“For it is surely through our feet, in contact with the ground (albeit mediated by footwear), that we are most fundamentally and continually ‘in touch’ with our surroundings.” (Ingold 2004, 330)
„The act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language […]” (De Certeau, 1988, 97)
Having lived here in Amman for two months now, I´ve noticed a magic appeal the city seems to emanate to both native Jordanians and foreigners. Many natives, despite justifiably many things to complain about, feel good and enjoy living here. Likewise, I have heard more than once from expats that they feel attracted to the city and actually got stuck here without exactly knowing why. I share these views to a great degree.
On the other hand, many people, including myself, think there are major features that are essential for a functioning and liveable city, desperately missing. My own experience, after three partly extensive visits, corresponds widely with Mohammad Al Asad, from the Center for the Study of the Built Environment in Amman (CSBE), who claims that the main missing qualities are proper public transportation, sufficient and well maintained public spaces and overall cleanliness.
I think all three are related to questions of the public realm. However, while the latter rather represents an attitude and is a matter of organisation that can be changed relatively easy if there is the will to do so, I think the former two are more intricate, and essentially political questions. These questions, as many others today, reach across scale from a global level to local ones and the other way around. This post tries to set issues of public space and public transportation in Amman in relation to a often unappreciated, mundane activity, namely walking. For this research, walking is essential in two ways: In terms of it´s contriburion in producing an urban environment, and in making sense of it as a researcher (see: Merriman 2014). I have already written about walking in Amman in an earlier post on transportation issues.
In his `practice of everyday life´, Michel De Certeau writes about “microbe-like, singular and plural practices” (1988, 96), of which walking is one, to make sense of urban life. He sees walking as a spatial practice that “secretly structure[s] the determining conditions of social life” (ibid). There is a text written by the walkers in the city – while they walk -, and walking is an elementary form of living in a city (ibid, 93). Tim Ingold (2004, 316), building on Darwin, claims that walking is one of the major qualities of humans, distinguishing them from non-human primates. He also reminds us that walking has for a long time not been a mode of mobility for the affluent (Europeans), nor was it considered more than a means to reach a destination (ibid, 321). Instead, “[w]alking was for the poor, the criminal, the young, and above all, the ignorant” (Jarvis 1997, 23, cited in Ingold 2004, 322). Ingold further argues that the boot and the chair are basically detaching us from the earth causing groundlessness. While I agree with Ingold that there is a degree of distanciation between the human being and the environment in the use of shoes (and chairs) in terms of immediate sensation, I am mainly interested in the detachment of the body from the city by not walking anymore at all.
An interesting point Ingold raises is the necessary attention required when walking, related to vision (2004, 327). In this regard, I see an attentiveness attached to walking, that is linked to the way we perceive our environment and therefore to an increased awareness; an awareness towards the surrounding that translates into awareness for the other. Walking and staying in public spaces form the glue of urban societies, as they happen in the in-between spaces of everyday life and provoke encounter. Friends and strangers meet in-between more clearly dedicated spaces of housing, working, or leisure. If there are no spaces between those primary functions, which can be used by ‘the public’ and foster encounter, there is no urban life. The fragmentation of spaces – gated elite communities here, pockets of poverty there – is both cause and consequence of in-between spaces reduced to streets as corridors of private transportation.
Asked why I often get invited for a cup of tea, coffee, or a bowl of fruits in the eastern parts of Amman and never in the western ones, Dr. Musa Shteiwi, sociologist at the Center for Strategic Studies at Jordan University in Amman reasons “because these areas have a social fabric, a community West Amman doesn´t have”. No need to mention that East Amman is by far better walkable than West Amman. As luminaries such as Jane Jacobs (1961) or Henri Lefebvre (1991, 2003) have shown, in order to have an urban atmosphere, there is need of connective elements. Ingold (2004, 329) says that “[i]t appears that people, in their daily lives, merely skim the surface of [the] world […], rather than contributing through their movements to its ongoing formation.” Public spaces and walkable cities facilitate encounter and thereby contribute to social cohesion. Cutting across the city in private cars not only destroys the city in terms of pollution, it also destroys its social fabric. Rathen than holding it together, streets dominated by private cars and thereby individual transportation tear the social fabric of a city apart.
