Have To vs. Want To
Urban Crossroads #55

There are certain activities we do in the streets and public spaces of the city because we have to, and other activities we do because we want to. The "have to" category includes moving around the city to carry out tasks such as going to work, to school, or to buy items and pay for services we need. We might or might not enjoy carrying out these various tasks, but we still have to do them. The "want to" category includes going out for a walk or a run, meeting friends or reading a newspaper in a sidewalk café, or attending an open-air concert. We do not have to engage in these activities; we do them because we want to.

In every urban center, people regularly carry out the various tasks belonging to the "have to" category. However, the true mark of a great city is when more and more of its residents engage in activities in its streets and public spaces belonging to the "want to" category.

What are the elements of attraction in a city that make us want to experience it? Climate is an important factor. The milder the climate of a city, the more its residents would want to spend time in its outdoor spaces. A rich historical heritage is another source of attraction, and such a heritage may range from archaeological ruins to living historical neighborhoods. There also is natural beauty. A city located along a scenic coastline; on a hilly topography that provides impressive vistas; or surrounded by areas of natural beauty will attract its residents to experience its outdoor spaces.

Low crime rates are another important issue. A safe city encourages people to spend time outdoors rather than locking themselves inside their houses. Also of tremendous significance is the ability to move in the city. This is greatly facilitated when the city is pedestrian friendly, when basic services are within walking distance, and when the city has a decent public transportation system.

Driving conditions also affect the manner in which people experience a city. Although automobile dominance definitely undermines the quality of urban life, the importance of the automobile as a means of transportation in the city cannot be denied. If one has to depend on the private automobile in getting around the city, then it helps if drivers are courteous, the driving experience is safe, and traffic congestion is controlled.

Of course, there is the issue of the quantity and quality of public spaces. Any healthy city needs to have an adequate number of open green spaces, which function as lungs for the city and its residents. These spaces have to be easily accessible and well-kept. It also often is overlooked that sidewalks in many cases are the city's prime public spaces. These need to be spacious, well-designed, and well-maintained in order to foster a lively and rich street life. The physical characteristics of those spaces are not enough to make them successful. This also depends on the modes of behavior prevalent in them. If negative behavioral patterns such as rowdiness or littering are allowed to predominate, we lose these spaces as centers of civic activity where the various residents of the city come together for interaction, recreation, and relaxation.

Also of importance is the variety in leisure and cultural activities taking place in a city. People have different interests, tastes, and backgrounds. A city that accommodates diversity - including differences in age, gender, and socio-economic background - will attract a wider range of people to its streets and spaces in comparison to a city that only satisfies the tastes and needs of a narrowly defined set of its residents. The level to which a city accommodates diversity is evident in the nature of its restaurants, places of entertainment, shopping districts, parks, plazas, and other open spaces, as well as its cultural institutions such as museums, galleries, and theatres.

How does Amman fit into all of this? There are many factors that should make people want to experience Amman. Amman may not have enough water resources, but it has a pleasant climate, and one may enjoy the outdoors in it during both the hottest and coldest months of the year. Amman also is located on various layers of historical remains, and although it was deserted between the fourteenth and the late nineteenth centuries, what exists from before and after this period of abandonment is remarkable, whether the Citadel and the Roman Theatre or the houses and neighborhoods that emerged during the 1930s and 1940s. Amman also is blessed with natural beauty; its hilly topography, especially where its hills wrap around the central downtown area, provides numerous pleasant views.

Another advantage to Amman is that it generally is a safe city with low crime rates. Amman also offers considerable diversity in the quantity and diversity of consumer goods and services available to its residents. Consider as an example the eating establishments of Amman. These offer a wide range of choices such as simple take-out places offering first-rate falafel, hummus, or Shawurma meals for less than half a Jordanian Dinar, or numerous stylish upper-end restaurants. Culturally, Amman is becoming an increasingly vibrant center, and there always seem to be lectures, musical or theatrical performances, and art exhibitions going on somewhere in the city.

Amman seems to have it all. However, there unfortunately are numerous factors that greatly undermine these positive characteristics. Amman is suffering from increasing problems of traffic congestion and air pollution. The city lacks a suitable public transportation system. Also, Amman is not a walking city. It has notoriously dysfunctional sidewalks, and its busier streets are impossible to cross in most locations. An extension of this problem is the lack of an adequate public realm. Amman's public green open spaces are few in number, poorly located in the city, and often inadequately maintained. In this context, consider to what extent the city invites you to experience - let alone celebrate - its streets, sidewalks, and open public spaces. In the case of Amman's streets, they often have become disagreeable conduits that one drives through - sheltered inside an automobile - to move from one private or semi-private realm to the other, but not spaces that support public life. It is unfortunate when the streets of the city are reduced to becoming what you have to go through to get to places you want to go to, but not destinations in themselves. These problems are major challenges that need to be addressed in Amman. If they are successfully tackled, Amman can become a remarkable center that supports a high quality of urban life.

Mohammad al-Asad

January 5, 2006