforded them. The producers of goods and services in any of them have relatively free access to the markets of all the others. As a result, a city cluster is emerging along the Arabian Gulf that includes Kuwait City, Dammam, Dhahran, Manama, Doha, and Muscat. Another cluster includes Jeddah, Medina, and Mecca in western Saudi Arabia.

In which formation of city clusters would Amman best fit? The most natural one would concentrate on Bilad Al Sham’s primary economic centres. These include Damascus, Aleppo, Beirut, and the main closely situated cities of the West Bank, such as Jerusalem, Ramallah, Nablus, and Hebron. Beyond this immediate circle of cities, Amman may also be part of other larger clusters. In case Jordan is ever admitted to the Gulf Cooperation Council, it will be drawn into the city clusters emerging there. If Egypt manages to reestablish itself as a primary regional economic, cultural, and political force, Cairo will emerge as a nucleus for a city cluster to which Amman very likely will be attracted. Whenever conditions in Iraq stabilise, Baghdad may emerge as yet another centre for a city cluster that includes Amman. Taking current political and economic developments into consideration, however, it is very likely that Istanbul will form the main centre of the cluster to which Amman and the primary cities of Bilad Al Sham will be drawn over the coming years.

In all cases, it is important to note that whenever barriers are brought down between two countries, people, goods, services, and ideas flow as easily as water, even across relatively long distances. A good example of this is the relation that has recently been evolving between Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. Since visa requirements have been waived between them, interaction among their main economic centres, i.e. Amman, Beirut and Istanbul, has risen drastically. One indication of this has been the increase in the number of daily flights between them. Syria was also part of this new arrangement until the ongoing popular uprisings against the regime there began a few months ago.

The economic sustainability of Jordan will, to a great deal, depend on the emergence in the region of cross-national city clusters in which Amman is a node. If this is not realised, it will be difficult to achieve any meaningful long-term economic growth.

Mohammad al-Asad

August 04, 2011

 

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