rest my tired legs

One of my complains of Amman has been its lack of public space.  In Cairo, I couldn’t walk a city block without finding a cafe with chairs on the sidewalk, inviting you to sit down for tea and shisha, to read the newspaper, hang out, shoot the shit.  Damascus feels full of lots of tiny little coffee shops with character, and in Yemen, well, they just sit on the street.  In Amman it’s much more reserved, much more private, and its public spaces d0 not invite the passerby to stop and hang out, unless to purchase something.  Coffee shops and other cheap, relaxed atmospheres are harder to come by.  I think this is due to the fact that Amman is basically a new city, and mostly sprung up to accommodate housing for the floods of refugees that now call this place home.

Looks like developers here have noticed that as well, and have plans to change the urban landscape here.  Article below.

Downtown Amman -- from NYT

February 24, 2010
Amman Journal

Sidewalks, and an Identity, Sprout in Jordan’s Capital

AMMAN, Jordan — It might be too much to call it a miracle, but the government of this ancient metropolis that rolls out over seven sun-burned hills has managed something that until now seemed impossible. It built sidewalks that are easy to walk on.

But wait, Amman has achieved something else, too! It has put in park benches. And not just in parks, but right there, on those new, flat sidewalks that do not end suddenly, for no apparent reason. Sidewalks and benches are easy to dismiss as discretionary conveniences, unnecessary urban flourishes. That is especially true considering how people here need so much — better jobs, better schools and better health care.

But to talk to those behind the sidewalks and the benches is to see these ubiquitous objects as powerful tools of social planning, tearing down walls between rich and poor, helping a city bereft of an identity develop a sense of place and ownership.

“I think it made people a little happier,” said Omar al-Deeb, 68, who grew up in the less wealthy East Amman side of the city.

Mr. Deeb sells shoes and sandals in a tightly packed neighborhood where shops and homes, mosques and churches all cling to the sides of a hill, linked by narrow, winding streets. His workplace is a plastic chair on the corner of Al Taj Street and Bader Street, right next to one of the city’s latest innovations, a pedestrian walkway with trees and benches. A street once clogged with cars is now a place where families from a side of town that often felt ignored by the government have benches to sit on.

“Everybody likes it,” said Ahmed Sosa, 38, owner of a nut shop just off the new square that opened this month.

These are not one-time projects, a few benches here and there, but part of a master plan for Amman, an attempt to bring order to a city with roots that date from 8500 B.C. and whose modern incarnation hosts 2.5 million residents, 3 million in the summer. Amman’s master plan has a slogan — “A livable city is an organized city, with a soul” — a subtle way of describing what Amman does not want to be, which is Dubai.

“We were facing Dubaification,” said Gerry Post, a Canadian who is president and founder of the Amman Institute for Urban Development, a team of mostly Jordanian architects, urban planners, designers and thinkers created by Mayor Omar Maani to help restore, rather than reinvent, Amman.

When Mr. Maani was appointed four years ago, there were plans to build 16 glass and steel towers along a main road of Amman, towers that would block out the vista of white houses carpeting the hills. The tallest was to be 80 stories. The towers would have strained the infrastructure, but more troublesome to the urban planners, they would have created islands of privilege for the very rich.

The projects were relocated to three low points around the city, preserving the skyline and a sense of community, along with the much needed investment.

“I don’t want two cities in one,” said Rami F. Daher, the architect and urban reinventor behind some of the city’s most subtle and yet most audacious projects.

In Mr. Daher’s world, benches matter, as do sidewalks.

“Most important of all is social diversity and justice,” Mr. Daher said, sounding more like a political activist than a planner.

Jordan’s political system makes change difficult. Like many others in the Arab world, it offers a veneer of democracy that in the end yields to one central power, in this case the monarchy. The urban planners see a chance to empower citizens by changing the spaces around them, but by first asking how they want to live. They do surveys, and Mr. Post has trained staff to hold community meetings.

“What’s lacking in the city is a sense of citizenship,” Mr. Post said. “We have to create a sense of citizenship as well as stewardship.”

Jordan has grown with each wave of immigrants — Circassians, Armenians, Lebanese and Palestinians. Later, Jordanians who lived in smaller villages and cities moved to Amman, helping it develop into an economic, political and cultural center. But no matter how many generations later, people rarely identify as being from Amman, many people here said. Developing an urban identity and altering deeply held customs are difficult tasks.

Already, though, there have been some small victories.

“If you’re a girl and you’re just hanging out on a regular street or sitting on a sidewalk, it’s considered inappropriate,” said Reem al-Hambali, 20, as she sat in the bright winter sun along the first pedestrian plaza built here. “Everyone will look at you and ask, ‘Why is this girl sitting there?’ But here it’s O.K. We can sit here and it’s normal.”

But the experience of Wakalat Street also demonstrates the pitfalls of change. The street had been the exclusive realm of wealthy shoppers from west Amman, and shopkeepers were not interested in building a more egalitarian space. They wanted people with credit cards.

Those shop owners did not care to have a lot of young people of modest means hanging around. It intimidated their customers, they said. So they complained, and the city promptly removed most of the benches.

Another major project was a nearly mile-long stretch of road on the eastern edge of west Amman that is now called Rainbow Street. It was quietly on its way to becoming an exclusive, inner-city community for the rich and privileged.

That did not happen.

The city would not let Mr. Daher close the street to traffic so he had it paved with cobblestones, to slow the traffic, soften the view and fill the air with the rumble of traffic passing over the bumpy pavement. But most of all, Mr. Daher said, the sidewalks were flattened for walking.

There were problems. The British Council, which has been on that road for years, refused to lower a massive wall, to protect its prisonlike security facade. But a local school did lower its walls. Stores were set back to allow pedestrians to pass, and to make room for benches.

People like Rainbow Street. They mingle with Ammanis from other parts of the city. Some residents have complained about the foot traffic, and others have complained that prices and rents have gone up. But Rainbow Street appears reborn.

“It’s a change for us, but it’s a good change,” said Samar al-Sarayreh, 17, as she sat with her sister on a scenic overlook of the city. “When I come here now, there are fewer cars and there is a place to sit down and relax outside the house. It’s a public place for everyone.”

Mona El-Naggar contributed reporting.

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