Amman’s urban development and.. a touch of ideology!

29/10/2005

Jara street market, Ramadan 2005

Amman is gradually becoming a real city. It is becoming ‘old enough’ to be ‘real’. There is an effect of accumulation of history, buildings, people, memories and relationships that is making the whole urban experience of Amman more interesting and deep. I will not attempt to elaborate more on this, but I think you get the point.

One of the most interesting aspects of what’s happening in Amman is the attention now being given to the old neighborhoods of Jabal Amman and Jabal Luweibdeh. This is a tend that started to formulate in the late 80′s (as far as I know). When I was studying architecture in the early nineties I had the good fortune to have Dr Taleb Rifai as one of my professors. He and others were paying attention to Amman’s urban heritage at a time when demolishing a house from the 1920′s and turning it into a parking lot would not raise an eyebrow. Dr Rifai took us on tours of old Amman and made us youngsters look at our city in a totally new light.

Shortly after, institutions like Darat Al Funun in Jabal Luweibdeh and Books@Cafe in Jabal Amman, moved into the old neighborhoods and started the current trend of ‘moving back to old Amman’. What a decade ago started as the renovation and re-use of singular buildings has today led to talk about complete urban projects.

At the same time, modern urban developments have also been taking place in Amman, such as the building of Le Royal, The Hyatt twin towers, the malls, etc. This trend has also gathered momentum. We now await the skyscrapers on the 6th circle (Jordan Gate) and the redevelopment of Adbdali, just to mention two projects.

So far, the two trends (the resurrection of old Amman and the modern developments) have, coexisted in peace. So far.. Now, ideology is coming into play. Or is it?

The N word: Accusation of neo-liberalism! A story in Al-Ghad newspaper a few days ago caught my attention. It announced a JD 5 Million project by the Greater Amman Municipality for the ‘Rehabilitation of Rainbow Street as a ‘heritage’ attraction point’. The plan, as outlined in the article, sounds very interesting. Based around the notion of ‘Rainbow Street’ being ‘my street of many colors’, it calls for more space for pedestrians, a regulation of signage, a projection screen showing old movies near the old Rainbow movie theatre among other eight other attraction points. It even talk about ‘bohemian murals’!! (Remember: this is the GAM talking!).

(A rough English translation of the article can be found here).

The plan, which has been ‘broadly’ drawn up by a local consultancy (more about that in a bit) will soon be issued as a tender by the Greater Amman Municipality. It is not clear what will be tendered: the detailed design of the street or the actual construction/implementation work. I noted that a the article stressed the notion of taking the street back in time to its days of glory. Although I generally disagree with such conceptual approaches, any plan that will rehabilitate this street in a decent manner should be welcome. In any case it will be a learning experience for Amman.

Then, towards the end of Al Ghad’s article a paragraph jumped at me:

“A document at the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM) admits that Amman cannot compete with other Arab cities through Neo-liberal urban restructuring projects such as the Abdali Development, as the competition to attract global capital and tourism between Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Tunis and cities in the Gulf is very tough”

Neo-liberal! Now that’s interesting. Makes you think..

How did this ideological branding make its way into the discourse about Rainbow Street. Should we prepare ourselves for a fight between an inclusive, left leaning, heritage and identity emphasizing a Rainbow Street of Many Colors and an exclusive, globalized, capitalist Abdali project.

Is the GAM, feeling the heat of competition and some loss of control over the Abdali project, and aligning itslef with a competing social/urban agenda.

Wait a minute.. Isn’t GAM a partner in the Jordan Gate skyscrapers project (it provided the land, formerly a public park). Isn’t that a so-called neo-liberal project too?

After a few seconds it dawned upon me. My eyes scanned back to name of the local consultant who has drawn the broad plan for the Rainbow project. It’s a company called ‘Turath’ (translates into ‘Heritage’) headed by none other than our friend Dr. Rami Daher, whom I consider a very interesting and intelligent urban theorist in Jordan. Incidentally, he is really into ‘the interrogation and questioning of neo-liberal slogans’ of the new mega projects now underway in Jordan . In his university research work he finds in the Abdali Project and its sponsor Mawared as well as the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA) convenient targets for this interrogation and dissection.

This explains the accusation of neo-liberalism in the article. Still, it is interesting that this essentially ideological stance has made it through to the press. Wether this signals some broader vision from GAM remains to be seen.

The assumption that Amman cannot compete with other cities through those ‘neo-liberal’ projects is an idea that itself needs some interrogation. In my mind, capitalist mega-projects and more sensitive, inclusive urban heritage projects can play a complimentary role, if done right, that is.

