Model Streets
Urban Crossroads #46

I subscribe to the notion that "small is beautiful." Accordingly, I believe that small-scale model pilot projects often present very effective solutions for certain types of problems. Such projects provide opportunities to test solutions and to develop them. Their small scale also allows for detailed and thorough reflection on both problems and solutions.

The problems I have in mind are those affecting daily urban life in Amman. It seems that everybody I come across has no shortage of rightful complaints to vent out about such problems. The complaints address a range of issues including poor driving and parking practices, the lack of appropriate cleanliness in our streets, and the state of our notoriously dysfunctional sidewalks.

One approach I propose to addressing these problems is to take a dozen relatively small street stretches in various areas of Amman, and to develop them as model streets. Any typical street would do. The selection of these pilot street projects only would need to ensure proper distribution that allows a well-balanced representation of different areas in Amman. The streets accordingly should be distributed amongst commercial, residential, high and low density areas, as well as those representing different income levels.

I took a closer look at the street on which I live to see how such a process of creating a model street might be carried out. The street is about 300 meters in length, which is very appropriate for such a project. It begins and ends at intersections with relatively major thoroughfares, and therefore has well-defined boundaries. It primarily is a residential street, but for some reason, a privately-owned training center managed to get licensed along it. Otherwise, the street consists of multi-family buildings with a few single-family houses.

I started counting the problems that the street faces, ranging from the aesthetically offensive to outright violations of building codes and zoning regulations. After identifying about two-dozen problems and violations, I gave up counting. Most of the sidewalks along the street are completely dysfunctional, and a part of the street does not even have a sidewalk. The sidewalks suffer from the usual list of problems affecting sidewalks in Amman. These include trees planted in the center of narrow sidewalks; sidewalks that are too high and therefore very difficult for pedestrians to get on and off; abrupt drops in level that interrupt stretches of sidewalks; and inadequate, if non-existent, sidewalk maintenance and upkeep.

Another unpleasant aspect of life along the street is that a number of residents place their garbage in poorly tied bags and leave them along the sidewalk, as close as possible to their neighbors’ properties (and away from the entrances of their houses), rather than in the communal garbage bins found at the end of the street. In turn, these garbage bins are in very bad shape: They are heavily battered, their wheels often are missing, and there are not enough of them to accommodate the garbage generated by the residents of the street, which means that considerable garbage ends up being thrown around them. The overall level of cleanliness in the street generally leaves a lot to be desired.

There always seems to be some construction project – whether a new building or a building extension - taking place along the street, and as a result, all sorts of construction materials are dumped on the adjoining stretches of sidewalk and onto street. Even worse, after the construction project is completed, the remaining construction materials and left-over debris often are left indefinitely on the sidewalk and street. Buildings also do not necessarily follow zoning regulations, and it is not unusual to find a building addition that occupies the front setback of a plot, thus converting what is supposed to be an open area into a built up one. Even the parking situation along the street is far from ideal. The significant number of vehicles parked in front of the training center hinder or even block traffic, and it is not unusual to find large trucks parked overnight.

The idea is to fix up such a street and thus convert it into a "model" street. The sidewalks would be rehabilitated; residents would be required to keep any construction materials or debris off the sidewalks and the street; the communal garbage bins would be rehabilitated and their numbers or size increased, and residents would be required to place their garbage in the bins rather than in front of their neighbors' houses; those violating setback rules would be required to remove the encroaching building addition. Vehicles would not be allowed to park in locations where they would hinder or block traffic, and trucks would not be allowed to park along the street.

This list of solutions partly depends on implementing certain technical standards such as those affecting sidewalk design and construction, or the manufacture, size, and number of communal garbage bins. The list, however, primarily includes a series of practices, and by extension, behavioral patterns, to which the residents need to adhere. The success or failure of such model streets therefore clearly will depend to a great degree on the interaction that takes place between the municipal authorities and the residents. Strict enforcement of regulations is a very important part of the solution. However, getting the residents to fully accept the regulations will make them much easier to enforce.

A process of involving and engaging the residents of those streets consequently needs to be put in place. This is not an easy task to accomplish, especially in our societies, where community-based initiatives and partnerships between local communities and public-sector organizations are both uncommon and unusual. One solution is for the municipality to cooperate with non-governmental organizations with experience in community development and public participatory processes to develop such partnerships. This would entail initiating activities such as enabling the development of neighborhoods committees, holding regular meetings with neighborhood residents, and helping residents develop an understanding of both the rights and obligations that a citizen has towards public space.

All this will not change the face of Amman overnight. However, it is imperative that these initiatives are put in place, especially since Amman currently is undergoing an unprecedented construction boom that is bringing abrupt and massive changes to the city. Many of these changes most probably will negatively impact the quality of urban life for the people of Amman, at least in the short run. We can expect more severe traffic congestion problems and increased levels of air and noise pollution. The apparently random spread of large-scale building projects in various parts of the city in many cases will destroy any unity in scale, and any consistency or continuity in land use patterns that may have existed in these parts, and therefore will bring about considerable disruptions to their pre-existing urban fabrics and to the lives of their inhabitants.

Under these circumstances, and in the face of the overwhelming pressures brought about by the current real-estate and construction boom, one thing we can and should do is to initiate a few small-scale interventions along our streets that enhance the quality of urban life, learn from those interventions, and gradually extend the interventions and lessons learned to cover a wider range of areas in Amman. The process is slow, but it is effective. In this context, a Buddhist saying comes to mind: We have so little time, we must proceed very slowly.

Mohammad al-Asad

August 4, 2005