What Happened to My Neighborhood?
Urban Crossroads #53

It unfortunately is too common of a story in Amman. A family decides it is time to buy its own residence. The husband and wife have saved some money over the years. They still may have to borrow some more, but they finally can afford to have a place of their own. They find an apartment or house they feel is suitable for them, and in an area of town they like. They buy the residence, move in it, and things work out well for a few years.

Then, a nightmare scenario takes place. The neighborhood suddenly changes for the worse. It could be one or a number of things: The quiet road that borders their house becomes a busy four-lane thoroughfare with dangerously speeding traffic. A large public organization that is frequented by hundreds of people every day is relocated near their house, either in a newly built structure, or in a converted apartment building. A busy commercial establishment is allowed to open across the street. Life in the neighborhood becomes intolerable. Traffic along the street becomes too busy, fast, and dangerous. Residents often cannot even find an empty parking spot in front of or near their houses. The noise of the traffic or of the music coming out of the restaurant or banquet hall that has popped up in the neighborhood is too loud and continues well into the night.

I have heard versions of this story too many times, and it has become uncomfortably familiar. The last time I came across it involves a café that was allowed to open in the middle of a residential neighborhood. The café has become very popular amongst the young and rowdy. Its customers not only take up all the parking spaces along the street (often double and triple parking there), but their cars also block entrances to the garages of the adjacent houses. Some of the customers even throw litter in the neighbors' gardens. The music coming out of the establishment and out of the cars that roam the street or just stand along it blares until after mid-night.

Interestingly enough, in this case the residents along the street did come together and attempted to mobilize. They collectively contacted various relevant governmental bodies to come up with a solution to their predicament, but to no avail. The people who relayed this story to me said that life has become insufferable along their street. They therefore have put their house up for sale and are searching for a new place in which to live. However, they are very worried that the same scenario eventually may be repeated wherever they move in Amman.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with mixed-use neighborhoods that house residential and other uses, whether commercial or public. I lived for a number of years abroad along a street where the ground floor consisted of commercial enterprises (which included various shops, grocery stores, restaurants, and a cinema), with offices above them, and apartments on the upper floors. I truly enjoyed living in such an environment where I simply would go down from my apartment to the street to buy groceries, go to a restaurant, or catch a movie. When I was a child, close relatives of mine lived in an apartment above a row of shops in downtown Amman (this arrangement was relatively common in Amman until the 1970s), and it always was a pleasure to visit them and to be so close to the lively street life just below their apartment.

Planners tell us again and again that for mixed-use planning to work (and they emphasize that it should be made to work), there is a need to effectively address issues of parking and noise. Priority for parking should be given to the residents of the area and not to those visiting it. If extra parking is not available for those visiting it, they then should come to it on foot, by public transportation, or by taxi. Also, strict noise control rules have to be put in place (and effectively enforced). Therefore, if there is a nightclub along a street (in the case of Amman it often is a banquet hall or a restaurant with 'live entertainment',) the noise generated from such facilities simply has to be kept within their boundaries, and cannot be allowed to blare into the street and the surrounding buildings.

Unfortunately, what is happening in Amman is a very different scenario that is giving the concept of mixed-use zoning a very bad name. What is taking place is a sustained assault on residential neighborhoods as a result of which residents are left completely helpless and defenseless as the residential quality of these neighborhoods erodes. Residents see their neighborhoods taken away from them by heavy traffic, by a never-ending stream of cars that take over any available on-street parking spaces, and by ear-piercing noises that last well into the night. This nightmare scenario has happened so many times and continues to happen. Many of us wonder if our neighborhood will be next.

How do we explain what is going on? In some cases it could be an example of private interests trying to use our infamous 'wasta' or connections, and in a few instances even other means, to get their way although this may harm the public good. In other cases, it could be the result of poorly-made or short-sighted land-use zoning decisions. Whatever the reason might be, the drafting and implementation of zoning regulations in Amman leave much to be desired.

There is another reason that explains the current state of zoning regulations in Amman. Jordan has taken strong and bold steps over the past few years to transform the country into an investment-friendly environment. In principle, there is nothing wrong with such a development. In fact, it is commendable, and has had very positive impacts on the Jordanian economy. However, this often has led to espousing the disquieting position that the investor is always right. The investor is not always right. When an investment activity negatively affects a nearby community, it should not be allowed to proceed unchecked, and there is a need to come up with solutions that balance supporting investment with the rights of the local community. Also, we often forget that every pre-existing residence in a residential neighborhood is in itself an investment, and almost always a long term investment. The question is who is protecting those residential investors whose residences are becoming uninhabitable places located in the middle of busy, congested, and loud areas?

Jan Gehl, the respected Danish planner (who luckily is currently helping the Amman municipality to develop solutions for making the city a more humane urban center) remarked once that cities are zones of conflict. He explained that this is normal since cities bring people of different backgrounds and different ways of living in close proximity to each other. He added that this element of difference makes cities much richer to live in than sparsely populated suburbs or rural areas. However, as inhabitants of cities, we constantly need to engage in dialogue and to negotiate solutions that allow us as diverse inhabitants sharing the same spatial realm not only to live together, but also to thrive in such diversity. Accordingly, the city should never be a place where one group attempts to forcefully impose its interests and attitudes on others. In fact, the barbaric attacks that recently took place in Amman provide an extreme case of what happens when a given group believes it has the right to enforce its views on all of those who differ with it or from it. Such groups have fully abandoned the civility and emphasis on dialogue that should characterize the manner in which human beings deal with each other, and attempt to replace it with violence, brutality, and the rule of the jungle.

Mohammad al-Asad

November 24, 2005