Wakalat Street.... Again!

Urban Crossroads #75

 

 

The pedestrianized Wakalat Street in the Sweifieh district, Amman. (Courtesy of the Greater Amman Municipality)

Of the many recently completed architectural and urban projects in Amman, the pedestrianization and rehabilitation of Wakalat Street in Amman’s commercial Sweifieh district is by far the most important.

Although the project only occupies an urban strip of a few hundred meters, the upgraded street provides a pilot project and a model that can positively redefine how the residents of Amman interact with the city, and can help establish a tradition of civic spaces in it. Before the project was inaugurated this past summer, Wakalat Street was a congested, polluted artery overwhelmed by vehicular traffic. It was marked by a chaotic and ugly proliferation of commercial signs, and was utterly dysfunctional regarding the needs of pedestrians. The pedestrianization and rehabilitation project has transformed what was an awful example of an urban street into an oasis of tranquility and visual elegance within the chaotic mess that is Sweifieh.

The rehabilitation project included paving the street with interlocking concrete units, planting trees, regulating commercial signs, and, most importantly, creating one of the very few places in Amman where pedestrians can move freely and safely from the menace of automobile traffic. With it, Amman finally has gotten a first-rate pedestrian public space. The people of Amman clearly love it. Just visit the street on any afternoon or evening, and you will see people enjoying it, whether strolling, shopping, or sitting in one of its cafés. I recently was there on a chilly evening, and noticed that the cold weather did not prevent people from going there.

The project also has a very important and positive social dimension. It quickly has become what a healthy urban public space should be, one that people of both genders, of different age groups, and of varying socio-economic backgrounds use and enjoy in a spirit of mutual acceptance. It provides a great example that stands against the informal de-facto socio-economic segregation that has come to characterize Amman, particularly between its eastern and western sections. A healthy city is one that has an ample supply of public spaces, whether sidewalks, plazas, parks, or pedestrian streets, in which all inhabitants of the city can come together regardless of gender, age, or social and economic backgrounds. Wakalat Street is a great example of such a space.

Unfortunately, the street has its distracters, and a number of the shop owners along it have initiated an aggressive and hostile campaign against the rehabilitation project. They seem to prefer the old congested, exhaust-fume-filled, pedestrian-hostile, visually chaotic street! Interestingly enough, their attitude provides a step-by-step repeat of the reactions of shop owners to the pedestrianization efforts initiated in various parts of the world back in the 1960s and 1970s. Shop owners along pedestrianized streets then loudly complained that their businesses would suffer as customers would not be able to park their cars right in front of their shops. What they failed to recognize, but nonetheless soon discovered, was that while the handful of parking spaces in front of their shops disappeared, they were more than compensated by the throngs of pedestrians who started walking in front of their shops, thus accomplishing what no advertising campaign can do, which is to bring masses of potential customers right to the doorsteps of their shops. With time, those shop owners realized that the pedestrianization of their streets is almost universally good for business, and shop owners along neighboring streets soon started asking to be included.

The continued aggressive hostility that shop owners have expressed towards the pedestrianization of Wakalat Street is troubling, and there is a need to get down to the bottom of it. It may be a fear of change. These shop owners are used to having their customers access their shops in a certain manner (by parking their cars right in front of the shops, when an empty parking space is available, that is), and are afraid that any change in this arrangement may negatively affect their business. Of course, all they have to do is to look at previous experiences in different parts of the world, where business in fact often picks up immediately following a street’s pedestrianization or soon after it. It might be a negotiating technique. Considering how new government-imposed taxes and fees are a fact of life, the shop owners may be afraid that the Amman Municipality at one point may charge them for the costs of upgrading the street, and therefore are taking the preemptive move of declaring the project a failure that is bad for their businesses.

In any case, preliminary research on Wakalat Street by an independent organization indicates that business levels have not gone down, and I am confident that additional research will confirm these preliminary findings. It also will be interesting to track the rental rates of shops along the street. I am willing to wager that they will be going up (if they have not already done so) as the positive value of the street is becoming increasingly apparent. Of course, business amongst restaurants and cafés along the street already has picked up considerably.

A more disturbing reaction of shop owners along the street is their assertion that the pedestrianization has brought what they more or less are identifying as “undesirable elements” to the street. By that, they basically are referring to younger men of lower socio-economic levels who frequent the street but cannot afford to buy products from their shops. This is a rather frightening assertion. The street is a fully public space and no one has the right to determine who is and who is not allowed to use it. If shop owners want to control who comes in the vicinity of their shops, there are shopping malls, those semi-public spaces where a level of control on who enters may be exercised. Streets, on the other hand, are for all.

Moreover, I have visited Wakalat Street on numerous occasions (and I often suggest meeting there when getting together with someone for coffee), and am consistently impressed by how people of different backgrounds coexist in the street without bothering each other. Also, the casual strolling of policemen and policewomen along the street, some of whom are mounted on horses, provides for a friendly and un-intimidating presence, but also a reminder that uncivil behavior, as with young men harassing women, will not be tolerated.

There is no shortage of things that the Greater Amman Municipality can and should do differently. With Wakalat Street, however, the municipality got it right. This intervention was carefully planned and executed over a considerable period of time, and carried out through the participation of numerous experts from both inside and outside Jordan (including the internationally-acclaimed and highly-respected Danish urban planner Jan Gehl), and through consultation with various stakeholders. Many of us repeatedly have complained about the deterioration of the quality of public life in Amman. With Wakalat Street, something positive finally is being done about it. A few criticisms may be made of the street, as with the quality of design and execution of a few details, or the status of parking around it, which remains chaotic in the true Sweifieh manner, and dominated by self-appointed men who insist on “cleaning” your car and getting paid for it. These, however, are minor problems that easily can be rectified.

Wakalat Street is an intervention that brings back civility to our public spaces, a civility I remember in the smaller Amman of my childhood. If the experiment of Wakalat Street is allowed to be sabotaged by the highly-vocal and aggressive hostile pressures of a few shop owners (they already have pressured the municipality into removing the seating areas along the street), the urban evolution of Amman will be dealt a heavy blow, and the city will be damned to be dominated indefinitely by the motor vehicle with the congestion, pollution, and destruction of city life it brings with it, and Amman’s fate will be controlled by the pressures of narrowly-defined special interest groups. Such groups may have valid concerns, but those concerns should never be allowed to override the public good. If there is hope for Amman as an urban center, the citizens of Amman need to clearly express their support for this commendable experiment and also for its expansion into other parts of the city.

Mohammad al-Asad

December 13, 2007

 

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