Amman, Jordan: the Case of Open Space



In the beginning of the 20th century, Transjordan was still part of the Ottoman Empire; a period which could be described as stagnant and motionless with no traces of interest in infrastructural developments by the Ottomans. At that time, Amman was still considered an underdeveloped settlement in the middle of the valley’s open space with traces of cultivation and commercial life introduced by the Circassian refugees and Arabs from nearby settlements. However in 1908, Transjordan was linked to the Hijaz Railway that was built by the Ottomans to facilitate pilgrim traffic towards the city of Medina and Mecca in the Hijaz modern day Saudi Arabia. This connection not only reinforced both the sense of security and increased the trading activity in the settlement but also established Amman as a connection center linking it to Damascus and all urban settlements along the railway. Such a strategic location would lead the Ottomans to perceive and establish Amman as a command center and as a base for their army troops paving the way for the construction of an airstrip for the German planes near the station east of Amman.

After the eruption of the World War I, Ottomans began to withdrawal from the North of Transjordan and southern Syria. However, Transjordan was still under the jurisdiction of the Syrian Kingdom, but later on to be included under the British mandate cutting it off from Damascus, clearly showing the intention of the British to push Transjordan towards becoming a colonial state. In 1921 this form of autonomy would be later on enhanced when the British mandate decided to put Transjordan under the administration of the Emir Abdullah paving the way for a self governed mandate evolving into a British protectorate and a new colonial state. Lacking any forms of proper infrastructural facilities, Amman was described as a Circassian village having no schools, hospitals or a prison. However the railway station, airstrip and the river in the open space in the valley which later on became downtown Amman pushed the case of establishing this settlement as the new capital of the colonial state. In order to establish some form of authority, the Emir ordered the construction of the Royal Palace on one of the hills overlooking the village and the restoration of the Umari Mosque in the valley rendering Amman’s open space as a spectacle used for military parades and public performances making the best of Amman as it was, leaving it to a much later generation to make it better.

After the end of the Mandate period and the independence of the Kingdom of Jordan in 1946, Amman was the largest town in Jordan in terms of population and commercial activity and this open space would be the plinth to promote the city’s growth towards a brighter future. However in 1948, following the Arab-Israeli war and the occupation of Palestine, Amman’s population grew from 33,110 in 1947 to 108,304 by 1952. This growth was mainly due to the forced Palestinian refugee migration, who left their lands and homes fleeing the Israeli persecution. According to 1952 census, almost one third of the city’s population lived in caves and tents, and unemployment rates were startlingly high to both Jordanians and Palestinian Refugees. In an attempt to control this abrupt growth in population, the government pursued promoting urban developments and planning as tools of modernization and means of establishing economical and political stability. Subsequently, British planners were assigned as part of a UN assistance program to craft the first comprehensive plan for the city. Looking beyond the needs of the city, the planners projected another conception for the future of the city, proposing infrastructure — bridges in particular. This would have connected the self-contained neighborhoods on the hills of Amman separated by a “Central Park,” labeling the open space in the valley as a stage to introduce civic spaces and civic platforms within the urban fabric of the newly established city. While funding this conception failed, its unrealized visions of bridges and parks kept resonating in future plans for the city.

In a social survey of Amman published in the 1960’s by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Amman is described as a city without planned open spaces, except on paper, in the town planning section of the municipality, rendering Amman as one vast building plot, the only open space being the lands where planned buildings had not been erected yet. Referring to Amman’s rapid expansion, mainly due to the influx of population from other towns and rural areas. Later on, in 1967, Amman’s population more than doubled due to Palestinian refugees arriving in the city as a consequence of another Arab-Israeli war, “Al-Naksah.” With the occupation of the Palestinian West Bank, the city’s economy took another blow, as it relied on some forms of revenue from the tourists and visitors of the holy sites and consequently envisionned another economical reform. Simultaneously, the American influence was growing in the region and a number of grants were provided to Jordan paving the way to taking over the second development plan of the city.

In 1968 a joint US–Jordanian collaboration of planners recommended introducing a central business district rendering the open-space “valley” as a tool to attract and amplify the investment opportunities that could be provided to the city. Such visions of introducing a business district were never fully realized. However during the 1970s and 1980s the city experienced surges of growth in both population and economy, due to the arrival of workers and investors in oil-rich Arab states, as well as migration to Amman from rural areas, and to Jordan from neighboring conflict zones. Along this growth, international planners were again placed in a position to steer the city’s growth the starting point was the valley again. In an attempt to reconcile with the previous plans that were proposed for the city, the Amman Municipal Government invited planning consultants from Japan to craft another development plan for the city center. With the aim of relieving and regulating the traffic congestion in the city, the planners proposed to reintroduce the elevated bridges, ring roads, commercial facilities and shopping arcades. However one of the only elements of this plan that was concretized was the introduction of the shopping arcades with pointed arches on the newly paved street constructed on top of the river. Later on, the Greater Amman Municipality utilized a World Bank loan in order to implement a fourth master plan that continued to stress the same priorities years prior: creating more open space, housing and promoting economy. However the plan went largely ignored and was later replaced by an alternative style plan.

The 2003 US invasion of Iraq saw another influx of refugees to Amman, further expanding the city towards outer expansion and, by 2008, the territory of Amman would double, pushing the city further towards its western boundaries. Meanwhile, foreign investments from the Gulf were being funneled towards construction projects in the city, setting off sudden shockwaves of large-scale real estate developments unregulated by the Greater Amman Municipality. In 2005, the Municipality used one of the few parks “open spaces” in the city as a tool to attract a foreign investment company to construct the “Jordan Gates Towers.” The project was to be constructed in the middle of the residential area, inaugurating the municipality’s vision towards a “prosperous future” in the hope of replicating the urban economic success of neighboring Gulf States. In the years to follow, several other open spaces were involved in the same vision and strategy. However, during the construction of these towers, both the economic crisis and the escalation of geopolitical conflicts in neighboring countries took their toll on the projects, leaving them in a state of incompletion, and the city littered with different landscapes of abandonment as a reminder of the “city’s unrealized vision of itself.”

We are now in 2017: the city’s population nearly reached 4 million inhabitants. The Jordan Gates Towers are still on hold awaiting completion, and entire neighborhoods hover empty in the so-called “Central Park.” Daily, we enter the latent vision of the city passing by stopped construction sites, abandoned buildings, unrealized visions, and the rapid outer expansion of the city. Such an expansion, presented as a solution positioning the city towards a continually expansive future, stemmed from the open space that housed an airport, a railway, and a river in an area which was once considered as a no man’s land. Although the Ottomans and the British were never fully invested in developing Transjordan, the railway and the military parades inaugurated this open space and established it as the plinth for building the city and a platform to control and steer its growth. The effects of such interventions still resonate far more than any of the conventional planning tools did, thus giving birth to the latent image of Amman’s open space.

(photo caption: Reconstructing the Wadi Abdun street to enhance the connection of the downtown area of the Amman with the western part of the city. / Photograph by Antonio Ottomanelli (2015))