Leftover Lots = Placemaking Potential

One of the (many) urban challenges that my hometown of Amman, Jordan faces is the scarcity of public space. Exacerbating the problem are many factors:

  1. Where there are public spaces, they are often inaccessible by foot.
  2. Bike riding is not common (or better said, rarely used as a form of transportation) because of hilly topography which makes biking difficult, a lack of infrastructure to support biking, and the prevalence of a pro-automobile, anti-active transport culture.
  3. Lack of an efficient public transportation system to connect or stop at public spaces.

While these issues are multifold and will require a comprehensive planning approach, years of development, and lots of financing, Amman is not without potential. Having lived in Amman from 2006 to 2015 (before temporarily relocating to Seattle to pursue a master’s degree), completed an B.Sc. in Architecture there, and spent a lot of time exploring the city, I have noticed some untapped potential…

underutilized, unused, or neglected lots.

Abu Nseir panorama

Underutilized open space (on the left of the image) in one of Amman’s residential neighborhoods.

The majority of Amman’s residential neighborhoods are precisely as their categorization prescribes -residential. Few places have open spaces within walking distance, whether in the form of a public park, plaza, or sports field. However, what you will frequently find are leftover plots of land in between residential areas. Many of these are likely privately owned and will eventually be inconveniently filled with more mundane, cookie-cutter,  multistory apartment buildings, which will result in yet fewer breathing room for the residents and more disappointing views of stone walls outside your window. Other spaces might be publicly owned parks that are poorly maintained and have deteriorated with time. In both cases, I see potential for small public spaces that could make the neighborhoods more livable, provide an outdoor place for social interaction in an increasingly mall and cafe-ridden society, and encourage more people to get on their feet.

But how can you make this happen? 

As economics prove time and again, the “self-centered” nature of human beings means that people will pursue whatever is in their personal interest -and this can be further encouraged by making these beneficial options hassle-free and, even better, profitable. So why not capitalize on this simple human nature? If the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM) could put together a framework that encourages private developers to transform these lots into public spaces, while also monitoring the process, implementation, and quality of the work, it could steer private money in the direction of public space creation.

Some of the tools that could aid with this process are:

  1. Taxes
    1. Placing high taxes on empty plots of land that are left undeveloped for a long period of time. No choice but do something with the empty land!
    2. High taxes on building construction in areas of the city where there is a sufficient or excessive proportion of built-up area. Make it difficult for developers to put up more apartment buildings!
    3. Low taxes for open space projects. Reel the developers in with a more attractive (i.e.: affordable) option!
  2.  Incentives
    1. Subsidizing the hiring of architectural and urban design firms to develop public spaces, making it easier for contractors to bring a qualified design team on board and ensuring the quality of the work. Many firms in Amman would love to be involved in such a project!
  3.  Design competitions
    1. GAM could hold public spaces design competitions for university students. The winners would receive a monetary reward that would be less expensive than hiring a firm, while the student would be thrilled to have their design implemented! (Trust me -every architecture student’s  -and even some architects’- dream is to see their design on paper become a reality on the ground!)

In addition to the tools to encourage developers, GAM would ideally enforce these supporting policies as well:

  1. Making public participation mandatory to ensure that the public space projects are not undesirable to residents, exclusive to a certain group, or purely for-profit spaces.
  2. Providing permits for kiosks, flea markets, and farmers markets to make use of some of the open spaces, whether temporarily to shine light on the potential of a space and therefore encouraging developers to invest in it, or permanently as a simple, flexible, multipurpose open space that changes in use depending on the time of day or year. (This might work best for publicly owned spaces but could also work for a private space if policies are put into place that make it profitable for both the developer and small business owners.)
  3. Encouraging people to turn open spaces into community gardens. This could be subsidized by the government for public spaces and may even work for privately owned lands if landowners were given a share of the profit from the produce.

As an urban planning grad student and someone passionate about public spaces, it’s one of the issues I’d love to help make happen after I graduate and return home. Maybe one day I can say I did.

Here’s to unlocking the placemaking potential of leftover lots!

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