Whose Street Is It Anyway?
Urban Crossroads #54

     A typical construction site in Amman with construction materials                    placed on the adjacent street. (Mohammad al-Asad)

     A typical construction site in Amman with construction materials                    placed on the adjacent street. (Mohammad al-Asad)

One of my clearest childhood memories of Amman is that of construction activity constantly taking place throughout the city. This has not changed today, as evident in the immediate vicinity of the house in which my family lives. Construction work has been going on in this neighborhood since we moved into it about 15 years ago. Although most of the empty plots around us have been filled up since then, the vast majority of the buildings in our area have not reached the four-story limit allowed by existing building codes. Considering the tremendous rise in real estate values that has been taking place in Amman over the past few years, it is almost certain that the owners of these buildings will construct extensions to the buildings until the maximum four story limit is reached. Construction work in our neighborhood therefore will continue well into the foreseeable future.

All this construction activity is an indication of economic growth. This is a good sign, although one would like to see more of that growth directed towards sectors of our economy other than the construction sector. In any case, a main problem we face as a result of this continuous construction activity is that construction sites in Amman almost always are eyesores that litter adjacent streets with construction materials and debris. This is especially true of relatively small-scale construction projects such as additions to existing buildings, as well as single family houses, apartment buildings, and small-scale commercial structures. Even in the case of large-scale construction projects, the best we usually can expect in terms of visually shielding the construction site from the street is a few shoddily and hastily assembled corrugated sheet panels that are placed along the street. In the final result, all our construction sites, big and small, are to some degree or the other sources of messiness, littering, and visual pollution.

Take a look at any construction site in Amman and most probably you will find steel reinforcement bars, stone and cement blocks, cement bags, sizable heaps of dust-causing construction aggregate, and other leftover construction materials thrown along the adjacent street, thus treating a public right of way as a private storage area. It also is common to find leftover construction debris simply left indefinitely on the adjacent street or sidewalk after the completion of construction.

Clearly, this should stop. Regulations regarding the placing of construction materials on adjacent streets do exist in Amman, but they do not seem to be enforced. The rule is simple. All construction materials should be kept within the construction site and should not be placed along the adjacent street. If we are to take this regulation one step further, panels of some aesthetic quality that visually shield the construction site should be used. Conforming to these requirements probably will raise construction costs by a small fraction, but will go a long way towards minimizing the visual pollution, littering, and messiness that currently come with construction sites in Amman.

When traveling abroad, I have come across construction sites where the whole skeleton of buildings under construction is wrapped by a plastic cover on which an image of what the building will look like when completed is illustrated. This arrangement restricts the messiness resulting from the construction process inside the building, and also gives the passerby something interesting and pleasant to look at. Admittedly, we would be asking too much to demand of our local construction contractors - especially small-scale ones - to provide such sophisticated (and probably costly) solutions. However, we need to begin somewhere.

This phenomenon of storing construction materials on the streets next to construction sites is indicative of the manner in which we treat public space in Amman. There is too much neglect and abuse of our public spaces, which are rarely approached as components of the city that deserve attention and care. Extensions of this behavior are found in the manner in which property owners plant low-lying trees in the middle of adjacent sidewalks. Whether consciously or inadvertently, this planting of trees results in prohibiting pedestrians from walking on these sidewalks. In most cases, no care or maintenance is even provided to the trees. This abuse and neglect with which we treat our streets and sidewalks also is evident in the manner in which shop owners place all sorts of items such as refrigerators for soft-drinks or crates on the sidewalk in front of their shops, thus making it impossible for pedestrians to use that stretch of sidewalk. A number of them go a step further and place items including crates and even rocks on the street in front of their shops in order to prohibit any cars but those of their customers from parking on what is indisputably part of the public realm.

Streets (and by extinction the sidewalks next to them) are not private properties, but are owned by all and are intended to be used by all. Bringing to an end the littering of streets caused by the construction process is one important step towards ensuring that our streets are provided with a minimal level of consideration.

Mohammad al-Asad

December 8, 2005