Three Public Spaces in Amman
Urban Crossroads #122
The Center for the Study of the Built Environment (CSBE) has been carrying out a study on public space in Amman.* The study examines various places where all people can come together. These include parks, plazas, pedestrian zones, malls, and even the sides of Airport Road.
The full study will take a few years to complete. Its first phase has concentrated on three streets that the Greater Amman Municipality rehabilitated to facilitate pedestrian activity: Rainbow Street in Jabal Amman, Wakalat Street in Sweifieh, and Cultural Avenue in Shmeisani. All have been extensively reconstructed during the past decade, and all have been developed as destinations where people can walk, sit, socialize, play, and shop. Well regarded architects and planners from inside and outside Jordan were commissioned to carry out the designs.
Rainbow Street is an established commercial street that during the 1960s used to house a number of the city's high-end commercial establishments. It had declined over the years, but never lost its elegance and charm. Wakalat Street is a newer commercial street that primarily evolved during the 1990s, and has attracted a number of fashionable clothing stores. Cultural Avenue was a non-descript 360-meter street, and is located in the heart of Amman's banking district.
The CSBE study of the three streets concentrated on how the public uses them. Visits were carried out at various times of the day and various days of the week during the summer period, when they are at their busiest. The streets and the activities taking place in them were documented through photographs and drawings, and interviews were carried out with the people visiting them.
A number of interesting observations came out of the study. I would like to share a few of them here:
- Public spaces in Amman unfortunately are places where considerable social tension takes place, and there do not seem to be any commonly agreed upon codes of conduct among their users. What many may consider objectionable behavior, others find totally acceptable. This is expressed in many ways, the most visible of which is the harassment of women by groups of young men. These men do not seem to have ever interacted with women on a social level.
- None of these projects seems to have given any consideration to how they would impact traffic. This is surprising considering that once an area is developed into a destination, it will attract a great deal of vehicular traffic. Such traffic impacts are most particularly evident in Rainbow Street, where traffic leading into it during the evenings may be clogged a few kilometers back, as far as the Third Circle. I know of one person who lives in that area and who could not reach his home on a Thursday night because traffic there had come to a complete standstill. He had to spend the night elsewhere.
- Vehicular and pedestrian movement should be separated from each other as much as possible. When the two are allowed to bleed into each other, the results are unpleasant. Pedestrians will then have to navigate through vehicular traffic, which is inconvenient and dangerous for pedestrians and drivers. Add to this that the presence of female pedestrians attracts roaming bands of young men who cruise in their cars with the music blasted, often shouting rude comments to attract the attention of the females. This is particularly evident in Rainbow Street, where the sidewalks are extremely narrow, and vehicular movement is allowed uninterrupted. In Cultural Avenue, where a vehicular street surrounds a 360-meter long, 15-meter wide pedestrian island, young men recklessly cruise around this island in their cars. In contrast, Wakalat Street is an exclusively pedestrian street. Once one navigates its congested surroundings and makes it to the street, the feeling is that of reaching an oasis after moving in the desert. Also, the fact that young men cannot cruise there with their cars means that harassment levels go down significantly.
- The presence of a critical mass of shops along such streets and the direct accessibility of these shops to pedestrians is crucial to their success. Here, Wakalat Street is the most successful. Pedestrians can easily move from one side of the street to the other without worrying about traffic. In Rainbow Street, shops do line the street on both sides, but crossing the street to get from one side to the other means going through a never-ending stream of traffic. Cultural Avenue is the least successful. Although beautifully designed into seven segments that include an art gallery, an outdoor theater, and landscaped zones, it is an isolated pedestrian zone surrounded by a street. Moreover, the buildings along that street contain very few shops, which play an important role in attracting visitors. There are a few small kiosks in Cultural Avenue that originally were intended to sell books, but these are not enough to attract a significant amount of pedestrian activity. They all have ended up functioning as low-end convenience stores.
- These streets are witness to the abysmal level of maintenance and upkeep from which our public spaces suffer. Of the three, Cultural Avenue is in the worst shape. Vandalism, graffiti, and littering have damaged what was a very elegant space. Rainbow Street had a few sculptural glass prisms at its entrance. The glass has been shattered, and the pieces of broken glass have yet to be removed. The placement of such glass objects there in the first place is surprising considering how dangerous they can be. Wakalat Street has fared better than the other two. This is partly because it only consists of paved surfaces and a few trees. Unfortunately, this also has meant that there is no place there for people to sit. The rehabilitated street initially had ample benches, but the shop owners along the street, who then aggressively resisted its pedestrianization, pressured the municipality into removing the benches, hoping that this would discourage non-shoppers from coming. The municipality succumbed to their pressure, and the benches have been removed, but people still come. They sit in a chaotic manner along steps and any other edges they can find in the street.
- One way of assessing the success or failure of such projects is to observe the degree to which they reinforce and improve upon previously existing urban functions there, whether residential or commercial. In the case of Wakalat Street, a commercial street has been made a more pleasant space in which to shop. In the case of Rainbow Street, however, a residential area has been viciously decimated. Because of traffic congestion, noise, and crowds, its residents are finding life there unbearable, and are beginning to move out. At the other extreme, Cultural Avenue has failed to attract the public in the long run. It consequently has been deteriorating, and, because of the lack of maintenance and supervision, parts of it have become an eyesore, primarily attracting rowdy skaters.
- Finally, if there is one conclusion to be reached from observing these spaces, it is that in spite of all their problems, we in fact need more of them. Consider the large crowds that visit Rainbow and Wakalat streets in the summer season once the sun is down. The demand for public spaces in Amman is very high, but the supply does not even begin to meet this demand. This imbalance has to be addressed, and a suitable supply of well-designed and well-maintained public spaces needs to be provided to the people of Amman.
* The methodology for this study was developed by CSBE's Lara Zureikat. This first phase of the study was carried out by three architectural interns from the Jordan University of Science and Technology, Ruba Abu al-Haija, Dana Elfar, and Saja Hazaimeh, who worked under the supervision of CSBE staff members Mohammad al-Asad, Lara Zureikatm, Joud Khasawneh, and Nur al-Fayez.
November 18, 2011
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