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Cities of the 21st Century: The Political Economy of Urban Sustainability

A Case Study of Sustainable Urban Development in Amman, Jordan

Curricular materials created for the 2015 SAIL seminar:

Sustainability on the Margins: Investigating Adaptation and Change in Jordan

This module was designed for an existing course in order to help students adopt a more critical perspective about social sustainability. Specifically for students to appreciate the ways in which social, economic, and environmental dimensions of sustainability can conflict, interact, and modify each other. The module centers on a recent and ongoing sustainable development project in Amman, Jordan, called the Abdali project. Readings on climate change, political structure in Jordan, and urban development in Amman help frame current debate about whether the development of a new downtown in Amman through the Abdali Project advances sustainability.

Students explore this debate using a conceptual framework called the “planner’s triangle,” which highlights the ways in which conflicts around the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of sustainability can emerge and be resolved. Students are also introduced to the idea of regime sustainability, which also further complicates the analysis of how economic development relates to environmental and social sustainability over the long term. The module on sustainable development in Amman concludes with a discussion following a thought exercise in which students consider the different dimensions of sustainability by ranking one against the other.

Through this module, students will:

  1. Engage in critical thinking about the multiple dimensions of sustainability;
  2. Gain experience analyzing the conflicts and complimentary aspects of the different dimensions of sustainability;
  3. Discern the ways in which their own values relate to the concepts and goals of sustainability.

*Note: Content adapted from submitted curricular project.

Social Sustainability Module

This module was designed for use in a senior-level capstone seminar in geography and cognate disciplines, including environmental studies.

In order to maximize the impact of this module on students’ learning, they should:

  • Have a firm grasp on the “three-legged stool” idea of sustainability that defines the concepts as occurring through the interaction of economic, environmental, and social considerations.
  • Have some prior exposure to real world examples of sustainable development.
  • Know the ways in which neoliberalism affects contemporary development practice.
  • Be equipped with discussion and critical thinking skills needed to produce original insights and questions through team-based case study analysis.
The module on social sustainability is positioned at the end of a sequence of activities in which students learn:
  1. Foundational definitions of sustainability, including the idea of sustainability as a three-legged stool.
  2. To use critical urban theory perspectives to analyze the ways in which sustainable urban development initiatives are influenced by political and economic interests.
  3. To use an approach, called the “planner’s triangle” to analyze the ways in which the three dimensions of sustainability may conflict in development practice.
  4. To examine the social dimension of sustainability as produced through the interplay of interests focused on redistribution and preservation of community/culture.


The module seeks to expose learners to sustainable development practice in the Middle East and use the case study of the Abdali project in Amman to think about the ways in which economic and cultural sustainability interests conflict with environmental and equity interests in the short term, but may align in the long term. The ultimate goal is for students to gain a more critical appreciation of social sustainability and its relation to sustainable development practice.

  • To understand the complexity of social sustainability and its complicated relationship to environmental and economic dimensions of sustainability.
  • To apply ideas about the multi-dimensional nature of sustainability to development practice in a geographic setting (The kingdom of Jordan) that highlights key political economic structures that are distinct from the settings in North America and Europe, which animate much of the literature on urban sustainable development.
  • To analyze the ways in which redistributive and community preservation interests (twin interests of social sustainability) can conflict and converge and thereby affect sustainable development practice.
  • To evaluate one’s own personal standpoint on which dimensions of sustainability are most important to prioritize and how different time scales affect such an evaluation.

One of the overall goals of the course is to frame sustainability as a perspective and set of analytical tools that are useful for a high-stakes problem solving endeavor – avoiding environmental collapse and ensuring that humans can continue to prosper in ways that share prosperity among human communities and between human and nonhuman species. Toward this end, I want learners to experience how problem-solving abilities are enhanced where analysts can bring together multiple disciplinary perspectives and think about problems across multiple angles.

I also want learners to begin to understand how personal values affect individual standpoints on sustainability. This necessarily complicates the problem solving endeavor for everyone involved.

Dissemination Strategies

Student Assessment

Formative Assessment

Learners provide written responses about their experience with Day 1 of the module. The prompts in the document “Abdali case feedback” may be used for such an assessment. Responses can be read against the learning goals of the module. This exercise may identify opportunities to help learners make new connections to the material or reiterate insights that align with the goals.

Module Assessment

Learners provide written responses about the entire module after Day 2. The questions in document “Learning Modules Feedback” may be used for this step. Responses can also be read against the goals for the exercise as well as the larger goals for the course in order to help understand how learners are connecting the lessons of the module with broader modes of analysis and critical discussion of sustainability. Learners should be able to indicate how the exercise engages them to think using multiple disciplines.

Summative Assessment

Learners complete a major independent research paper on a topic of their choosing, which must reflect critical thinking about sustainability and the tensions that exist among its multiple dimensions. The “Research Paper Rubric” can be used to evaluate the work and assess in particular how well learners engage in multidisciplinary thinking modeled in the Abdali case study to frame and evaluate their independent research question.

Resources & Materials

Overviews of the evolution of Jordan’s economy and recent urban development trends in Amman and the Abdali Project
Introduction to “The Planner’s Triangle” and “Social Sustainability”
  • Campbell, S. (1996): Green Cities, Growing Cities, Just Cities?: Urban Planning and the Contradictions of Sustainable Development, Journal of the American Planning Association, 62:3, 296-312.
  • Vallance, S., Perkins, H., and Dixon, J. (2011). What is social sustainability? A clarification of concepts. Geoforum 42: 342-348.
Readings to cover material on the Abdali Project; Jordan’s political system; and the history of society, political structure, and environmental change in the Middle East
  • Butzer, K. (2012). Collapse, environment, and society. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109(10): 3632-3639.
  •  Daher, R. (2013). Neoliberal urban transformations in the arab city: meta-narratives, urban disparities and the emergence of consumerist utopias and geographies of inequalities in Amman. Urban Environment 7: 99-115.
  •  Goldberg, J. (2013). The modern king in the Arab Spring. The Atlantic (April),http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/04/monarch-in-the-middle/309270/
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