Words By: Sandra Hiari
The summer season is a perfect time for understanding how Amman functions as a city. The temporary crowds coming into town increases the population density in the Capital, so much so that travel times skyrocket, and parking becomes even more scarce. These daily nuisances continue to pile up until the last flight carrying summer visitors back to their home countries departs. The problem, however, shouldn’t be taken lightly as it offers a glimpse into what Amman’s future will look like once its resident population outgrows itself, and what was once only a seasonal annoyance becomes a permanent reality.
According to the Jordan Customs Department, a total of 200,000 vehicles entered the Kingdom this past June and July, with the Greater Amman Municipality estimating roughly 1.2 million cars hitting the Capital’s streets during the daytime. Although these numbers are for transitory motorists, when coupled with the growth in local car ownership and their tangible contribution to traffic jams, summer nuisances can quickly become a permanent problem. If one is to adopt the traditional approach of the municipality – an approach that solves traffic problems by providing transport solutions – then GAM is destined to run out of solutions. More roundabouts, bridges, underpasses and road expansions can only serve a certain density before Amman begins to experience a Cairo situation.
One local, yet citywide de facto case at hand is congestion on major thoroughfares where rows of shawerma and fruit cocktail joints line the road . Case in hand: the Abdallah Ghosheh street bottleneck. The American version of a quick meal – a McDonald’s and the Jordanian version of it – Shawerma Reem sandwich more than meat between their two stores: a bottle neck of a bridge and plenty of cars.
The status quo of the street, specifically on the side of the chain of small restaurants, demands a police officer to be present during the night to organize traffic due to the high number patrons picking up food. The officer is expected to manage a problem made present by the lack of sufficient parking spots and poor road design, while allowing businesses to serve their patrons uninterrupted. This shortsightedness in planning can’t be thrown on the shoulders of a policeman to solve, and clearly such a weak management approach to a problem isn’t working.
Public vs. Private: Historical Intentions
As bad as this situation may seem, historically, this specific area was never intended to be the busy area it is today. Digging into the zoning map of Amman, which indicates property boundaries (for private use) versus road right-of-way (for public use) along with what the owners are permitted to develop for their land – one surprise finding is that these shops were zoned for local commercial uses. Socially, local commercial zones are meant to have a limited catchment area – a geographic area with services utilized by residents of the neighborhood. In real terms, these areas are meant to mainly serve all those living within a 500m radius of the commercial strip. To further stress their neighborhood character, the buildings occupying these plots are usually small and have the same controls on design as the residential plots around them in order to aesthetically blend in.
On Abdullah Ghosheh, the subdivision scheme for the commercial plots is meant to achieve a cozy urban fabric with plot sizes at least 400sq.meters in area (for comparison purposes, this is roughly half the minimum area allocated for a residential villa plot in areas like Khalda). Clearly, on the zoning front, these shops were never meant to serve the function of modern-day reality nor infringe on the flow of traffic with their customer-base.
Up until 2005, the situation wasn’t as problematic until the city decided to capitalize on the potential of Abdallah Ghosheh street as a linker between Mecca Street and Seventh circle (Zahran Street). The left U-turn on the traffic light at the intersection of Mecca Street and Abdallah Ghosheh street was piling up with more cars than the signalized intersection could handle. A mere transportation engineering solution was introduced: constructing a left-turning bridge.
This meant that the street’s planned usage as a low-capacity local road was upgraded to a higher-capacity road, allowing motorists to get to Seventh circle quicker by utilizing this piece of infrastructure. The bridge, after elevating over the previously signalized intersection, touches ground at the nozzle of the Shawerma Reem building, taking away two lanes from in front of the building. That means the traffic coming from Mecca Street turning right on Abdallah Ghoseh Street conflicts on one hand with high-speed vehicles shooting off from the bridge and parked cars belonging to patrons of the restaurants. Aerial maps post-bridge construction, indicate how traffic congestion started appearing in front of the building housing these restaurants.
Closing the Gap on Malfunctions
The sharp disconnect between the urban planning rationale present in city maps, with the sole transport-centered solution, has set up the area to functionally fail. Whether the original urban planning rationale was undermined by transport solutions, or whether city planners failed to engage with transport planners to address reoccurring malpractices, it becomes clear that the zoning plans have been left stale as the city continues to grow.
Why GAM opts to using transport solutions in the absence of comprehensive rezoning for areas that have long outgrown their growth expectations in this case, is but a kaleidoscope into the broader legal issues concerning ownership rights and cultural attitudes towards them.
Collective rights and the whole idea of urban planning provided for citizens as a public service has become legally undermined.
Throughout the lifetime of any piece of land, up to 25% of the property can be expropriated for public use – usually in the form of roads and utilities. Since, roads lie within eminent domain, by mere fact of mandate, GAM could operate easily within them. Any infringement on plots, in the form of rezoning or expropriation of land, comes with both a price ticket and a ground for taking the municipality to court for infringement of private property. As the civil law overrides municipal law beyond the 25% clause, any comprehensive municipal plan for an entire commercial strip can be overruled in court by lawsuits from owners of fragmented shops scattered across the road. This complexity under which city planners must operate provides little room for growth.
Collective rights and the whole idea of urban planning provided for citizens as a public service has become legally undermined. The city of Amman, a population in the early million range still operates under the Municipalities law, and is governed by almost the same set of rules that a small populated town of 5,000 in Jordan is subject to (with the exception of rules for formation of the city-council).
Recently, during discussions on the draft Municipalities Law, the Lower House overturned a bill proposed by an MP, calling for a separate law to govern Amman. The government echoed the same sentiment with the Minister of Municipal Affairs, Walid Al Masri, saying that GAM is a municipality with no functions that differ from other municipalities. Left unresolved, the systematic and consistent turf battles between GAM and the government continue to be evident in GAM’s ability to control the eminent domain and solve modern day issues.
Congestion in front of restaurants and shops that line the main roads represent only a microcosm of the internal dichotomy that GAM faces between planning and transport departments. But, it also speaks to the growing need of a separate law for the metropolis that Amman has become, in order to address problems arising from the increase in population.