Amman, a global city?

This is part two of a report on my recent trip from Tel Aviv-Jaffa to Amman, the capital of Jordan.

On rankings

Critical about them, especially with respect to cities, I would yet like to begin this post with rankings. Despite varying degrees, in both Amman and Tel Aviv-Jaffa, the policies on display show how striving for international importance – and therefore a position in rankings – is a vital impulse for urban development. In other words, rankings and attached parameters influence urban development, also in the Middle East, or the Levant. This, so the argument here, is not always for the benefit of the respective city and its inhabitants. Moreover, theories and parameters on which these rankings are based are clearly constructed out of Western-, or Global North theories and understandings of urbanism (Robinson 2002; Roy 2009, 2011).

Here are some examples out of the vast body of city-rankings: According to the GaWC group´s most recent ranking, Amman finds itself among `Gamma+´ cities (Tel Aviv, listed in every ranking without `Jaffa´, is in the `Beta+´ category). American Journal `Foreign Policy´ published a list of “the world´s top global cities”, not including Amman (listing Tel Aviv as # 50). Internationally operating consulting firm A.T. Kearney came up with a global city index in 2012, including comments from Peter J Taylor and Saskia Sassen. The list goes up until rank 66 with Amman not among them (Tel Aviv on 46). The `Economist Intelligence Unit´ from the well known `Economist´ published a report on global city competitiveness, also not showing Amman among the top 60 (Tel Aviv at 59). What most of these rankings have in common is their focus on economic parameters. In the case of the latter report, the weighting is as follows: economic strength 30%, human capital 15%, institutional effectiveness 15%, financial maturity 10%, global appeal 10%, physical capital 10%, environment and natural hazards 5%, and finally social and cultural character 5%. Hence, close to 90% of the compared data are directly or indirectly dependent on economic variables, rendering social aspects irrelevant. Looking at the urban transformation in Amman, it is evident that the city is undergoing a development following this attitude and primacy of economic features over all others, usually referred to as ‘neoliberal’. This complete submission to mere economically driven decisions and a focus on profit does not only put cities around the globe into competition with each other, but tears apart internal urban patterns, creating borders within cities that have not existed before. Such a double-phenomenon of increasing international relations with simultaneous internal fragmentation is therefore central for my view of borderland.

Returning to the problematic of rankings, counting, and categorisation in science, I feel using such registers sometimes misses the point and does not provide substantial and comprehensive knowledge about a phenomenon or space. Overall, I see a mismatch between qualitative and quantitative ways of examining a topic in favour of the latter. While quantitative methods are certainly necessary and valuable, they sometimes tell little about what is actually going on, particularly about power relations, responsible for the situation at hand. To prove my point, see this video, in which Hans Rosling, “global health expert, and data visionary”, presents `data´ in a way that not only challenges our perception of scale, or the units we look at, but also demonstrates how critical it is to rely on hard facts only, especially if they are not critically collected and interpreted.

Amman, like Tel Aviv only a small village a hundred years ago, has seen a massive growth over the last decades, making it the unchallenged centre of Jordan. Representing about one third of Jordan´s population, the city accommodates around 2 million people. An interesting detail is that for both cities 1909 marks an official step towards being a municipality. Amman as a settlement existed long before, but the municipal council got together this year and announced the foundation of the Amman municipality. Tel Aviv was founded by Jews, moving out of Jaffa, and developed out of the settlement of Ahuzat Bayit in the very same year. Due to the extension of its boundaries and the incorporation of surrounding neighbourhoods the municipal area of Amman now comprises over 1.600km2 (compare the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality at 52km2; Tel Aviv-Jaffa, or central Israel metropolitan area around 1.500km2). Much of this growth of Amman is related to the foundation of the state of Israel, since many Palestinians who left their homes in the turmoil of the 1948 war fled to Jordan, and Amman in particular. Another analogy between Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Amman is therefore their internal heterogeneity and division. As in Tel Aviv, the wealthy areas of Amman are located in the north(west), while socio-economically weak populations predominantly live in the south(east). Nevertheless, again as in Tel Aviv-Jaffa or any other urban area, Amman is considered one socio-spatial unit, constituted by multiple foldings, overlaps, and interdependencies.

