As Amman experiences the most dramatic growth spurt in its history, it would be a good idea for the city’s decision-makers and developers to take a close look at the extensive discourse available on the urban planning concept known as ‘smart growth’ (there even is sizable and highly informative web site devoted to it: www.smartgrowth.org). As the name indicates, this concept is not against growth; it accepts growth, but puts forward strategies for harnessing it as a positive force. What smart growth is against is urban sprawl, the cancerous, low-density, chaotic expansion of the city into the adjacent countryside. In addition to resulting in visual blight, urban sprawl overstretches infrastructure services and results in un-integrated and even contradictory land-use patterns.
Smart growth acknowledges that cities grow, and that during economic booms they grow at overwhelming rates. If appropriate steps are taken, that growth does not have to be detrimental to the quality of life and sustainability of the city, but can be a source of positive change. Smart growth emphasizes investing in the existing built-up parts of the city, and expanding upon them, rather than spreading horizontally beyond them. Smart growth stresses pedestrian access and the use of public transportation. It promotes mixed-use zones that bring together residential, office, retail, and cultural spaces within proximity to each other. Smart growth calls for preserving open spaces, whether parks, plazas, or even agricultural patches of land, both inside and outside the city, and accommodates growth by increasing densities in already developed areas, thus taking advantage of preexisting infrastructure services, and avoiding the disruptions caused by bringing about drastic changes to the character of older neighborhoods.
Smart growth calls for providing a wide range of housing types to meet the demands of diverse residents: senior citizens, young families, people who work from their homes, those who need subsidized housing, etc. It emphasizes allowing existing neighborhoods to increase the available housing supply through accommodating higher building densities and encouraging infill developments.
Smart growth celebrates the vibrancy of the “24-hour” city, where people live, students go to school, and residents frequent shops, restaurants, and cultural facilities without having to travel long distances, and without having to succumb to the domination of the automobile, but through diverse systems of movement that include sidewalks, bike paths, as well as public transportation systems, whether light-rail, buses, or smaller service-cars or vans.
Achieving all of this depends on the involvement of communities in the decision-making processes that determine the character of their neighborhoods and the directions they are taking. In spite of the difficulties and complexities involved in putting together mechanisms that allow for effective community participation, sidestepping them will lead to dysfunctional neighborhoods, communities, and, by extension, cities.
Smart growth is sensitive to the needs and expectations of the business community. Cities will not advance much if private investors shy away from allocating resources for urban improvement and development. Investors clearly have obligations towards the communities and societies in which they function. However, they need to make a profit, and therefore should be able to function within a setting that allows them to do so.
The obligation of the authorities here are two-fold. The first is to provide the necessary infrastructure services, from electricity, water, and waste disposal networks, to laying out streets and putting in place public transportation systems. Funds to carry this out would be made available from taxes collected, but it also is not uncommon for developers to make significant contributions to the construction of such infrastructure when their projects are to benefit from it directly.
The second responsibility for the authorities is to provide an efficient and transparent environment in which investors may function, as with the revue of permit applications. Such a commitment should apply to all investors, big and small, as well as the connected and the not-so-well connected. Amongst other things, this means that regulations should be clear, and there should be no tolerance for arbitrary decisions or for public-sector employees who view the exercise of authority through hindrance rather than facilitation.
Growth is a double-edged sword. In the short term, it will bring economic opportunities that raise the income of considerable segments of the population. However, in the long run, it may be unsustainable, and some growth spurts may end up as no more than speculative activities and bubbles that burst and consequently bring down in the process many businesses and individuals belonging to both the affluent and limited-income segments of society. Growth also may result in chaotic and unregulated development that undermines the quality of life in the city through increased pollution, traffic congestion, and over-crowdedness. Such unregulated growth eventually discourages new investment from coming to the city, and even may prompt residents and investors who can leave the city to do so.
As Amman undergoes this period of unprecedented growth, all efforts need to be made to ensure that such growth is sustainable, and that it will improve the quality of life for the population as a whole. Such growth inevitably brings with it opportunities that need to be seized, but also challenges that need to be addressed. However, as Amman undergoes this phenomenal growth, we should keep in mind that it is not on its own, and that it can examine and learn from the wealth of experiences accumulated by so many other cities throughout the world. The results of many of those experiences have been distilled into concepts such as smart growth. The question is whether decision-makers and developers in Amman will learn from the experiences and the mistakes of others, or will Amman end up going through the unfortunate and painful experience of having to learn from its own mistakes?
November 7, 2006