As Amman continues to experiment with new public places around the city, challenges of public space design and management are bound to arise, but it’s essential to learn from each experiment, and create models of success, if we are to come to a happy medium which strikes a balance between preservation and participation.
Right now, Amman is struggling with a new public space, and the jury is still out as to whether it will in fact remain public or become exclusive. I am referring to the large grassy open area up at the Citadel, which is very appealing to Ammanis, both young and old, for lack of any other similar space in the city. It is also a necessary outlet for the people of Jabal Qalaa and Wadi il-Haddadeh for lack of any other park or public they can access and use, particularly with the two-year development project currently taking place at il-Saha il-Hashemiyyeh.
At the time of the project’s development, the Greater Amman Municipality, the Ministry of Tourism and the Department of Antiquities publically promised that the area would remain open and accessible to all, and particularly the residents of Jabal Qalaa. I quote from GAM’s public statement on Urdun Mubdi3 dated May 23rd 2009: “At the Citadel, there has long
been a casual arrangement for access by locals and there is no intention to change this, in fact quite the opposite.”
The management of the space is now in the hands of the Department of Antiquities, and while they seem willing to find a balance that would ensure the space remains both accessible and preserved, this is proving more difficult than imagined.
The area is available for rent to anyone who wants to hold a party, a concert or an event and who may use it to eat, drink, sing, dance etc. till midnight or beyond. However, the residents of the Qalaa and other Ammanis wishing to use the site will have access to it only till 4:30 pm and under very specific rules. These rules have not been published yet, but as I
understood from the site manager they may include: No eating, no drinking, no ball playing, no bicycles, no music, no kites etc.
Furthermore, anybody wishing to bring a group of people to use the space, even if within the rules mentioned above, needs to send an official letter to the Department of Antiquities requesting permission, and needs to wait for an official response before they can do so. This applies even if the activity is with the local children or residents of the area, and even
if it is within official working hours and even if there is no request to exclude other people from using the space at the same time.
The above information has so far been word of mouth from the site manager and I am sure will be met with denial, so I decided to put the issue to the test. Yesterday Hamzet Wasel organized the Jabal Qalaa Discovery Day where around thirty adults and children from all over Amman learned to make and fly kites from the Qalaa kids. Others were learning how to make traditional sweets that we could all enjoy at the end of the day.
When it came time to fly the kites, I advised everyone (including the Jabal Qalaa kids) to go through the official gate and pay the entrance fee so that there is no question as to the legitimacy of our right to use the space in the same way that tourists and other visitors also use it. As groups of people started to go up to the site, the site-manager stopped them
and said that kite flying would not be permitted and that even if people pay to get in, they cannot fly their kites. After much negotiation and back and forth, she allowed people in, but said that next time, we would have to ask for written permission to fly kites with the kids, since this is classified as an event.
Frankly, I think the idea that people need written permission to use a public site for an activity is so central to Amman’s identity is ridiculous and completely unrealistic. Being allowed to use the site as “a favor” and at the whim of the site manager, which is what happening now, is in violation of the rights of Jordanian citizens to freely access and enjoy public spaces.
At the weekends, the place is full of people having picnics and hanging out and this has so far been tolerated. However, in the absence of clear rules and enforcement, people are littering and there is a fear that this will lead to a decision to ban people from using the space entirely in order to preserve it for visitors and paying customers.
As far as I can ascertain, the management of public space in Amman follows one of the following scenarios:
Let me start with a positive example: Envision and create a space for the public and take the time to create a solid management plan, which ensures that the use of the space is understood, and that the rules are both reasonable and clear. Enforce and reinforce these rules and gradually educate people as to how these rules serve them and their needs, thus creating a positive space that brings people together and is sustainable. An example of this is “King Hussein Garden”.
Develop a space and open it up to public use with minimal and eventually no enforcement of rules of use and conduct, leading to the deterioration of the site and a dwindling of the number and quality of visitors. Ultimately the site becomes a semi-dead space, which may eventually necessitate a complete overhaul or rethinking process with a potential repeat of the entire cycle. Case in point is “Muntazah Amman”.
Create a space and let it grow organically and become vibrant and attractive to the majority of city dwellers, and then introduce a development project which in turn manages to kill the space and turn into a place for undesirables, thus necessitating another large and costly development project to undo the mistakes of the first one. A good example of this is the “il-Saha il-Hashemiyyeh”, which is now undergoing another large development process.
Plan a green space that is meant for the public and quickly realize that its commercial value is too difficult to resist and slowly allow it to turn into a concrete commercial jungle, which bears no resemblance to the original plan. I don’t even think I need to tell you all which example fits this scenario: Our famous “King Abdullah I “Gardens””
Identify a space, which is vibrant and enjoyed by people, but where no rules are in place or are enforced, and where little or no care is taken to maintain and preserve the place. To remedy the situation, turn it into a beautiful and well cared for space but one that forbids the very activities that people once practiced and enjoyed. “Muntazah Luweibdeh” is a great example of this where the park is now lovely and well preserved but where no eating, drinking, balls, rollerblades, dogs etc are allowed.
Take a space, which was neglected, and turn into a park or a garden but pay little attention to the needs of the surrounding community and the users of the space, and make no effort to engage them in the process of its development. This is usually followed by a process of disappointment and anger at the abuse by the community for the gift that was bestowed on them, and often leads either to the re-neglect of the space or the introduction of security measures which reinforce the lack of ownership that initially lead people to not care for the space to begin with. This is also sometimes accompanied by a sentiment that people don’t really deserve such spaces because they are not able to care for or appreciate them. A recent example of this is the HSBC playground behind
Implement a new vision for a public area that can be emulated in other parts of the city and which will bring the diverse people of the city together in one shared space, then bow down to pressure from influential business owners or others, and allow it to become exclusive and elitist. “Wakalat Street” is a great example of this, where a few months after its official opening all the benches were removed because shop owners didn’t want non-paying customers to sit in front of their shops.
Develop a new plan or function for an existing space to create added-value and then exclude entire segments of society who do not fit into your vision for the space or who may disturb those who are your primary audience. This is evident at “Souq JARA” where boys and young men, primarily those from within the community, are not allowed to access the event, despite the fact that is on a public street and one where their school is located.
Surely, there has got to be a way for us, as officials and citizens, to negotiate a solution which does not lead us repeatedly into one of the first seven scenarios or to an additional scenario where people are excluded when the process of transformation takes a space from public to private in their own backyards.
As part of Hamzet Wasel’s work and in cooperation with the Mukhtar of Jabal Qalaa, we have been trying to discuss ideas with the site manager to find a reasonable balance between the Department of Antiquities’ responsibility to preserve the space and ensure its sustainability and the rights of all the people of the city, and not just those who can afford to pay, to use and enjoy the space.
I would welcome any suggestions, ideas, thoughts and opinions that could help us to achieve this balance.