Nooks and Crannies
Urban Crossroads #23

The city has a diversity of surfaces. These surfaces include streets, which most often are paved with asphalt. There also are (or at least should be) sidewalks, which are paved in various materials, usually various types of pre-cast paving concrete units. A good part of the surfaces of the city of course is occupied by the footprints of buildings. In addition, there are the empty spaces of the city. These include un-built plots, which were discussed in a previous article of the series. There also are areas that serve as parks or plazas, which will be discussed in later articles of the series. However, I would like to emphasize in this article the "leftover" spaces of the city, its nooks and crannies. These include embankments flanking roads, street medians, the areas around footpaths, public stairs, and the small plots of land that result from some sort of urban intervention such as the opening or widening of a road. These areas are too small to build upon or to develop into a park. They also are areas that, in the case of Amman at least, no one seems to know how to deal with.

In regions blessed with high levels of rainfall, such areas, when unpaved, usually are covered with a layer of green that camouflages their status as unused areas and makes them aesthetically acceptable. In fact, in the Spring months, such areas in Amman usually are covered with that delicate layer of greenery that provides them and Amman in general with a soothing and aesthetically pleasing cover. However, by the time the month of May arrives, that layer of greenery dries up and stays as such during most months of the year, during which we are presented with patches of land covered with dried up plants, dirt, and often garbage. When such areas are paved, they do not receive much care or maintenance, and are left to deteriorate.

What is to be done? We have two main challenges to address. The first is that of a rather harsh climate (hot and dry during a good part of the year), and the second is a general lack of care and maintenance from which our public spaces generally suffer. This second challenge is connected to a number of factors including limited financial and human resources, as well as an overall indifference to the aesthetic character of the public realm. Consequently, we need to think of solutions that require little or no water, and also little care and maintenance (unfortunately, I cannot think of solutions that require no maintenance). The small leftover areas of our city may be planted with tough, drought tolerant shrubs and trees (which still will require irrigation during the first three years of their lives). They also may incorporate the use of inorganic ground covers. Such covers include various types of gravels and stones that come in different shapes and colors. They are inexpensive, easy to install, and provide for very attractive solutions that require very little maintenance. Another option is to pave those areas, but also to leave part of them to be planted with shrubs and trees. One also needs to give attention to other details, such as the curbs that separate these areas from adjacent streets and sidewalks, or the manner in which those areas meet the walls of adjacent buildings.

The memorable parts of numerous cities of the world often include small, apparently insignificant, tiny areas that are made into beautiful urban enclaves through very simple interventions. This might consist of placing a few benches as well as trees for shade, allowing for someone to set up a small flower stand from which to sell flowers to passers by, or putting together a simple planting arrangement. We should keep in mind that beauty quite often starts at the smallest scale. Beauty also requires patient care and maintenance. There is considerable concern regarding the direction in which Amman as an urban center is heading. Such concern and debate should give as much attention to the character of the city's nooks and crannies as to its streets, parks, and plazas.

Mohammad al-Asad

October 21, 2004