Amman's Urban Fabric: What Went Wrong?
Urban Crossroads #29

                     Sharif Hussein bin Ali Street at night. (The Jordan Times)

                     Sharif Hussein bin Ali Street at night. (The Jordan Times)

My recent article "Sweifieh: A case of urban deterioration" raised more interest than I had expected. The feedback I received brought up two inquiries. The first asks for explanations as to why the quality of Amman's urban fabric has deteriorated over the past three decades. The second asks what solutions may be presented to upgrade a district such as Sweifieh.

Neither inquiry is easy to answer. I will devote this article to responding to the first inquiry, and will deal with "solutions" in the upcoming article or two. In attempting to identify what went wrong in the evolution of Amman's urban fabric over the past three decades, I should emphasize that my diagnosis is preliminary, and in some cases conjectural. A problem one faces when attempting to understand the physical evolution of Amman is that research on the subject is still in its infancy. We therefore know relatively little about the choices that decision-makers made regarding this issue, from the time modern Amman was first inhabited during the second half of the nineteenth century until the middle of the twentieth century, if not later.

There are a number of reasons why the quality of Amman's urban fabric has declined over the past three decades or so, and I would like to emphasize two of them. One reason relates to the extremely rapid growth of the city. A quarter of a century ago, in 1979, the population of Amman had increased to about 625,000 people, which remained a relatively manageable size for a city. Since then, the population has multiplied over three times to currently reach about two million people. This mainly has been the result of natural growth and migration, but also a result of establishing the Greater Amman Municipality in 1987, which merged a number of small surrounding towns with the capital. The rate of Amman's growth has been high since the 1920s, and has included sudden dramatic surges resulting from regional turmoil as in 1948, 1967, and 1990. Its overall size remained manageable during much of this period. However, as its population has approached two million inhabitants, this no longer is the case.

In addition, the rate of automobile ownership in Amman has been increasing faster than its population growth rate. Amman today probably has no less than one motor vehicle for every seven residents. This places considerable pressure on the city's streets. Some of these streets no longer are able to accommodate the volume of vehicles passing through them and those parking along them. The number of motor vehicles will continue to increase, but the capacity of the city's streets to accommodate motor vehicles will not.

A related factor that has affected the quality of Amman's urban fabric is related to the principles of Modernist urban design and planning that emerged during the 1920s and took hold in many parts of the world between the 1950s and 1970s. There often is a lag that may extend up to a couple of decades between the time that international trends emerge in their countries of origin and when they reach a developing-world country such as Jordan. This lag is the result of a number of factors, one of them being that such trends influence members of the younger generation in the developing world, usually students who studied either abroad or at local institutions, and it takes some time before any of these students assumes decision-making positions in their countries that enable them to implement these trends. The importation of such trends into the developing-world context also often involves a level of misrepresentation and a degree of inefficiency in their implementation. This is related to the fact that these trends either are not fully understood or are not necessarily applicable within the importing context. The extent of such misrepresentation and inefficiency in implementation depends on the competence (or incompetence) of the local professionals and academics involved in the importation, dissemination, and implementation of those trends.

In any case, Modernist planning has had its share of destructive consequences. It gave predominance to the automobile and viewed compact traditional urban fabrics as regressive, impractical, unappealing, and unhealthy. Consequently, wide express thoroughfares were cut through the city like scars. Preexisting urban fabrics were razed to make place for these thoroughfares and also for multi-story building blocks surrounded by open spaces, a good part of which consist of parking lots. The thoroughfares decimated neighborhoods and cut off neighboring houses, shops, and offices from each other. They also encouraged the haphazard sprawl of the city, eating up independent towns and agricultural areas, and creating urban wastelands in the process. Between the thoroughfares and the parking lots, a good part of the city was transformed into expansive desolate tracts of asphalt.

An extensive revision of such practices has been taking place in many parts of the world over the past three decades. This revision aims at finding a compromise between the increasing dependence on the automobile and the importance of maintaining and creating human-scaled, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood-based communities. In spite of this revision, principles related to Modernist planning still seem to be going strong in Amman, even though such principles may not always be fully understood or efficiently implemented. Planning decisions in Amman give priority to the automobile over the pedestrian, and the separation between the two often is not available. A major manifestation of this has included thoroughfares that cut through existing urban fabrics and encourage urban sprawl. These thoroughfares also have resulted in a weakening of neighborhood-based communities and a marginalization of pedestrian life. Before the 1970s, the private automobile was not predominant in Amman, and urban planning decisions did not cater to its every need. I still do not know nearly enough about those who were responsible for the making of Amman's urban fabric in the past. However, and at the risk of sounding overly nostalgic, I believe we have much to learn from them.

Mohammad al-Asad

December 30, 2004