Urban Crossroads #51
Constructing roads, parks, and buildings is relatively easy. Maintaining them is a bit more complicated. Building up the communities that inhabit and use them is an even more challenging task.
Communities in this context are groups of people with a sense of belonging, attachment, and loyalty to the neighborhoods in which they live. A neighborhood may have up to a few hundred people living in it. Its physical borders are defined by edges such as busy streets, or topographic features such as a ridge or a valley. Some urban planners define a neighborhood as consisting of a cluster of housing units located around an elementary school that students may reach without having to cross busily trafficked streets. A neighborhood also should have communal areas that are within walking distance, as with a local park or a small grouping of shops.
In Amman, neighborhood-based communities unfortunately have eroded considerably over the past three decades or so as the city has grown from a small urban center with strong neighborhood ties into a sizable impersonal metropolitan area. As a result, Amman has become a city where groups of almost complete strangers live in proximity to each other, with very little binding them together. This is not a healthy state of affairs. It leaves people with very little concern for anything that lies outside the immediate borders of their houses or apartments. This partly explains why our sidewalks most often are in a state of complete disarray. It also partly explains why although Amman generally is an extremely safe city where muggings for example almost are unknown, break-ins are relatively common. When neighbors barely know each other, it becomes easier for burglars to get into the houses of the neighborhood.
How may we begin to bring back neighborhood-based communities in Amman? Neighbors cannot be forced to become friends instead of strangers. However, there are various physical as well as policy related interventions that may promote feelings of community in a neighborhood.
A most basic ingredient for creating a sense of neighborhood is ensuring that it is pedestrian-friendly. Residents should be able to walk around their neighborhood freely and safely from vehicular traffic. This not only includes developing functional sidewalks, but also ensuring that neighborhoods are protected from through-traffic. Through-traffic scars neighborhoods. For example, I have relatives who live about a five minute walk from our house. However, none of the members of my family would even think of walking to our relatives' house since that involves crossing a street with busy and fast traffic. What should have been a single neighborhood is fragmented into isolated units as a result of poorly designed vehicular movement patterns.
Cul-de-sacs and "T" junction intersections are effective means of diverting through-traffic away from neighborhoods. The problem is that they are almost impossible to add in already established neighborhoods with pre-existing street layouts. One option for dealing with such neighborhoods is the use of one-way streets that interrupt long, straight stretches of road, and thus force drivers to regularly turn as they navigate through a neighborhood. This discourages those who are not specifically coming to the neighborhood from passing through it. Such a solution however requires diligent enforcement from the authorities. A street near my house recently was converted into a one-way traffic route, which makes complete sense from the point of view of traffic management. The problem is that many drivers simply ignore the one-way sign at the entrance of the street, and I yet have to see a traffic officer come to the street to ensure that drivers adhere to the new arrangement.
A second enabling element for developing a sense of community in a neighborhood is creating a small neighborhood park that is tucked inside it. These parks provide places in which neighborhood residents may meet and interact. Also helpful are other facilities where neighborhood residents may congregate, such as small shopping areas that are intended to be reached on foot. Automobile access and parking should be made difficult for such facilities so as not to encourage those from outside the neighborhood to come to them.
All this may provide a supportive environment for developing neighborhood-based communities, but will not create them. What is needed is allowing and even encouraging neighborhood residents with common interests to engage in communal activities. These activities could take place in community centers, but these would be very expensive to build and maintain in a country with relatively limited resources such as Jordan. Instead, local neighborhood schools can serve as excellent locations in which such activities may take place. Schools are ideal since they usually are centrally located within their neighborhoods, and are empty a good deal of the time: during evenings, weekends, as well as holidays, including the summer vacation.
Accordingly, if a parent wishes to create and coach a children's basketball team, he or she should be able to do so using the school playgrounds. If someone wants to teach sewing, cooking, exercise, or drawing classes, they should be able to advertise the classes and conduct them in the school building. If a group wants to start an astronomy club or a book club, or to make arrangements for a neighborhood cleaning campaign, they should be able to organize themselves using school facilities. If neighborhood residents who live in apartments - and therefore have no gardens - wish to create a vegetable garden, they should be able to do so in part of the school grounds. The possibilities are limitless.
Accomplishing all of this admittedly is easier said than done. It will require a complete change of mind set from those in charge of our schools that allows opening up the schools to the local community. It will require logistical, financial, and administrative coordination between all those involved to ensure its success. It will require the active involvement of those who have the will and passion to reach out to communities and encourage them to establish communal activities. It also will require the authorities to create an environment of empowerment and enablement for small, non-profit community-based organizations that aim at developing neighborhood-based activities.
Building communities cannot be carried out only by urban designers and architects, although these professionals can be of tremendous help. This is primarily the task of people and groups involved in community development, and it requires the full encouragement, support, and cooperation of a wide set of governmental bodies. Building communities will not be easy to achieve, but it is imperative that attempts at doing so are carried out sooner than later. Amman has evolved into a large metropolitan area whose inhabitants have almost no sense of belonging to their neighborhoods. This is a very unhealthy situation, and needs to be addressed effectively if sentiments of civic responsibility and pride of place are to take root amongst the citizens of the city.
October 21, 2005