Climate change and urban growth, political tensions and a global pandemic on top – how can cities respond and take action towards a more sustainable future? Dr Deyala Tarawneh offers insights from Amman.
Urban resilience, the “measurable ability of any urban system (…) to maintain continuity through all shocks and stresses, while (…) transforming toward sustainability” is increasingly becoming a shared global appeal, and the Kingdom of Jordan is no exception. Rapid urbanisation, climate change, political tensions, and pandemics are key impediments to urban resilience. Through the lens of these four dimensions, this article sheds light on Jordan’s attempt to increase its urban resilience in the near future.
Today, more people than ever live in urban areas, and by 2050, the world’s urban population is expected to double its current size. Thus, city leaders must move quickly to plan for growth and provide the basic services, infrastructure, and affordable housing for their expanding population needs. Some of the challenges this speed and scale of urbanisation bring about are accelerated demands for affordable housing, well-connected transport systems and other infrastructure, basic services, as well as jobs. For the 91.5 per cent of Jordan’s 10 million inhabitants living in cities, these challenges will remain the foci to arrive at improved urban resilience.
According to the Urban Climate Change Research Network’s (UCCRN) report The Future We Don’t Want, many cities in the Middle East will experience extreme heat. By 2050, the number of exposed cities in the region is expected to increase significantly, with hundreds of more cities at risk. Growing urban populations in these regions are partially responsible for this increase. Furthermore, the global water demand is also expected to increase by 55 per cent, and these projections put a considerable strain on existing water resources. Climate change will aggravate the problem dramatically and findings show that urban areas of the Middle East will be particularly vulnerable to reduced stream flows by 2050.
Globally, conflicts are on the rise, and 60 per cent of forcibly displaced people are living in urban areas. In Jordan, the situation is particularly amplified. Recent immigration fluxes as a result of conflicts in the region constitute a pressing challenge for the country, particularly due to the Syrian crisis, with people settling in camps and cities. With refugees and asylum seekers from 41 countries making up almost a third of Jordan’s total population (2.9 million) as of 2017, the demand for improved living conditions persists.
The Threat of Pandemics
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to test cities’ resilience on all dimensions including public health, economy, and the social fabric. How cities are planned and managed has a great impact on the extent to which cities can function, especially during such times. The spread of COVID-19 has made populations’ health and livelihood more vulnerable – effective urban governance is an essential tool in diminishing these negative effects.
Telling Stories Towards a More Resilient Amman
A resilient city is one that “assesses, plans and acts to prepare for and respond to all hazards, expected or unexpected” and thus is “better able to protect and enhance people’s lives (…) and drive positive change”. Amman should ensure that it is telling stories of positive urban initiatives as an important tool to increase commitment to resilient actions.
Numerous initiatives showcase these kinds of stories, such as the Zikra initiative for popular learning, which emphasises the idea of “exchange to change”. Their current urban agriculture initiative looks into claiming abandoned segments of Amman towards achieving food security.
Harra initiative is another example that calls on public participation as a comprehensive, bottom-up approach to address community issues, incorporating local knowledge and strengthening urban fabric bonds.
Managing Urbanisation for Resilience
Also, programmes such as the City Resilience Program (CRP), aimed at increasing financing for urban resilience, are valuable: by catalysing a long-term shift, by providing multi-disciplinary packages of technical and financial services, and by constituting the pipeline for viable projects at the city level that, in turn, build resilience.
Lastly, and despite the above-mentioned, a silver lining can be found through shocks and stresses – and this, in a nutshell, is the core of urban resilience. Although rapid urbanisation is a problematic contributor to urban decay, more than 80 per cent of the global GDP is produced in cities, and this means that urbanisation can and should contribute to sustainable growth if managed properly.
For example, the Amman Resilience Strategy highlights that Amman remains one of the top-visited cities in the region and also a popular destination for medical tourism. Furthermore, it has a strong banking industry, and its municipality is financially independent, with a large percentage of its revenues self-generated through service taxes, fees, and investment projects. Decision-makers need to develop strategies for how all residents of Amman can benefit from such economic developments, namely those who are currently unemployed and/or competing over low-paid, casual work in the informal sector.
A shift to sustainable urbanisation is key to successful development, and as a result, resilient cities. This should include the promotion of successful urban growth management. The Comprehensive Climate Plans report (2020) as well as the Amman Climate Plan: A Vision for 2050 Amman outline Amman’s plan to tackle insufficient land use and the cost of imported energy, new housing, and expanded infrastructure, Amman being the first Arab city to adopt such a plan.
Sustainable urbanisation should also be informed by an understanding of long-term population trends, allowing to maximise the benefits of agglomeration while minimising environmental degradation and other potential adverse impacts of increasing urban populations. The aforementioned documents highlight how Amman has utilised urban growth scenarios to prove that densification and improved public transport would allow the city to absorb its population increase by 2030 within the current built-up areas, thus reducing building and transport greenhouse gas emissions.
Sustainable urbanisation has to ensure that the benefits of urbanisation are shared and that no one is left behind, through policies that manage urban growth and ensure access to infrastructure and social services for all, with a special focus on the needs of the urban poor and other vulnerable groups.