This column, Urban Crossroads, is about cities, particularly Amman. It is about what makes a city an agreeable or disagreeable place in which to live. Since this is the introductory article of Urban Crossroads, it is suitable to devote it to defining what I mean by "city." By doing this, I might be criticized for "stating the obvious." However, what is defined as "the obvious" often differs from one person to the other.
Clearly, a city consists of buildings: residential (single-family residences, duplexes, apartment buildings, ...), commercial (malls, office buildings, street front shops, ...), institutional (schools, governmental buildings, hospitals, ...), cultural / public (places of worship, museums, theaters, ...), and industrial. Some buildings of course house more than one of these functions. The various buildings of the city include the small and the large, the single-story and the high-rise, the cheap and the expensive, the beautiful and the ugly, as well as the private and the public.
The city also consists of spaces. Urban spaces include plazas, parks (we do not have enough of them in Amman), empty plots (we have too many of them), streets, and sidewalks (we have some notoriously dysfunctional samples of them). The buildings and spaces of the city make up its urban fabric. In some cities, that urban fabric is beautifully, carefully, and meticulously weaved together. In others, the results reflect shoddiness and carelessness.
Of course, there are the people of the city. They individually and collectively create its buildings and spaces, they use them, and they move between them. A city has lots of people. Although there is no standard definition, urban planners often define a city (or metropolitan area) as a settlement that has a minimum of 100,000 inhabitants. A city also has a diversity of people, who belong to different socio-economic, cultural, religious, and ethnic backgrounds, all brought together in a relatively small space. A successful city is one in which its inhabitants coexist, interact, respect differences, agree on common codes of behavior, and consequently thrive together.
The individuals and also the public and private institutions in a city continuously make decisions as to what to build and where to build. They therefore make decisions regarding what functions of human activity are located in which parts of the city. These decisions determine which groups of populations and which functions end up in proximity to each other, and which ones end up separated from each other, thus defining various levels of integration and segregation within the city.
A very important aspect of the city is how people move through it as they go about their daily lives. This is what gives the city its "hustle and bustle," its liveliness, and also its traffic deadlocks. People move in the city on foot, and also rely on public transportation, taxis, and private cars. In this context, it should be stated that no single factor has impacted the development of the city during the past half-century as the automobile. Any discussion of today's city that discards it is incomplete.
This is an overview of the "ingredients" that make up the city. The articles of this column will explore how these various ingredients interact to make the city, specially our city, Amman.
April 15, 2004