Staking Territory
Urban Crossroads #57

Makeshift parking obstacles placed along the side of a street. (Basma Abdallah)

Makeshift parking obstacles placed along the side of a street. (Basma Abdallah)

Go around Amman and you will find an abundance of obstacles that residents and shop owners place along the sides of streets, in front of their houses and shops. These obstacles feature an interesting range of objects including portable no-parking signs, discarded containers, furniture items, long pipes inserted into buckets filled with concrete, large pieces of stone, and concrete blocks. The obstacles are used to prohibit drivers from parking their vehicles in those areas, and consequently mark territories that are reserved for the use of the residents and for the shop owners and their customers.

This is a disturbing phenomenon. The issue is not about whether one should or should not be able to park at those locations, but about this phenomenon being an example of people taking the law into their own hands. Regulating parking along the streets of Amman falls under the jurisdiction of an official public body, the Traffic Department. When private citizens begin to decide who is allowed and who is not allowed to park along public streets, they are infringing upon the authority of the law.

As usually is the case when people take the law into their own hands, we are presented with one of two scenarios. In some cases, people feel that the lack of adequate regulations or the poor enforcement of those regulations results in a situation in which their rights are not protected and are infringed upon. Take the example of those who live along a busy multi-use street with limited on-street parking, and along which buildings were constructed before the days when securing off-street parking facilities was legally required. It is understandable if they feel that their rights are not protected when they cannot find a parking space in front of or near their residences. In fact, it is in order to address this problem that a number of cities provide special parking permits to residents of a certain area that allow them to park along its streets but prohibit or restrict non-residents from doing so.

In other cases, however, some people take the law into their own hands to acquire more than what is fairly theirs. For example, a store owner who puts obstacles in the area of the street in front of his store to prohibit those who are not his customers from parking there is infringing upon public property and staking that property for his private use and private gain. This is one reason that prompted the Amman municipality a few years ago to install a parking meter system along the streets of a number of commercial areas in the city. It was a most suitable approach that began to address Amman's parking problems. It regulated parking in a fair manner and provided the municipality with additional income through charging those who wish to park along those streets a relatively modest fee. For some reason, the system unfortunately soon was abandoned, and the parking situation along those commercial streets has reverted to a state of almost total chaos.

A civilized urban center is a place in which daily life is regulated according to a set of rules that are fair and that are enforced efficiently and enforced across the board. If regulations are unfair, or if their enforcement is inefficient or carried out selectively, such regulations eventually often become ineffective, and other forces come in to fill the resulting vacuum, thus undermining the mechanisms through which civic society functions.

Admittedly, regulating parking along the streets of Amman is a relatively minor legal and social issue. It is not a phenomenon that leads to tragic results such as violence or widespread public health hazards (although unregulated parking easily may result in traffic accidents). Still, having private individuals instead of the concerned public authorities decide on and regulate who parks where in public areas is a worrying trend that sets a negative precedent. Such a situation sends the message that the relevant authorities either are unable to fulfill their duties or uninterested in doing so, thus leaving the door open for private parties to function outside the rule of the law, and to decide on their own what is to be sanctioned and what is not.

The street is not private property. It is a public space that is owned by all and should be cared for by all. Its sides should not be used as private parking spaces reserved for the convenience of those who decide to appropriate the street as their own.

Mohammad al-Asad

March 30, 2006