Urban Crossroads #42
Amman's growth is overwhelming. What used to be a small town of about 2000 people in the early 1920s, today is a metropolis of 2 million inhabitants. The continuous expansion of Amman's area and population has been highlighted by drastic growth spurts that have transformed the look and feel of the city, how people interact with it, and its connections with the outside world, both regionally and internationally.
A relatively recent disruptive change that affected Amman dates back to the early 1990s, after the Second Gulf War, and the influx of an estimated 300,000 people into Amman, primarily consisting of Jordanian expatriates who used to live in the Gulf. The transformations that affected the city as a result of this development were extensive. Amongst other things, the expatriates coming from the Gulf brought with them the relatively affluent life-styles and consumption patterns to which they were accustomed, and a wide range of businesses emerged in the city to accommodate their needs. Amman consequently came to provide its residents with a diversity of products and services not available before.
On the physical level, one of the most striking changes that took place in Amman then was the proliferation of apartment buildings. Such buildings usually house a minimum of eight living units, in contrast to the previously predominant housing type, which consisted of a single-family house that often would be expanded with time through the addition of one or two housing units on top of it. Considering the rising demand for housing and the increase in land prices, the higher density apartment building, which zoning regulations allow in most parts of the city, made more economic sense for developers and investors than the single-family expandable house. New construction in many residential areas of the city consequently consisted almost exclusively of apartment buildings rather than single-family houses.
Amman, however, still has not adapted to this eight-unit apartment building, even though it has become the predominant residential building type in the city. The residents of Amman still do not seem comfortable living in buildings that house eight or more unrelated families, or sharing common spaces with neighbors, as with the apartment staircase. The new higher density in the city brought about by the apartment building also has resulted in increased vehicular traffic movement that the city has not been able to comfortably accommodate. In addition, many apartment buildings do not include adequate parking facilities, and the streets along which they are located have not been able to handle the increasingly large number of vehicles that need to be parked along them. It therefore is very common in Amman to come across relatively narrow two-way streets with vehicles parked along both sides of them, leaving room only for one way-traffic, thus causing considerable confusion and unpleasantness as vehicles attempt to move in both directions along that street.
These apartments also have limited garden space. The inhabitants of the units located along the ground floor usually own these gardens. The upper units have no gardens, but those living in them usually have children. Considering that Amman still suffers from a shortage of public parks, the result has been too many children with a great deal of bottled up energy, but no easily accessible, healthy venue to let that energy out.
In addition to the apartment building, the early 1990s was a period in which relatively large-scale office buildings with shops on the ground floor emerged. It is such buildings that transformed a street such as Wasfi al-Tall Street (also known as Gardens Street) from a relatively quiet road into one of Amman's primary commercial thoroughfares. Add to this the large retails buildings - primarily supermarkets - that proliferated in the city. All these began to take the place of the smaller shops and offices that usually were located in converted residential buildings, or in two and three story buildings located along commercial streets.
The Amman that emerged after these developments of the early 1990s offers its residents a wider and richer variety of products and services, and therefore has come to support a higher diversity of life-styles. However, it also became a more congested city in which it is increasingly difficult to drive, and through which it is almost impossible to walk, thus making its shortage of public spaces, whether parks or plazas, let alone sidewalks, more painfully felt.
The latest development to affect Amman is the advent of the large shopping mall and the multi-use high-rise building that includes commercial, office, and residential facilities. Relatively few have been constructed so far, but their numbers are increasing at a rapid rate. The high-rise is not a new building type in Amman. The first wave of high-rises appeared during the late 1970s and early 1980s, and consisted primarily of hotel buildings. Another phase of high-rise hotel buildings came into being around the middle of the 1990s. We are about to enter a new phase of high-rise construction, which will greatly surpass the previous phases in terms of quantity and size of buildings.
The buildings of Amman traditionally had a unified human scale that primarily consisted of cubic buildings ranging from one to four stories in height. This scale was greatly compromised as a result of the advent of the high-rise building, and this loss of a unified scale in the city will become far more pronounced over the coming few years as the new wave of high-rises and shopping malls are constructed. These large-scale buildings unfortunately are not grouped in a specific zone in Amman, but are scattered in different parts of it, and it is common to come across a high-rise tower or a massive mall located next to a small one- or two- story house.
These new high-rise buildings and malls will put tremendous pressure on the city's infrastructure, specially its street network. Amman's busy streets already seem to be functioning above capacity and it is difficult to imagine how such streets will be able to handle the additional traffic that these new large-scale structures will generate. It is true there are many cities in the world with higher building densities than Amman, and that nonetheless function quite well. However, such cities have very efficient public transportation systems (usually a subway system) that move the large numbers of people who live and work in the city's high-density, high-rise structures. Unfortunately, Amman does not have anything close to an efficient public transportation system.
A new Amman is in the making. It seems it will be a more prosperous and affluent Amman, and its inhabitants will enjoy higher living standards. In fact, it is worth noting that much of the large-scale construction activity taking place in the city is financed by foreign investment, which is one indication that the efforts and policies that Jordan has developed carefully and patiently over the past few years to attract direct foreign investment clearly are paying off well. However, will this emerging Amman be a more pleasant place in which to live? Will traffic congestion problems be controlled? Will it support a vibrant pedestrian life? Will it have an adequate supply of well-maintained public urban green spaces? We soon will find out.
June 16, 2005