The Amman Report Card
Urban Crossroads #74

Sir Frances Bacon’s statement of over four hundred years ago that “knowledge is power” may have become a worn-out cliché, but, like many clichés, it remains true. Societies that devote reasonable resources to acquiring knowledge and making that knowledge accessible to all are considerably advantaged over societies that do not. Having the necessary access to knowledge about a given aspect of our lives allows us to individually and collectively make better-informed decisions about it. Otherwise, we end up stumbling in the dark.

In this vein, Amman’s residents can greatly benefit from a resource that periodically provides and regularly updates information assessing the quality of life in the city. Such information can cover a variety of issues such as employment, affordability, safety, education, cultural life, shopping, and leisure activities. This resource more or less will amount to a “report card” about Amman. It would be issued by specialists with the necessary expertise in each of the areas covered by the report, and who also demonstrate high levels of objectivity and integrity. Ideally, they would need to include both residents of Amman and people from outside it. The former would provide an intimate knowledge of the city, and the latter would provide the point of view of an objective outsider. In both cases, they should be people who do not have a vested interest in making things seem better or worse than they actually are. An independent body would oversee this ambitious task.

A section of this report card will need to concentrate on the physical urban qualities of Amman. This section would address issues including movement in the city, cleanliness of public spaces, availability of green areas, overall appearance of the city, and land-use patterns.

Movement in the city would cover topics such as the flow of traffic, public transportation, pedestrian access, and also the availability of alternate transportation possibilities such as bike paths.

The cleanliness of public spaces would assess how clean are the city’s streets, parks, and plazas, how garbage is collected, and how it is disposed of.

The availability of green areas would address quantitative matters such as the number of parks in the city, the total area of these parks, and their distribution in different parts of the city. It also would need to tackle qualitative matters such as the state of upkeep and maintenance in those parks and the activities that may be carried out in them, whether sports, children’s play activities, picnicking, or general relaxation.

The overall appearance of the city may be difficult to assess as it touches upon the subjective topic of aesthetics. It still would cover issues such as levels of visual pollution brought about by the proliferation of unregulated building and street signs. It also would deal with how well-kept and well-maintained are the buildings and public spaces of the city. It is closely interconnected with the issues of cleanliness and availability of green areas. A clean, green city obviously is more beautiful than one that is not.

Land-use patterns are the most complicated and most wide-reaching of these subjects. They address issues such as what uses are allowed in the city and where they are allowed. They also address the level of mixing of activities that is permitted in a given location. Having certain commercial activities in proximity to residential areas, for example, often is welcome, as with shops and restaurants. However, having other activities such as those requiring large parking areas or generating too much noise or garbage is not welcome. None of us wants a large superstore, a rowdy nightclub or banquet hall, let alone a factory, next to our house.

Amman most probably will get good marks for certain categories in this overall report card. Its cultural life has improved drastically over the past few years, and many of its numerous cultural activities, including exhibits, lectures, and musical performances, are available to the public at no or little cost. The benefits of a vibrant cultural life in a given city are not to be underestimated, and often extend to affect the economic sphere. In New York City, for example, cultural organizations have grown to become its the fourth largest employer.

In Amman, there also is no shortage of products to buy, which come from just about every corner of the globe. There also is an ample supply of entertainment and leisure activities. The city boasts a great variety of restaurants and cafés that suit different tastes and budgets. It has a good number of movie theaters, clubs, and various entertainment facilities. There also are many worthwhile natural and historical places to visit that are within an hour’s drive from the city, such as the lowest area on earth along the Dead Sea or historical sites including Madaba, Jarash, and the Umayyad desert palaces. And, of course, Amman is a safe city with very low crime rates.

Amman, however, most probably will not do very well in such a report card on the urban level. This very well may change as a result of the numerous urban interventions currently being made to improve the city. Still, Amman’s traffic is highly congested and is characterized by aggressive driving patterns; its public transportation system is sub-standard; and it is a nightmare for pedestrians to move in it. It is true that Amman is cleaner than numerous other cities around the world, but the level of public cleanliness in its streets and its garbage collection system definitely are in need of considerable improvement. The number of parks and open green areas in the city is increasing, but their distribution in the city and the level of care given to them leaves much to be desired. While visual pollution in Amman is being addressed through recently-implemented regulations affecting building and street signs, the level of care and maintenance provided to Amman’s buildings and public areas can stand considerable improvement.

As for the subject of land-use, the situation currently is a mess, and any imaginable mix of uses in one place that comes to mind seems to exist in the city. One will need to see how the various phases of the new masterplan being developed for Amman will end up addressing the serious land-use-related problems that have been accumulating over the past few decades, and how the solutions put forward by it will be implemented.

Much is happening in Amman, and this clearly is one of the most exciting periods in the city’s relatively short modern history. Amman has been changing continuously and rapidly since the first wave of Circassians settled in the deserted city almost a century and a half ago, but the pace of change now is even faster than ever. Also, Amman is no longer a small town, but a large and active metropolis in which change is taking place at an overwhelming scale and pace. The Amman report card can help achieve a better understanding of where Amman is and where it is heading, and can be a most useful tool for any plan of action that addresses present and future opportunities and challenges.

Mohammad al-Asad

November 1, 2007