Preserving Amman's Heart and Soul

Urban Crossroads #86



A pleasant, quiet residential street in the Jabal Amman First Circle area.

I initially intended to write a single article that addressed two of Amman’s older districts, the Downtown core and the Jabal Amman First Circle area. Considering how much there is to cover, the article became two: an article dealing with the downtown core, and the other with the First Circle area. As I started working on the First Circle area article, I found there is too much to cover, so I also ended up divided this article into two. The result is a trilogy of “Amman’s Heart and Soul” articles, of which this is the third.

My last article, which dealt with developments affecting the Jabal Amman First Circle area, gave particular attention to two of its streets, Khirfan and Rainbow, and ended by raising concerns regarding some of the trends currently taking place there. This article will address these trends and their possible impacts.

I had mentioned in my last article that the rate of change in the area varies from one part of it to the other. Khirfan Street, for example, in spite of its unique architectural and urban wealth, remains neglected and little affected by the changes taking place in the area, with only a handful of its buildings being renovated and re-adapted to house new uses. In contrast, the more upscale Rainbow Street and some of the neighborhoods adjacent to it are being completely transformed. Some of these transformations have been positive, but others are a source of concern and may end up irreversibly damaging whatever positive change may have been achieved there.

Late this summer, I took a long walk through the area, beginning with its gateway, the First Circle roundabout. The roundabout defines Rainbow Street’s western end and is the main point of entry for the Rainbow Street Urban Regeneration Project that the Amman municipality completed a few months ago, with the local architectural office Turath as designers. An empty plot of land along the roundabout has been converted into a public garden, forming one of a set of public spaces featured in the project. In addition to creating these public spaces, the project has included refurbishing the street’s sidewalks, replacing its asphalt pavement with cobblestone, and unifying the street’s commercial signs, all aimed at upgrading the street’s visual character. The public spaces are its most successful component. One of them, located along the middle of Rainbow Street, particularly stands out. It includes a series of terraces providing a panoramic view of Amman that includes the city’s historical Citadel across the Downtown area below. Visiting this space on a summer evening is a very pleasant experience, and people from all walks of life congregate there to enjoy the view.

In contrast, the changes that have taken place along the eastern parts of the street, which primarily form its residential segment, are truly disturbing. As I walked towards that part of the street, I was surprised that the traditionally quiet street was overwhelmed by a never-ending stream of vehicular traffic. My initial thought was that a special event may be taking place there, but it soon became apparent that this is what the street unfortunately has come to be like on a typical summer evening.

It turned out that overwhelming stream of traffic simply resulted from people coming by car to one of a handful of cafés located along Rainbow Street as well as along Mango Street, which branches out of it (and officially is known as the Umar ibn al-Khattab Street). Parked cars overtook the two sides of the street, barely leaving space for vehicles to move in between. Rough stone boulders and other barriers were haphazardly placed by residential and business property owners along the sides of the street to prevent cars from parking in whatever little empty space was available. All in all, the result is a very hostile urban setting. Moreover, music was glaring out of a couple of the cafés. The historical area that best embodies the heart and soul of Amman seems to have deteriorated into an unpleasant, loud, and crowded entertainment district!

This is a very serious and most unfortunate development. This area of Amman is a very unique part of the city. Much of the history of modern Jordan is housed in its buildings. It is characterized by a sensitive urban scale, elegant low-key buildings, and an abundance of mature trees. Although it seems that the buildings of the area will be preserved for the time being, its character as a historical urban area with a healthy, balanced mix of commercial, residential, and institutional uses is coming under brutal assault, and what is taking place may only be the beginning of what is to come.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with establishing restaurants and cafés as well as other commercial facilities within residential districts. Such a mix of uses brings diversity to neighborhoods and contributes to enriching the quality of urban living. In fact, a primary strength of the Rainbow Street area is that it is one of the few parts of Amman consisting of a human-scaled, traditional commercial main street - with limited and slow-moving vehicular traffic - that serves the residential neighborhoods bordering it. What is taking place, however, is that these residential neighborhoods are coming under assault. If current developments continue, almost all of their residents will be pushed out by the noise and traffic, and the current mix of residential and commercial uses will be destroyed.

Many working on rejuvenating historical city cores throughout the world are very well aware of such dangers, and there is no need to look far for examples. The team in charge of rehabilitating the city of Aleppo in Syria, a project that has received considerable international acclaim, is very concerned about the overwhelming spread of restaurants in the old city and is putting in place mechanisms that aim at safeguarding its residential character in the face of such intrusions.

These mechanisms do not necessarily need to prohibit establishing new restaurants or cafés, but may introduce what are referred to as performance zoning tools. In other words, new regulations would not specifically allow or prohibit a certain use in the area, but would clearly regulate the impacts that such uses may have on the area as with the amount of noise, garbage, or traffic they generate. A building that functions as a restaurant or café will almost always generate far more noise, garbage, and traffic than one of a similar size used as a residence or even as a commercial facility of another type, such as an art gallery, grocery store, clothing store, or antique shop.

Strict regulations accordingly need to be put in place to limit the amount of noise and garbage that any activity in the area is allowed to generate. As for traffic, the solutions will have to be draconian. The First Circle area provides for a delicate urban setting. Its attraction lies to a great deal in its small-scale structures and relatively narrow streets. There are only so many moving or parked vehicles it can accommodate. Parking therefore will need to be greatly restricted, particularly during the evening hours, and limited only to residents, to whom special parking permits would be issued (this will require putting in place a far more efficient and effective traffic management system than what currently is available). The patrons of restaurants and cafés therefore would need to access the area by means other than their private cars. They may come by taxi or public transportation (assuming its services are upgraded). Another option would be to provide a shuttle service that would link this area to parking facilities located in other parts of town. These could be areas where there might be pressure on parking facilities in the daytime, but not during the evenings or nighttime. Attempting to squeeze additional parking spaces in the First Circle area, however, simply is not an option.

Over a year ago, I wrote an Urban Crossroads article entitled “To Kill the Goose that Lays the Golden Egg.” The article addressed the negative consequences that would affect the First Circle area if uses that generate too much vehicular traffic end up overwhelming its residential character. It unfortunately seems that this scenario is beginning to materialize. The situation still is salvageable, but will not be for long. Serious, carefully thought out, and innovative regulatory interventions will need to be put in place to preserve the area’s character. Treating Amman’s urban and architectural heritage as a commercial jackpot to be exploited until there isn’t much of it left would be a very unfortunate course of action to follow.

Mohammad al-Asad

November 6, 2008



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