abdali website - global city

Source: screenshot Abdali project website: http://www.abdali.jo/

Abdali

Representative for extensive urban transformation in Amman is the Abdali project. It is intended to become the new Central Business District and icon of modernity, underlining Amman´s strive for relevance and prestige in the world. Tying in with the usual talk of competition, investment, and privatisation, King Abdullah II claimed that ‘‘[t]he speed with which the government has to act in order to attract investments can take society by surprise and cause a lot of talk … this is the way the world works. Countries that cater to speed will win and others that let cumbersome bureaucracy get in the way will lose’’ (Ruwashdeh 2008, cited in Parker 2009, p 112). Looking at the plans and the construction site of Abdali indeed shows a huge, all-purpose project, following globalised ‘commodity urbanism’. Unrelated to the sense of urban fabrics that used to define cities in this part of the world for millennia, similar projects can be found anywhere else in the world. Therefore, this kind of urban design is not meant to carefully and sustainably develop Amman, but to jump on the global bandwagon of turbo-urbanism, consisting of one-fits-all planning, cheap building-standards, and factitious modernity. As the words of King Abdullah above suggest, there are mechanisms at work, which have nothing to do with the benefit of the people of Amman, or diligent urban development, but with profiting local elites as much as international circles of investors, planners, and developers, which are sometimes identical. Abu Ghazalah (2007, p 52) notes about the recent development in Jordan´s capital that “Amman’s skyline, as most Middle Eastern cities, remained intact and had human scale until 1990s. Since then several skyscrapers started to tear its traditional urban tissue as they became the main indicator of economic growth and power in the world.” It is the aspiration to gain power, both domestically and internationally by developing such projects, and the above mentioned rankings take advantage of this desire as much as they fuel it.

abdali site plan

Source: Abdali brochure, p 32: http://www.abdali.jo/pdf/brochure.pdf

abdali rendering skyline

Source: Abdali brochure, p 29: http://www.abdali.jo/pdf/brochure.pdf

The Abdali project sums up to 5 billion US$ and comprises around 1.8 million sqm of built-up area on a 384.000 sqm plot, centrally located between the older parts of Amman in the southeast and the recently developed northwest. In line with the paragraphs above, the project is advertised as being “the premium central business, residential, tourism, retail, and entertainment district of Amman and will catapult the city of Amman into the 21st century, placing it at par with most renowned city centers of the world.” Phase one comprises around one million sqm, with over 70% of the planned built-up area dedicated to commercial purposes, like offices, retail, and hotels. The construction progress furthermore suggests that these spaces are being given priority and built first. Although advertised as “pedestrian oriented mixed-use community” the development’s less than 30% residential units will likely become an enclave of ex-patriots and local elites.

According to the CIA world-factbook the unofficial unemployment rate in Jordan is around 30%, over 14% of the population live below the poverty line, and the country´s GDP per capita per year is at US$ 6.100, equalling number 149 in the world (USA US$ 50.000, Austria US$ 44.000, UK US$ 37.000, and Israel 32.000 – all data World Bank). The Middle East Salary Survey from 2010 states that more than half of the Jordanian population earns less than 1.000 US$ per month, with another 30% less than 3.000 US$. The rent for a three bedroom apartment in the city centre is approximately 750 US$ per month, and around 500 US$ per month in the periphery. Aware of the problem, the government has been developing big projects of `affordable´ housing in the city´s periphery. However, the apartments on offer for sale are priced at around 35.000 US$ and therefore again unaffordable for most of the people. Furthermore, they are located far outside with hardly any infrastructure and no connection to the city centre. Although there are no units on sale in Abdali yet, there is a high probability that the prices for either buying or renting apartments will by far exceed the budgets of almost all Jordanians.

