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A Capital Idea?

Building a completely new Amman free of the infrastructure headaches that plague the current capital seems like an exciting proposition. But it could easily create more problems than it solves.

 Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki unveiled last month the government’s intentions to build a “new Amman” that is “not attached” to the existing capital. This new city would house several governmental institutions and would be financed in cooperation with the private sector “on the basis of build, operate, and transfer” (BOT), according to official statements.

Little details were known about the project at the time of this writing. The location hasn’t been disclosed and neither have the scale and extent. Many questions remain unanswered, and it’s not even clear whether people behind the project have those answers. The PM’s announcement mentioned that “a preliminary comprehensive design” has been completed, but subsequent statements by the government’s spokesperson indicated that this project had only been in the works for 6 months.

I am in no position to hail nor dismiss the project at this point, given the little information we have. However, I would like to raise some potential concerns that are typical of such projects, specifically from a transportation and urban planning point of view.

As traffic congestion in Amman worsened over the years, it hasn’t been uncommon to hear proposal from people calling for “spreading out” the city (what is essentially known as urban sprawl) or moving government agencies further away. Doing so, according to advocates of such an approach, would relieve pressure from other parts of Amman and reduce traffic congestion. This, as implied by recent government statements, also seems to be the official argument.

In reality, however, things don’t work out that way. The above argument is shortsighted and misses some important points.

The financial cost of sprawl could be huge. Think of the cost of building new road and transportation infrastructure to the new areas and the cost of building water and sewage networks, connecting these areas to the grid, and so on. The 2008 Amman Metropolitan Growth Plan compared a number of growth scenarios for the city for the period 2008-2025. Among the scenarios were an “expansion only” scenario in which the city would spread out and expand horizontally and an “intensification, densification, and expansion” scenario in which growth would be more concentrated within an urban envelope, with limited horizontal expansion. The plan estimated that the former scenario would require JD2.5 billion more than the latter for providing new road infrastructure. This does not include the additional cost of other infrastructure and utilities, maintenance, and so on. (The plan also estimated that the former scenario would impact around 380 sq. km of prime agricultural land more than the latter.)

Even if the government has found ways to make the new project financially feasible through an arrangement with the private sector, there are economic and environmental costs that should not be taken lightly. Urban sprawl has been proven to increase dependency on the private automobile and, in the long-term, increase travel times and cause more congestion. This translates to economic losses, higher travel costs for users, and more energy consumption. In the United States, where horizontal growth is the norm in many metropolitan areas, it is estimated, according to a study released in 2014, that urban sprawl costs the country more than $1 trillion annually! In short, urban sprawl is costly and not sustainable.

Again, the information we have on the “new Amman” is very limited, so I am not passing any judgments at this early stage. I am also not denying that horizontal expansion may be required in certain cases. However, any expansion should be limited, and it should be part of a comprehensive plan that includes densification in other areas and the development of a balanced, multimodal transportation system that emphasizes the role of public transport. It should also come—in the specific case of moving government institutions—with a digitization strategy that does away with the need for people to physically travel to these institutions to complete certain procedures.

Has the government considered these factors when planning for this new city? And has this project been compared with other alternatives that may be less costly and more sustainable in the long-run? Hopefully some answers will be forthcoming over the coming months.

* Hazem Zureiqat is a transport consultant at Engicon, a multidisciplinary engineering consulting firm based in Amman, and a founding member of Ma’an Nasel, a citizen-led public transport advocacy group. He can be reached at hz@hazem.me or on Twitter