Urban Crossroads #11
Up to the 1970s, it was very common for people in Amman to build freestanding, one-story, single-family houses. Such houses most often would later be expanded vertically to reach two or three stories. The owner of the house would build these additions for the use of his or her children (usually sons) for when they grow up and have their own families, or to rent out as a source of additional income.
During the late-1970s, the apartment building emerged as a more prominent residential building type in Amman. By the 1990s it became the predominant building type. In fact, of the 2.18 million square meters of construction permits granted in Jordan during the first four months of this year, 1.8 million square meters were for apartment buildings.
Current zoning regulations for apartment buildings allow the construction of four stories. However, if the building is located on a sloping site and a street borders the higher part of the site, one may have as many stories as the slope allows. The only requirement is that the building does not include more than four stories along its higher part. The construction of apartment buildings is allowed in most parts of Amman, and is prohibited only in a very limited number of areas in the city. Not surprisingly, land values in such areas are prohibitively high. Simple economics therefore have resulted in the apartment building taking over the city. Meanwhile, the single-family structure now has become beyond the reach of the vast majority of Amman's residents, including many well-off ones. This is a clear reversal of the situation that existed about thirty years ago.
The impact of the spread of the apartment building has been tremendous on Amman. It definitely has raised the density of habitation in the city. The typical four-story apartment building, which usually includes two apartments on each floor, will have about eight families inhabiting it. Of course, there are the more luxurious apartment buildings with one apartment per floor, but there also are apartment buildings that have additional living units because of their location on a sloping site. Many apartment occupants, especially in western Amman, have cars, and the construction of each additional apartment building puts further pressure on the movement of traffic in adjacent streets and on the availability of parking spaces. Also important is that with the exception of ground floor apartments, the inhabitants of apartment buildings do not have access to gardens. At the same time, apartment buildings in Amman are too small to support communal open recreational spaces. The problem is exasperated by the fact that Amman still suffers from a shortage of public neighborhood parks.
The social dimension of apartment living is significant. In the pre-existing arrangement of the single-family house that was expanded to include one or more additional residential units, the extra units would be used by family members or would be rented out to tenants chosen by the owner, who usually would continue to live in the building. In contrast, today's apartment buildings mainly are built by developers, who sell the apartments to disparate owners. These owners have nothing in common amongst each other except for the financial ability to buy the apartments. Consequently, these apartment buildings often are characterized by very little, if any, social cohesion.
One consequence of this lack of social cohesion is that many occupants of apartment buildings feel very little responsibility towards the building and its other inhabitants. Occupants of an apartment building usually form an apartment committee and pay service fees determined by the committee to cover issues relating to maintenance, cleaning, and security. However, one regularly comes across stories of occupants who attempt to get out of paying those fees. Even worse, there are occupants who simply are inconsiderate - if not outright rude - to their neighbors. They turn up the music to unbearable levels or leave their garbage in the stairwell.
The stairwell has become the space that brings together and amplifies the problems of contemporary apartment living in Amman. It is the only "public space" in the apartment building, the zone that is owned and shared by all. However, it also is a sort of "no-man's zone" that the occupants use but nonetheless shun as an area that requires their care and attention.
An increasing number of people in Amman live in apartment buildings because that is what they can afford rather than because that is what they want. Since they do not choose to live in apartment buildings, it generally is agreed upon in Amman that fortunate apartment dwellers are those who live in buildings where most of the inhabitants are expatriates living abroad, and therefore only use their apartments a couple of months each year. In other words, the perfect apartment building is one with as few neighbors as possible.
There definitely is a need to give people choice in deciding whether to live in an apartment building or a single-family house. This would be achieved by zoning more areas in Amman that are reserved for expandable single-family houses, rather than apartment buildings, and making these areas more affordable to different income groups (which will happen if there is a considerable increase in the supply of such areas). However, we also have to come to terms with the fact that the apartment building is an integral part of any urban center, and that the inhabitants of Amman increasingly have become inhabitants of apartment buildings. Although most people in Amman find themselves having to live in apartment buildings, prevailing local social norms - which emphasize direct and extended familial bonds over other types of social relationships - still are not conducive to this type of living. Part of the solution to the problems of apartment living in Amman accordingly may be found in applying new design approaches. For example, designers should aim at providing as many apartment units as possible with separate entrances. They also may consider incorporating stairwells that are open to the outdoors and therefore bring in fresh air to these otherwise stale and stuffy spaces. There also is the issue of size. If developers work on a larger scale and construct buildings with a much larger number of units, or construct a number of buildings in proximity to each other instead of a single building, the resulting economies of scale will make it possible to provide various amenities such as recreational facilities, as well as effective management services that cover issues including cleaning, maintenance, and security.
While better design and planning solutions may bring about improvements in the quality of apartments, the nature of life in apartment buildings is determined at the end by social patterns of behavior. Apartment living is about strangers having to live in very close proximity to each other; about having to share parts of the building with each other; and about cooperating, working together, and pooling resources. Only through coming to terms with these issues would it be possible for apartment living in Amman to become an acceptable, and hopefully a positive, experience.
July 8, 2004