abdali construction site 01

abdali construction site 02

abdali construction site 03

abdali construction site 04

abdali construction site 05

All five pictures by the author

On the geopolitical side it is worth mentioning that almost all the workers I met at the construction site were Palestinians. Apparently a general phenomenon in Jordan is that Palestinians, who officially constitute half of the population, unofficially much more, are the ones running businesses and do the hard labour, while most of the veteran Jordanians work in the public sectors, most prominently the police and the military. In terms of the internal division in Amman, it is obvious that there are almost no Palestinians living in the wealthy northwest.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

palestinian workers at abdali project 02

palestinian workers at abdali project 03

All three pictures by the author

Conclusion

In terms of politics, architecture and urban planning, devotion to large, shiny projects, presented in glossy brochures is somewhat understandable. Schemes and programmes for affordable housing, strengthening communities, promotion of small scale neighbourhood initiatives, cycles of local products and labour, by contrast, are not only politically unwanted but not sexy and less sellable for the protagonists. Instead, central business districts, fancy hotels, administration buildings, and ‘high culture’ facilities are being planned and built. Taken in by the mistaken belief that this is the development a city should strive for, such projects ignore or sideline actual needs of large proportions of the population, and severely harm urban life. Again referring to Ananya Roy (2005), both Amman and Tel Aviv-Jaffa would be well advised to (also) learn from their ‘dark sides’. In the case of Amman, the municipality can draw form the downtown area as well as from zones like the Wahdat refugee camp, which demonstrate how quarters are organised and how they actually function on no or very limited financial means. Obviously disagreeing with King Abdullah II, I am convinced that in the long run those states and cities will `win´ which pursue a more subtle way of development, not joining in with out of scale and over the top projects that constitute enclaves and cause harm rather than deliver benefit. Even if we apply strictly economic parameters, projects like Abdali are hardly profitable and on top of having ruined the urban pattern, people of Amman and Jordan (taxpayers) will have to cover the costs while the investors will long be gone with their shares.

Projects like Abdali can be found across the Middle East, from Beirut to Qatar and down to the Golf. They seem to repeat the mistakes that have been made in the name of modernity over the last decades around the world. Instead of soft and slow development, including local knowledge and populations, international capital is seeking fast money; master plans are drawn, eradicating vast areas of long grown urban fabrics; insensible international planning and development firms impose their strategies upon an area they do not know; and local politicians participate in unscrupulous money-making on the one hand, and actually think this is how development has to be on the other. In light of socio-economic problems in Jordan and an increase in the division between the wealthy and poor parts of society, projects like Abdali must be seen very critically, and the government has to ask itself whether this is the right path towards the future.

Turning to the renderings of the Abdali project: as a country with almost no natural resources and no efforts to draw on alternative energies, one wonders how all these glass towers will be cooled in the hot and arid climate of Amman. Moreover, given the major shortage of fresh water supply, the greenery in the pictures is probably more wishful thinking than reality.

abdali rendering glass and green spaces

Source: Abdali brochure, p 11: http://www.abdali.jo/pdf/brochure.pdf

The ingredients of a project like Abdali are political leaders aspiring for gaining prestige and power; parts of an (academic) world that serve the `hard facts´ in the form of questionable rankings for them; and an industry around the built environment that is mainly profit and less so well-being oriented. As there were no `post-isms´, these projects seem antiquated before they are even finished. I see both the projects like Abdali are implemented and the meaning of the related ‘global city’ rankings as clinging to modernism and structuralism that have long since lost their credibility. The heterogeneous and diverse socio-spaces we live in definitely require heterogeneous and diverse approaches of re-development, carried out in a thoughtful and flexible way.

I would like to thank Vicente Sandoval for pointing me to the fascinating work of Hans Rosling.

Bibliography

Abu Ghazalah, S. (2007). “Skyscrapers as tools of economic reform and elements of urban skyline: Case of the abdali development project at Amman.” Metu Journal of the Faculty of Architecture 24(1): 49-70.

Parker, C. (2009). “Tunnel-bypasses and minarets of capitalism: Amman as neoliberal assemblage.” Political Geography 28(2): 110-120.

Robinson, J. (2002). “Global and world cities: A view from off the map.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 26(3): 531-554.

Roy, A. (2005). “Urban informality – Toward an epistemology of planning.” Journal of the American Planning Association 71(2): 147-158.

Roy, A. (2009). “The 21st-Century Metropolis: New Geographies of Theory.” Regional Studies 43(6): 819-830.

Roy, A. (2011). “Urbanisms, worlding practices and the theory of planning.” Planning Theory 10(1): 6-15.

Ruwashdeh, R. (2 July 2008). Public policy will never be held hostage to rumours and ignorance. Jordan Times 1.

© All rights reserved – Sigi Atteneder, 2013

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