What ‘right’ means here is that both need to be human-centric, environmentally, functionally and aesthetically sound and sensitive to their contexts. And yes we need to have an urban discussion in this country, where people feel that they have a say in what is happening to their city. At the same time, we cannot just sit there and imagine global capital and skyscrapers away. It seems to me that the capitalists have to move in first with their big plans. Otherwise nothing will move if we keep waiting for state-led developments or some sort of grassroots urban movement. After the big boys come in, some ‘resistance’ form the grassroots usually occurs, setting in motion a discussion on policy and vision.

Heritage-based or modern, liberal, neo-liberal or socialist. If it’s not well designed (in the broadest sense of design as a problem solving, creative and innovative discipline) it’s not going to work.

The next 12-18 months will be an exciting time for Amman’s urban development. Fasten your seat belts.

7 Comments

  1. I think that a great job was done attracting more Amman people off Abdoun and Shmaisani, to Jabal Amman, and Waibdeh. But I think that it isn’t reasonable to think that we can use urban/Heritage cards to compete with cities like Cairo or Damascus. Amman have it’s own identity with the mixture of it is unique with. Now what would be your thoughts about seeing a Starbucks in Rainbow Street ? or a small Virgin Store near National Museum in Waibdeh? I think that this is part of what makes Amman. The mixture.

  2. Roba says:

    Wonderful post Ahmad, it surely will be an exciting ride. Let’s just hope it won’t be too bumpy and will not result in any damage to any of Amman’s facets, especially when we are talking about areas such as Jabal Amman, Weibdeh, and Abdali.

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  4. Hamzeh says:

    Ahmad, this is a very nice article. I want to bring your attention to the following critical aspect of any urban development plan especially in our city, and that is sorting out two things: parking, and traffic!

    For instance, our home in Amman is just about a mile away from the 6th circle in Umm Uthaina, anybody at our house knows that it is crazy to even think about entering the 6th circle during rush hours (which are many in Amman for some reason). Consider that there are two ways of getting to the 6th circle from the northwestern parts of Amman (Sweile7, Jbaiha, Tla3 El-3ali, Umm El Summaq and pretty much Al Rabyeh is included too). Those two ways are: Mecca Street then turn right into Umm Uthaina’s one lane narrow street that takes you directly towards the 6th circle, or Al Madina Al Munawwara Street then make a U-turn before you turn right and go down to the 7th circle and go up Umm Uthaina right next to Amra Hotel.

    These two paths are so narrow and already very jammed during rush hours. If you suddenly add two scyskrapers at the 6th circle, I see two things happening: inflated traffic, and even more rush hours.

    That is without even talking about parking.

    I think we have a problem.

  5. onzlo says:

    “I think we have a problem.”

    I agree, and I think this problem is due to the excessive car culture of ammanis, we definatly need a safe, clean, affordable and reliable public transport system as a priority, i actually think that funds set aside for new tunnels and brides etc.. should be diverted to the public transport infrastructure first since these tunnels and bridges are only temporary, yet very costly interventions.

  6. Ana says:

    On the subject of Neo-Liberalism, here is some text I saved from a political discussion I came across:

    Neo-liberalism is not a flattering term. It’s the complement to neo-conservatism. Basically, a neo-liberal is someone who is not a traditional liberal. Just as a neo-conservative is some one who is not a traditional conservative. A neo-liberal is a person who services the neo-conservative agenda.

    Liberalism with an upper case L is a semi-well defined system of thought and practices such as democracy, human rights, constitutional protections, affirmative action, abortion, economic safeguards, civil rights, etc.

    Neo-liberalism is a term that is applicable only within the context of third world countries, espicially the Arab and Muslim worlds.

    Sounds convoluted? but so is the definition of neo-conservatism.

    But here is a short list of differentiators:

    Neo conservatives have Israel’s interest as their top priority. Neo-lib service this need through advocacy of “improved” ties with Israel unconditionally.

    Neo-cons advocate human rights and democracy reforms only to the extent those two will produce pro-US governments. Neo-libs help implement “reforms” so long as they don’t undermine the power of the non-democratic ruling regimes.

    Neo-cons consider terrorism the hottest security issue and view the human rights violation committed by US and Israel as an unfortunate but necessary price to fight terrorism. Neo-libs provide the necessary intellectual and political climate to focus on domestic social issues only while insisting that any energy spent on human rights issues in Iraq and Palestine are obstacles to social and economic development.

    The list is long but the definition of neo-lib and neo-cons have very much been crystallized.

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