Desperately Seeking Amman
Urban Crossroads #61

On my first visit to Amman, in 1972, I drove down, from the north, into the city, looking for a place to stay. Based on experience elsewhere, decided to head to the centre in search of cheap accommodation. However, a few minutes later I realised that we had in fact already passed through the centre and were now driving south, out of the city!

On more recent visits, I have similarly driven through the “outskirts” without ever encountering the city centre of Amman.

This fruitless search for the “city” is not merely the result of the size of the city, but its composition. All cities have a centre — often termed the Central Business District — where there is a greater concentration of “urban” activities. Many of the larger cities have developed more than one “centre”.

Traditionally, the historical core has often been associated with these central functions since it housed the initial set of such activities. Over time, the original centre could no longer contain any more activities, and would be quite a distance from the newer parts of the city, leaving room for other centres to develop — usually also with a new style or set of activities. Often the historic core withers and deteriorates.

Amman’s historic core has undergone a similar process, but without a new centre taking its place. Until relatively recently, many Ammanites, born and bred in the city, had not only never been to the historic core, but had no need or desire to go there. Nostalgia, nationalism and a search for roots and identity have had a hand in refurbishing its image; as has its being re-branded as Amman’s “Downtown”. This is a useful misnomer, in that it lacks most of the attributes of a downtown: The bright lights, shops, sights and attractions.

However, if not there, then where can Ammanites go?

Until the King Hussein Gardens opened, there was nowhere to go for entertainment unless you were a member of a club or were able and willing to pay an entrance fee. Where could you go without having to pay, and just sit and be entertained by the city and the life it generates? No wonder many of the youth drive round Amman in the evening, in a motorised version of the paseo.

One of the characteristics, nay joys, of being in a city is being able to interact with people, the opportunity of chance encounters, meeting strangers. That is what the old souks and streets of Amman did. That is what Amman has lost to the car. Perhaps the new Downtown in Al Abdali will create a real central place: A square, a street, a street theatre, to bring back the drama, the enchantment of being in a city.

In the mean time, I have a “wish list” of a few things missing in Amman, without which it won’t quite be the sort of city I’m seeking.

Lots of roads, but not enough streets
Roads are what you use to get from point A to point B. Streets are where things happen, and where you go to. Roads divide, while streets unite communities that live on either side. Amman is forever building new and bigger roads, and as they bulldoze their way through the city, they cut it up into islands that have nothing in common.

Too much traffic and not enough transport
It is because of the lack of public transport that people take to the cars instead of the streets. For each and every journey, a car-trip is generated. With cars dominating the streets, there is increasing pressure to build more streets and more flyovers. With everyone using cars, there is no need to plan central places that concentrate activities. Without such concentrations, public transport becomes less viable.

Too many shopping malls but not enough corner shops
The burgeoning shopping malls may be a convenient way of passing the time — most people do not actually shop — though of course the snackeries do good business. The shopping malls fulfil the need for a neutral meeting ground, especially for the young, but they do not meet the everyday shopping needs of most families — many do not even have a grocery outlet. Worse, malls are not public spaces in the sense of being accessible and open to all — they are islands of sequestered space, from which the poor are excluded.

Lots of pavements but not enough pedestrians
The law requires every house to build a pavement in front — but they are not designed with pedestrians in mind. The surfaces are uneven, the steps and levels too high, and even the trees and planting are more obstacles than a comfort. In fact it probably does not matter that much: There are hardly any pedestrians any way. Where would they walk to? The nearest shop or other facility is over a kilometre away — beyond the reach of the housewife struggling to control a couple of young offspring. Since you need a car to get anywhere, it becomes logical to use a car for everything.

Too many open spaces but not enough green
The hillsides of Amman are scarred by excavations gouged out of the rocks. For every villa, there is at least as much land speculating to be built. In time, perhaps, there will be trees and planting, but meanwhile, it presents a sorry sight. Why cant these vacant parcels of land, and particularly the steep slopes, be planted, even if temporarily? If there were communities, perhaps they could take these over — it’s not the costs, it’s the care that’s missing.

Lots of people but not enough citizens
With almost half the nation’s people living in and around Amman, there is no shortage of people. However, few of them feel enabled to care for and engage with the city. Their concerns end at their boundary walls — beyond that is a no-man’s land. Amman is, or could be, much more than that if those who live there felt that they could express their views over local planning decisions, over the provision and management of services, over the availability and quality of facilities. Paying taxes to the municipality is a start, but to participate in the management of the city — or at least their localities — is the true right, indeed obligation, of the citizen.

Too many developments but not enough planning
That Amman is constantly growing and expanding hardly needs saying, but what drives that growth other than personal need or greed? Is there a purpose, a direction? Without a plan, it is literally each one for himself — and without any assurances to the contrary, the best policy probably is to grab what you can, build what you can get away with, wherever you can. Amman needs a plan to guide its development — but not a master plan that imposes its diktat, and where changing circumstances cannot be accommodated. No, Amman needs a plan with a different logic: One that has a known direction, but where adjustments are made on the basis of feedback — it needs fuzzy logic. It needs a fuzzy plan.

Babar Mumtaz

July 13, 2006

Guest contributor Babar Mumtaz is an international specialist in economics and urban development planning. He is currently the Director of Urbannovation in London, and until recently he was the Director of the MSc Building and Urban design for Development Programme at University College London.