As I looked out of the window early in the morning a few days ago, I noticed that construction work had started on the only remaining empty plot in the vicinity of our house. It turns out that a developer is constructing an eight-unit apartment building there. Interestingly enough, a different developer bought another property opposite our house only a few weeks ago. The property consists of two plots of land. One of them contains a single-family house with a basement apartment, and the other plot functions as an extension of the property’s garden. The developer plans to tear down the house and build two eight-unit apartment buildings on the two plots. The story does not end here. We live in a duplex that also is located on two plots, one of which is a garden extension. Over the past few months, more than one developer has offered to buy the property in order to build two eight-unit apartment buildings.
As a result, we will soon be getting three buildings containing 24 new apartments in the area where our house is located. Had we agreed to sell our house, the number would have increased to five buildings and 36 apartments. All these new buildings will be located in the relatively small area of about half a hectare.
Amman has reached a new phase of its continuous growth. For the longest time, and until the late 1990s, Amman was a city with a ubiquitous amount of empty plots. Although the price of land was continuously on the increase, there also was a regular and considerable supply of empty land inside the city’s ever-expanding borders. Moreover, it was not until the early 1990s that apartment buildings became widespread in the city. Until then, it was common for people to obtain a piece of land and build a single-family or a two-unit semi-detached house on it. With time, they may add apartments on the second or third floors (four stories were not allowed until about two decades ago). Their children would live in those extensions when they started their own families, or they would be rented out.
A number of factors allowed for the spread of apartment buildings as a form of real estate investment in Amman. The first was a change in legislation that took place in the early 1970s. Until then, one legally could not own an apartment in a building. Instead, one could only own a percentage of the building. With the new legislation, it became legally possible to have apartments in a building owned by different owners, rather than have all of them collectively own the building.
Although this change set the stage for the spread of apartment buildings as real estate investment projects, their proliferation did not take place for some time. A major change in Amman’s urban fabric began to take place in the second half of the 1990s, when it became possible to obtain relatively long-term housing loans. With that, one could purchase a residence without having to pay all of its price upfront. One only needed to save part of the price and borrow the rest from the bank. This opened up the housing market to a considerably larger segment of the population. As expected, many of these new home owners, particularly newly-weds, chose to live in apartments rather than single-family homes. They neither needed the larger houses and gardens, nor could they afford them.
And of course, as the price of land gradually went up, the cost of owning a single-family home eventually became prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of people. Apartments became the norm.
As Amman expanded at an overwhelming rate, and as traffic congestion became a normal part of daily life, the residents of the city increasingly opted to live in its more central and easily-accessible sections. Although land is more expensive there than at the city’s outskirts, the price of land for an apartment building would be divided among the apartment owners.
Amman’s empty plots as a result began to be filled up, with those closer to the city center being filled up first. Considering Jordan’s considerable population growth, not to mention the significant number of people who have moved into the country from neighboring ones because of political instability, the demand for housing in Amman remains strong even if overall economic conditions are weak, as is the case today.
Back to our neighborhood. When my parents bought the house where we live in the early 1990s, there were more empty plots than built ones around us, and the majority of the built plots had single-family houses on them. With time, the plots were built up, with most of the new construction consisting of apartment buildings. Even though we live in an area that only two decades ago was located at the outskirts of the city (it is between the Sixth and Seventh circles, west of al-Madina Street), it is now centrally located, not only because of the growth of the city around it, but also because a good number of the city’s businesses and institutions have moved to areas such as ours.
Now that the area where we live is fully built up, a new development is taking place there. Existing houses such as the ones mentioned at the beginning of the article, and all of which are less than thirty years old, are now beginning to be torn down to make way for apartment buildings. This phenomenon already is well established in the more central parts of the city, and is spreading. Amman is undergoing a process that other cities in the region such as Cairo and Beirut already have gone through. Houses are torn down, and apartment buildings take their place.
Cities by nature are places to where people congregate. As the city grows and expands, land prices in it go up. This means that landowners will want to build as much of their plots as existing zoning regulations would allow, and will even place as much pressure on the authorities as they can to increase the amount of allowable built up areas. The more one can build on a plot of land, the higher are the financial returns. Increasing population density accordingly becomes the norm.
This increase in city density does offer advantages to city residents. Having sizable numbers of people live and work in a given area usually means that they form a critical mass of inhabitants that make it feasible for various services to develop in those areas, such as shops, restaurants, offices, schools, and health clinics. Having these various services located close to where one lives makes life easier for city residents as they do not have to cross large distances to reach them. In most cases, these services are close enough that one can reach them by foot.
For this high-density arrangement to work, the necessary urban infrastructure and services needs to be provided. For example, garbage collection needs to be highly efficient since the amount of waste produced in high-density urban settings will be considerable. Open green public spaces need to be provided since the majority of inhabitants will not have their own gardens. Also, the city needs to be as pedestrian friendly as possible, which translates into having well-designed and well-constructed sidewalks, pedestrian paths, and street crossings that separate pedestrians from vehicular traffic.
Unfortunately, none of this exists in Amman. Garbage collection services continue to deteriorate at an alarming rate. Open green public spaces are rare, and the precious little that exists is very poorly maintained, if maintained at all. As for the condition of pedestrian movement in the city, it is scandalous. Amman is a city that is completely dominated by the automobile and by chaotic driving habits, which makes walking in it both difficult and unsafe.
Increased density, if not dealt with well, easily can become a case of over-crowdedness. I worry that this is where Amman is heading . It already is there when it comes to traffic, as traffic congestion is now a common state of affairs. The 24 units that will appear in our neighborhood over the next year or so will mean that 24 families will move into the neighborhood, but will not have access to green public spaces. Because life in Amman without an automobile is extremely difficult, they will bring 24 to 48 new automobiles that will compete to park and move in the streets of the neighborhood. And they will produce more garbage even though the municipal authorities are unable to collect what already is produced with any degree of efficiency.
Amman’s density will only continue to increase in the foreseeable future. With the absence of any strategies that may attempt to deal with that increase (the Amman masterplan of a few years ago already is a distant memory), it is clear that Amman is entering yet another very difficult phase of its urban growth.
March 17, 2013