Public Spaces in Amman: Between Urban and Social Diversity

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies has published Public Spaces in Amman: Between Urban and Social Diversity, by Dergham Shtayyeh, in which he explores the challenges and transformations facing urban areas, such population expansion, increased immigration and changes in lifestyle and social behaviour. These transformations have contributed to the emergence of informal underdeveloped neighbourhoods for the poor and modern developed neighbourhoods for the rich, amplifying inequality and social exclusion in the city.

Shtayyeh examines the impact of the modern spaces that have emerged in Amman, and the extent to which they contrast with the old spaces, especially in the old downtown (al-Balad). He investigates their contribution to the emergence of social polarization between the city’s neighbourhoods, through the study and analysis of the economic, social, cultural and spatial factors of public spaces in the new Abdali district and the old downtown.

Shtayyeh bases his study on discussing and analyzing Henri Lefebvre’s thought on public spaces, and discussing the impact of globalization and the subsequent neoliberal policies, privatization and the resultant creation of competition between public spaces, especially the old and modern spaces that were designed according to universal standards.

The book consists of seven chapters, including an introduction. The first chapter looks at the concept of public space and its development from multiple points of view, as well as the difference between space and place, the difference between public space and private space and the relationship between them, and the most important types of activities that take place in urban public space, charting the historical development of public space from the ancient Greek to the post-industrial city. The next chapter looks at the role of globalization and neoliberalism, examining the thought of Henri Lefebvre’s on the production of public space, as well as the theory of Jürgen Habermas.

According to Shtayyeh, Arab cities are witnessing neoliberal projects in the form of urban regeneration represented in huge spaces in terms of both size and capital such as the Abdali project in Amman, Solidere in downtown Beirut, the financial district in Manama, the Fun Land in Cairo, the Abu Regreg River development in Rabat, the Pearl Island in Doha, and even Mecca through the Jabal Omar project, and many projects in Dubai. Through these projects, cities aim to develop a competitive business climate and modern tourist spaces in order to attract people to live and invest. These Arab mega projects can be seen as the main guiding forces of contemporary Arab planning, while the urban restructurings mimic developments in the West, and thus represent an Eastern view of the West.

Shtayyeh also discusses the role of the petrodollar flow, economic development, the adoption of neoliberal policies, economic reforms, privatization, and the political and security conditions in the region, which exacerbated immigration to the city. He looks at its impact on the emergence of modern spaces distinctive from the old spaces, as well as the role of these developments in the geographical expansion of the city of Amman, and urban transformation, including the widening the gap between the east and west of the city.

According to Shtayyeh, many regeneration projects have not achieved their desired goals, perhaps because the local community was not involved in the planning and implementation, and they were not established in accordance with the characteristics and preferences of the residents. Improvements have targeted those with high and above-average incomes, not serving the general public, because of inflated prices of cafes and restaurants in comparison with the economic conditions of the population. Rather than contributing to social integration, these contracts have, conversely, deepened polarization and social inequality.

In the fifth chapter entitled Shtayyeh discusses the most important types and forms of public spaces in the city of Amman, focusing on the new Abdali and the old downtown as a case study and a clear example of urban and social disparity in the spaces of Amman. The sixth chapter presents an analysis of the field data, interviews and personal observations and links them to previous studies and theoretical thought. Finally, the conclusive chapter discusses the results of the research, and proposes a number of recommendations, including the conduction of more studies on the type of public space that is appropriate and compatible with the nature of the population. The author stresses the need to support projects of public interest, such as open public spaces.

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