City Components
Urban Crossroads #111



A few days ago, someone asked me what are the physical components of the city. As I attempted to answer the question, it occurred to me that we do not always give these basic issues the consideration they deserve. I will try to do so in this article.

In essence, a city consists of buildings, roads, and open spaces. These components of course occupy a natural setting. For Amman, it is a hilly terrain surrounding a valley through which a stream used to run. The western areas of this terrain are more fertile and receive more rainfall than its relatively arid eastern ones. For Cairo, this natural setting is the Nile that passes through it, bordered by a relatively thin strip of fertile land on each side, after which is a vast desert. For Beirut, it is plain bound by the Mediterranean on one side and the green mountains of Lebanon on the other.

The city as a physical composition involves interaction between these man-made and natural components. In a few cases, an effort is made so that the man-made components respect the natural ones, but in most, these man-made components unfortunately ignore or even destroy the natural ones. In Amman, the stream is now a sewer line covered by a road network, and the city continues to eat up more of the fertile land located to its west. In Cairo, the thin fertile strips bordering the Nile on each side have been completely built up. In Beirut, the beautiful forested mountains bordering the city are being devastated by building activity.

To return to the man-made components of the city, the buildings are where people carry out most of their daily activities; the roads (along with the parking areas that accompany them) accommodate the vehicles we use to move through the city; and the open spaces are where the city and its residents “breathe” and interact. A healthy city is one where there is a balance between the three. Its quality of life is undermined when one overtakes the others.

Too many buildings make for a crowded city. Too many roads is a clear indication that movement and transportation in the city is inefficient. Too many open spaces negate the city. To develop a healthy balance between the three city components, many urbanists promote high urban densities. The idea is to build up the city as much as possible without overcrowding it. High densities allow people to be closer to the various services they need, thus easing movement between them. However, when urban density is fragmented and reduced by roads, that means the automobile has taken over the city. Under such circumstances, streets and parking areas leave little opportunity for people to walk, and distances are far too long for people to cover on foot.

In contrast to conceiving the city as a network of buildings, an increasing number of planners are calling for developing the city as a network of open public spaces. This can be a very interesting and promising approach. On one level, it involves the expansion of public spaces in the city, whether parks, plazas, or even sidewalks. But it can go far beyond that through promoting the idea of connecting these spaces. When carried to its full extent, this arrangement would allow one to cross the city from one end to the other, on foot or on a bicycle, through a series of linked public spaces. Such a goal is worth pursuing.

How does Amman fit into what has been presented above? As a relatively-small city until the 1970s, Amman offered a comfortable balance between buildings, roads, and open spaces. Building densities were at suitably-high levels. A rather small network of roads was enough to adequately support movement in the city. As for open spaces, Amman may not have had an abundance of parks as it grew, but it remained small enough so that the surrounding rural areas were easily accessible to most of its residents. These made up for the city's limited open green urban areas.

Since the 1970s, however, Amman has expanded rapidly and rather haphazardly. Large tracts of surrounding rural areas have been eaten up by building activity, and what remains is no longer easily accessible to most of the city's residents. A significant number of parks have been and continue to be created, but they remain insufficient to adequately serve the city's population.

One of Amman's positive characteristics is that it has maintained healthy building density levels. Amman continues to present enough building density without becoming as overcrowded as its street traffic. Many services are located close to where people live. A major problem undermining these healthy density levels is that Amman's streets are utterly hostile to pedestrians. Although walking distances in the city often are short, the actual walk is more often than not an extremely difficult and unpleasant experience.

Amman's roads and sidewalks, as well as the parking connected to them, require extensive reconfiguration. There is a strong and urgent need to rehabilitate the city's dysfunctional sidewalks, thus allowing pedestrians to walk along them without being obstructed by trees, utility poles, poor paving, as well as sudden and drastic changes in levels. Also, streets need to become far more accommodating of the crossing of pedestrians. Such improvements will be neither easy nor cheap to accomplish, but if Amman is to be a center of healthy urban life, they simply have to be carried out. Moreover, adding bike paths along the city's streets is an option that should be seriously examined and studied.

To take this a step further, (and I expect this will be surprising for many), a good number of Amman's streets may be made narrower. In turn, sidewalks would be widened into tree-lined pedestrian boulevards, thus functioning as true public spaces that serve much of the city. Of course, this will need to be accompanied by improving the quality of Amman's public transportation system to give it considerable advantages over using the private automobile, thus relieving pressure off the city's roads. Moreover, these improvements need to be accompanied by interventions that are not directly related to reconfiguring the city and its streets, such as traffic-calming measures and also a far stricter enforcement of driving regulations.

To bring all this closer to home, consider the experience of moving between two points in Amman, such as where you live and where you work. The most convenient option for such commutes is almost always using the private automobile (taxis essentially are private automobiles that are hired for a short period of time). Even this option of using the private automobile involves the unpleasantness of navigating through congested traffic and putting up with the reckless and aggressive driving habits of too many drivers. Ideally, however, one should have other options for moving in the city: high-quality public transportation systems; dedicated bike paths; and wide, continuous sidewalks where one may walk safely from automobile traffic, with trees providing greenery and shade, and with shops, restaurants, and cafes located along the way. As such options become available, we can reconstruct a balance between Amman's buildings, streets, and open spaces. We also would move closer to realizing the city as a connected network of public spaces.

Mohammad al-Asad

December 02, 2010