What if...
Urban Crossroads #43

                A pleasant sidewalk (The Jordan Times)

                A pleasant sidewalk (The Jordan Times)

I would like to propose a theoretical exercise. Imagine you are presented with the opportunity to address one, and only one, aspect of urban life in Amman. What if you could do one thing for Amman? What would that be?

If I was presented with this exercise, my choice would be the development and rehabilitation of the city’s sidewalks and street crossings. I would give this task priority, even over other aspects of urban life in the city that require serious attention, such as creating and maintaining parks and public spaces, or rethinking Amman's zoning regulations. If we are able to upgrade sidewalks and street-crossings in Amman, the quality of urban life in the city will improve tremendously. The nature of pedestrian life in an urban center is greatly interlinked with its overall quality of life. If people can walk comfortably and safely through a city, they will interact more extensively and more positively with that city.

Developing sidewalks and street crossings is an example of a "low intervention, maximum impact" solution for the city. It can be accomplished at relatively little cost and without having to make excessive changes to the urban fabric or to urban infrastructural systems. We need to upgrade our sidewalks to international standards. Localities all over the world have developed standards for sidewalks. We can study those standards, and adapt and develop those of them that suit our needs and circumstances.

Available standards for sidewalks address a wide variety of issues including the widths of sidewalks and their heights from the street. These standards also deal with plantings on sidewalks: They specify the minimum width required for a sidewalk to accommodate plants. They specify plants that may be used for the sidewalk (in our case, they should be drought-tolerant, durable, and low-maintenance plants). They specify areas where low shrubs may be more appropriate and areas where canopy shade trees are more suitable. Other issues that standards address are street furnishings, street signs, and bus stops. These various elements need to be incorporated in a manner that does not hinder the movement of people along the sidewalk. Another important issue is access for the handicapped that allows them to easily move between the street and the sidewalk. This not only affects those in wheelchairs, but many others including those with strollers and the elderly, all of whom find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to move between the street and the high sidewalks of Amman that sometimes rise about thirty cm above the street. Standards also specify materials for sidewalks, both for paving materials for curbstones. Paving materials need to be attractive, durable, as well as glare and slippage resistant. Stone and granite curbstone are more attractive and durable than concrete ones.

Good sidewalks are of no use if one cannot cross a street comfortably and safely to get from one sidewalk to the other. A visitor to Amman told me how she once tried to cross a busy street in the city, but found it an extremely difficult and a life-threatening undertaking. Eventually, she stopped a taxi, and when the taxi driver asked her to where she would like to go, she pointed to the other side of the street! This unfortunately is too real of a problem, one that needs to be addressed effectively. Traffic lights provide one solution for allowing pedestrians to cross streets. However, many of Amman’s busy streets are being transformed from traffic light intersections to ones with overpasses and underpasses that have no traffic lights. Pedestrian bridges are another possible solution. They are not very popular with pedestrians, who have to go up (and then down) the equivalent of about two floors to cross a street, but pedestrian bridges often are the only solution available for crossing a busy street with speeding traffic. Using ramps instead of stairs for pedestrian bridges does make them easier and more comfortable to use, but those ramps will take up considerable space since standards require twelve units of length for every unit of height. Accordingly, a ramp that goes up five meters would have to be sixty meters long. Pedestrian tunnels are a very comfortable to use, but are extremely costly and complicated to construct, and also need extensive maintenance. Along relatively quiet streets, pedestrian crossings may be made of a material such as rough cobblestone that interrupts the asphalt and forces approaching vehicles to slow down. These crossings need to be very clearly marked so that both pedestrians and vehicle drivers are able to identify them quickly and easily.

Rehabilitating sidewalks and street crossings will provide a springboard from which other urban improvements almost naturally would take place. Small nooks and crannies along the sidewalks may be developed into humanly-scaled public areas in which a few benches may be placed, a flower vendor may establish shop, and (let us dream) a musician might play the ‘ud or flute. Also, as people use sidewalks more extensively and do more walking in the city, they become more acutely aware of their surroundings. Issues such as signage become more noticeable, and this might provide the needed public support for efforts aimed at toning down the incredibly loud and ugly signs that often dominate the facades of commercial (and increasingly, the tops of residential) buildings in Amman.

Great achievements very often have small and humble beginnings. Developing Amman’s sidewalks and street crossings very well may be a harbinger of an overall transformation of urban life in Amman. As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, the question I posed is a theoretical exercise. Give this "what if … " exercise a try and prioritize your options to come up with your one solution for improving the quality of urban life Amman.

Mohammad al-Asad

 June 23, 2005