This past Ramadan, I was driving with my family to a relative’s house for the iftar meal. On the way, and out of a sudden, a driver behind us began to hysterically honk and scream at me. It turned out that my driving at the speed limit was preventing him from racing down the street. When recounting the story to others, a common comment I heard is that one should be very careful when dealing with such people, since they easily can turn violent. Interestingly enough, a similar episode of road rage happened to me just a few days later, again before the iftar. These unfortunately are not isolated incidents, but common occurrences in the streets of Amman.
Jordanians generally are very warm. When invited to people’s houses, one usually is treated with incredible hospitality and generosity. Outside the private realm, however, this warmth often disappears and is sometimes replaced by outright hostility. This hostility is expressed in many ways. People drive rudely and aggressively. Young men harass women in the street. Both home and shop owners place threatening no-parking signs and barriers on the streets in front of their houses and shops. The moment you go out of your house, whether on foot or in a car, you need to assume a defensive posture.
Why is that? A sociological study of such phenomena would make for a most interesting research subject. I expect that part of the answer is connected to the social, economic, and political tensions, restlessness, and frustrations that people in this part of the world feel. Another part of the answer is connected to the fact that Amman has expanded too much and too quickly over the past few decades. With this expansion, it has lost the social glue that bonded people together as residents of the city and of its neighborhoods. Most of us barely know who our neighbors are, and instead of belonging to the city and its neighborhoods, we have retreated into narrow circles of association that are defined by close relatives, extended family, and friends. The codes of behavior that define our relations with friends and family generally do not extend to include others.
We all need commonly-agreed upon codes of behavior that define how we interact with the people around us. These codes often are inscribed into legislation. Fines therefore are imposed on those who drive recklessly, park illegally, litter, harass women, celebrate with gunfire, or play music late into the night out of speakers that befit a stadium. With time, and as these regulations are effectively enforced, people come to realize that they make everybody’s life easier and more comfortable. They eventually are embraced primarily as social norms, and less as regulations that need to be enforced. In our society, however, such regulations, when they exist, are not implemented or are implemented randomly and haphazardly. For many, the primary code of behavior that has come to govern how people interact with those they do not know is defined by what one can get away with.
Although much of how people behave outside the public realm may be explained through social, economic, and political forces, the manner in which cities are planned also plays a role in defining how people interact with each other. One important factor is the supply of public space in the city. Public space includes places that all people may access fully. They range from sidewalks to plazas and parks. Public spaces are among the most important resources available to the people of the city. There is a need to have a good number of them, and also for them to be of good quality. The more people come face to face with each other, particularly in well maintained and kept spaces, the better are the chances that a common code of conduct based on mutual respect and tolerance will come into being.
The main public spaces available to the people of Amman essentially are the city’s streets. Streets actually can make for wonderful public spaces. This is true of streets that feature wide, tree-lined sidewalks that are flanked by shops, restaurants, and cafés, and that have ample pedestrian crossings. Rather than inducing pedestrian activity, however, Amman’s streets are almost fully dedicated to the motor vehicle. Rude, aggressive, and reckless driving dominates those streets. With the absence of strictly enforced driving regulations, negative driving habits naturally take over. The car intrinsically encourages this. Drivers feel protected within the isolating shells of their cars. They can be inconsiderate or even rude to other drivers and simply zip away knowing that they most probably will never see them again. It is as drivers and passengers in motor vehicles where most of our contact with strangers in the public realm in Amman takes place. That contact generally is not pleasant.
Other public spaces in Amman do not fare better. The city’s parks and plazas are few and far in between, and the little that exists suffers from poor maintenance, upkeep, and follow up. Broken pavements, dying plants, litter, and threatening groups of young males are all too common in them. The one semi-public, well-maintained place that is available for many is the mall. Malls, however, are sterile controlled places devoted to one activity: consumption. It is a sad state of affairs when they become the main public spaces of the city. Moreover, access to them is restricted. If a young male in Amman wants to enter a mall without the company of a female, he very well may not be let in. He is automatically viewed as a trouble maker and his guilt is established beforehand. Since he already has been condemned as a social outcast, he probably feels he might as well behave as one.
One characteristic of a well-planned city is the ability to walk (not drive) out of one’s house along well-designed, tree-lined sidewalks, and find within a reasonable distance a pleasant well-maintained open space, whether a park or plaza, where people can sit, walk, socialize, or play. As people of all walks of life are increasingly able to do so, the city becomes a healthier place for all. When our surroundings are well designed and well cared for, we usually behave accordingly. Under such circumstances, it becomes easier to develop and implement codes of conduct we all feel comfortable with, and streets and public spaces are less likely to be hostile jungles where the rudest and most aggressive get their way.
There is a strong need to reexamine the public spaces of Amman. They need to be extensively reconfigured, developed, and expanded as places where all come together as urban citizens, affirming their civility and their belonging to the city.
October 7, 2011