Rahel Hermann and Rebekka Keuss argue that we need to know more about the specific lived experiences of women and men within a city to make cities more gender-inclusive.
How Public is Public Space in Amman?
Navigating or discovering a city is deeply related to the bodily experience one makes of it. Whether consciously or not, a city is experienced first and foremost through our senses: sensations, smells, visual landmarks, feeling of ease or unease, comfort or discomfort. Before mediating this encounter into words, we feel a city or feel in a city in its public spaces and places. The nature of this experience is related to our expectations and that of others, expectations themselves mostly derived from socially integrated models and norms, and ideas of what public space should look like, both physically and socially.
The bodily experience of public space and/or urban life is also intimately linked to gender and gender roles. Expectations towards one or another gender’s behaviour in public space vary greatly, influencing a sense of entitlement or belonging defined along gender lines and making for a very different lived experience of the city among women and men.
In Amman, this is particularly acute, and few studies have shed light on the gendered experience of the city’s features and services, showing in particular that street harassment is one of the main deterrents for women to access public space and amenities.
So, what does this have to do with urban planning and how can we design public spaces that cater for all? What is directly observable in Amman is the car-centric design of the urban envelope. Pedestrians are a rare sight and the walking experience mostly described as unpleasant. Ammanis also portray public space as a controlled space where many social rules apply, behaviour is closely monitored, and certain groups are undesirable.
This in turn incites residents to look for “islands of privacy” when in public space. Currently too often materialised through the protective shell of a private vehicle, this sense of “privacy” could also be created through adequate design of public spaces, defined by and with the people they should serve.
Designing a Different Kind of Public Space in Amman
The fact that women and men make different experiences is not unique to Amman. Cities around the world have primarily been planned with the male experience in mind, causing unequal scenes that largely disadvantage women. In response, from Vienna over Mexico City to Port Moresby, many cities are in the process of correcting this imbalance through more gender-inclusive planning. Given the different ways women and men are socialised and their roles perceived in various parts of the world, gender-inclusive planning looks unique everywhere (and urban practitioners need to be aware of it).
To unpack what gender-inclusive planning entails in Amman, the project “Improving Living Conditions in disadvantaged areas in Amman via the implementation of green infrastructure” (ILCA), in collaboration with the Jordanian Ministry of Environment and Greater Amman Municipality, has commissioned a comprehensive qualitative and quantitative study on the lived experiences of women and men in public space. This way, grounded findings from Amman – as opposed to imported planning ideas from abroad – inform strategies for future gender-inclusive public space in Amman and contribute to the body of knowledge on this sensitive matter.
Despite local nuances, certain common issues – such as safety, mobility, accessibility, and public facilities – that are the product of male-centric urban design, are just as prevalent in Amman as elsewhere. However, the study also identified context-specific themes, including the role of reputation, privacy, gender separation, and the perceptions associated with young single men. These may not be so much of a challenge in other cities, yet, they have to find their way into Amman’s concrete planning in order to improve and take account of its gendered experience of public space.
Let’s Talk About Public Urban Life in Amman
Reputation, for one, plays a crucial role for women, especially when young and unmarried. Women in Amman are not only concerned about whether they will become the victim of immediate harm when in public, they also need to worry about potential future harm. They have to think about what “people“ would say if they behaved in a socially unacceptable manner which, in Jordan‘s honour society, comes with consequences that can be just as socially, mentally, and physically harmful as other dangers.
While there is no design recipe, public spaces in Amman can become more reputable and, by extension, gender-inclusive, for example, by enabling physical distancing between sexes, promoting family-friendly activities, preventing traces of alcohol and drug waste, and offering privacy. Many Ammanis have a habit of creating small islands of privacy amid the public in order to carve out some tranquillity, comfort, and peace of mind as opposed to going out “to see and be seen” as is more common in European cities. Just as one would expect at home, physical, visual, and vocal distance to strangers are the key characteristics of such islands.
Men and women in Amman, particularly in conservative settings, furthermore, lead segregated lives, either institutionally or socially prescribed. Gender-segregated spaces, however, ultimately limit the choices to accessible places for both women and men which, essentially, runs counter the idea of an inclusive city. Nonetheless, temporary and partial gender separation within public spaces can empower both women and men to find confidence and social acceptance, for example, through special days for women or men only, by providing separate but well-connected quiet and active areas, and prioritising communicative meeting areas, places for food consumption, walking trails, and areas suitable for the supervision of children.
Gender-inclusive public spaces should offer something for everyone but this does not have to be done all at the same time and in the same place. Interestingly, young single men across all socioeconomic backgrounds are, either explicitly or implicitly, systematically excluded from a variety of public places through “mixed groups only“ policies, gatekeepers, high entrance fees, or potential complaints from other users. Many men, thus, resort to the more accessible streetscapes, especially to cars, that then turn into substitute “public space” with the added advantage of providing mobility and privacy. By banning discriminatory policies and providing more public as well as personal spaces for young single men, Amman can become more gender-inclusive not only for women but also for widely stigmatised young single men.
The insights from Amman presented here do not aim to highlight the city’s shortfalls but acknowledge that city making is never a dead end and make an urgent call to view and review what has (not) been planned. To better accommodate different gender perspectives in city making, participatory processes need to be put in place in a format that is tailored to women as well as marginalised members of Amman’s society. This also entails more diversity on all levels of urban practice, including those affected as well as architects, planners, policy makers, scientists, investors, builders, and institutions.
As a final takeaway, gender-inclusive planning does not necessarily need to arrive at an ideal feminist city but should – much more pragmatically – make the city more liveable for all. The comprehensive study on Public Space and Gender in Amman has coined what inclusive public spaces should provide to their users and illustrates the main features that would make them attractive to all.
Ideally, Amman’s public spaces offer green and clean places with shopping areas and a variety of seating, they are family-friendly, have security guards and female police officers and focus on daytime activities; they have a good reputation and link places of care with leisure, are connected to good public transport and walkable areas; they are not too noisy or too crowded, they accommodate islands of privacy, and offer facilities that meet women’s needs and separate areas by gender so public spaces can potentially be shared by all users.