Turning to public transportation therefore, and coming back to Amman, a functioning public mass transportation-system in the city is close to inexistent. There are a few bus lines, but they are not sufficient at all, neither are they reliable; one might wait 30 minutes or three hours for the next bus. Hence, most of the city´s mobility depends on the private car, on mini-busses, on cheap taxis which run on certain courses only (‘service’) and regular taxis. One of the legacies of former Mayor Omar Ma´ani – besides doing the best he could to prevent Zahran Street from falling prey to developers and a series of high-risers – has been to get a modern bus-system (Bus Rapid Transit – BRT) on track.
As Ma´ani was accused of corruption and driven out of office, the project came to a halt, but it seems like it is gaining momentum again at the moment. The notion I got from my interviews is that some people profit from the present chaotic or non-existent public transportation. Furthermore, there also seems to be little awareness in the population that decent public transportation is a good thing and needed in Amman. Instead, a common notion is that there should to be more parking spaces and that something has to be done against jamming traffic, i.e. building more roads. Overall, public transportation is not (yet) a priority for many Ammanis, although the traffic situation is extremely tense with congestion an order of the day. This malaise again feeds into the problematic of public vs. private, a highly political issue, evident at multiple levels in Amman.
Having emphasised the political dimension of public spaces and the use of them by foot in the introduction, I would like to return to this aspect to conclude. It is not the agenda of this text, but, in fact, the imperative aspect of public spaces is of course their capacity to function as gathering locations for the people to exchange and express themselves politically. Coming back to motion, however, there is a well known increasing disruptive imbalance between the movement of capital, goods and people. Political and economic powers seem to restrict or direct the movement of people to gain and maintain control over them. Examples would be mushrooming malls, especially in competing Arab cities like Amman, that often represent substitutes for otherwise desperately missing public spaces, as emphasised by Rami Daher (2013, 104) for instance. Where this feeds into my own research is that through this phenomenon, a landscape of subtle or more obvious border-mechanisms is created and spaces become seemingly fixed. Spaces, however, are not fixed; they have never been and will never be. Instead, they are socially produced and constantly reproduced, and, as Ingold stated above, walking and staying in public space contributes to this; is holding spaces together. As De Certeau highlights, pedestrians shape spaces as they “weave places together” (1988, 97). Walking underlines both the possibilities to change one´s own position as well as a changing perspective on our environment (which, in the form of the built environment, transforms at a different pace than a human life). One of the underlying notions of my research is therefore that if power is always a balance and never exclusively in the hand of one side, this control of people and the fixation of spaces can be challenged. The possibility of using public space and walking the city are essential elements of a functioning, democratic urban environment.
I would like to end with a series of photos, featuring a “best of” blocked or useless sidewalks in Amman.
All pictures by the author
© All rights reserved by Sigi Atteneder, 2014
Daher, R. F. (2013). “NEOLIBERAL URBAN TRANSFORMATIONS IN THE ARAB CITY – ” Environment Urbain – Urban Environment 7: 99-115.
De Certeau, M. (1988). Walking the city. The practice of everyday life. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, University of California Press.
Ingold, T. (2004). “Culture on the ground – The world perceived through the feet.” Journal of Material Culture 9(3): 315-340.
Jacobs, J (1961). „The death and life of great American Cites.“ Vintage Books edn. 1992. New York: Random House
Lefebvre, H. (1991). “The production of space.” English edn. translated by Donald Nicholson Smith. Oxford: Blackwell
Lefebvre, H. (2003). “The Urban Revolution.” English edn. translated by Roberto Bononno. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press
Merriman, P. (2014). “Rethinking Mobile Methods.” Mobilities 9(2): 167-187.