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Cities of the 21st Century

The political economy of urban sustainability

I designed a module in an existing course to help students adopt a more critical perspective about social sustainability. Specifically, I wanted 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.

Note: Content adapted from curricular project


The module on social sustainability was designed for use in a senior-level capstone seminar in geography and cognate disciplines, including environmental studies. (See Resources & Materials for syllabus.)

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.


Updated Feb 24, 2017

Content/Concepts Goals

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.

Higher Order Thinking Skills Goals

  • 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.

Multidisciplinary Analysis

An overall goal of the course is to frame sustainability as a perspective and set of analytical tools that are useful for high-stakes problem solving – 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. Learners will experience how problem-solving abilities are enhanced when analysts bring multiple disciplinary perspectives together and think about problems across multiple angles.

Other Skills Goals 

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

Dissemination Strategies

Teaching notes

The discussion may also be initiated with a refresher about social sustainability and the planner’s triangle. (See the PowerPoint in Resources & Materials). In addition, instructors should prepare to remind learners about the concerns of Jordan’s political leadership and help learners connect sustainability concerns – including economic, environmental, social, and political regime – in contemporary Jordan with the historical patterns that Butzer observed in the larger region in antiquity.

Instructors should help learners see the tension between regime sustainability, economic development, and environmental quality. Instructors should also have learners discuss the ways in which tradeoffs in the near term (economic development priorities and regime sustainability over the environment) could change over the long term (environmental quality and regime sustainability over austerity and retrenchment). 

Guided reflection of discussion (Day 2 – 90 minutes)

See “Sustainability ranking game” for descriptions of the ranking game thought experiment and the steps to discuss and debrief the exercise.

Learners should take 10-15 minutes to read the exercise directions and answer questions 1-4 individually. Learners should then work in groups of three-four to discuss these questions over the next 35-45 minutes. The remaining time should be used to compare rankings across groups, discussion the results, and debrief the exercise.

Resources and Materials

GEO 488-02 Cities of the 21st Century Seminar Syllabus

Social Sustainability PowerPoint

Instructor Readings

In addition to the assigned readings, it is recommended that instructors familiarize themselves with the evolution of Jordan’s economy and recent urban development trends in Amman and the Abdali project. The following resources provide helpful overviews of these topics:

Chatelard, G. (2010). Jordan: A Refugee Haven.  

Parker, C. (2009). Tunnel-bypasses and minarets of capitalism: Amman as neoliberal assemblage. Political Geography 28: 110-120.

Schwedler, J. (2012). The political geography of protest in neoliberal Jordan. Political Geography 21(3): 259-270.

Abdali website 

Prerequisite Concepts

Learners should already be familiar with the concepts of “the planner’s triangle” and “social sustainability.” The following articles provide helpful introductions to these concepts:

Campbell, S. (1996): Green Cities, Growing Cities, Just Cities?: Urban Planning and the Contradictions of Sustainable DevelopmentJournal of the American Planning Association, 62:3, 296-312.

Vallance, S., Perkins, H., and Dixon, J. (2011). What is social sustainability? A clarification of conceptsGeoforum 42: 342–348.

Assigned Readings

The module hinges on completing three 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. These readings are:

Butzer, K. (2012). Collapse, environment, and societyProceedings 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 AmmanUrban Environment 7: 99-115.

Goldberg, J. (2013). The modern king in the Arab SpringThe Atlantic (April) 

Discussion Guide

Guided discussion of readings (Day 1: 90 minutes) with questions that prompt exploration of and connections between these readings.

Abdali Case Feedback

Research Paper Rubric


Outcomes and Significance

Student learning can be evaluated in three steps:

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 (see Resources & Materials). 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 (see Resources & Materials). Responses can 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 an 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 (see Resources & Materials) can be used to evaluate the work and assess how well learners engage in multidisciplinary thinking (modeled in the Abdali case study) to frame and evaluate their independent research question.


Lead Partner
Dan Trudeau
Associate Professor, Macalester College
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