East Wahdat Upgrade/Decentralized Planning: Local People Involvement in the design process

The East Wahdat Upgrading Programme is a project composed of the input from several parties. While it was sponsored by the World Bank in cooperation with the Jordan Urban Development Department, the planning did not adopt a completely top-down approach that would smother voices from the actual users. Instead, the two organizations provided the framework of the master plan, with the flexibility that allowed further amendments as suggested by local people. In order to facilitate bottom-up communication, effort was put in helping people to better understand the project and providing the opportunity for residents to speak directly to the professionals and provide constructive comments.

To better connect with the local people, a field office was set up on site in the early stage of the development (Jadallah, 1988). According to the account of Geoffrey Payne, one of the architects involved in the project, the field office was, in fact, the hut of a friendly resident that they borrowed from (Asquith, Vellinga, 2006). The decision established the image of the authority as one that was down-to-earth and was willing to communicate with the local people face-to-face. After setting up the field office, a very simple site model made of foam and matchboxes were utilized to indicate buildings. This allowed residents of the area, who were unable to understand the complex contour lines and technical drawings, to identify their own house and provide suggestions based on their everyday experience living in the community. Although different kinds of surveys were conducted prior to the initial design (Jadallah, 1988), those primary sources gathered from direct communication with the actual residents provided insights and inspirations that otherwise would not have been gathered. For instance, routing paths were suggested such that rebuilding of existing shelters could be minimized, which was one of the main concepts in the project, as mentioned in an earlier post on Keeping the Existing: Minimum Demolishment and Utilization of Original Settlement.

Another evidence demonstrating the role of local people in the design process was the setting up of demonstration units. In order for the residents to comment on the design of their future homes, 2 demonstration units were built on site (Hasan, 1989). It was because of the demonstration unit that local people realized the layout’s insufficiency in satisfying their needs and culture. The rejection of the initial layout helped the authority to understand the limitation in their design, which eventually became a driving force for them to provide more autonomy to the residents in deciding the size and shape of the plots (Hasan, 1989). The result, in the end, was a community with diverse house types with individual expressions.

the end result was a community with diverse housing types Aga Khan Architecture Award 1992, East Wahdat Upgrading Programme Report, p.2

It was doubtless that involving local people in the design process was one of the main reasons why the project received general satisfaction among users (Hasan, 1989). The project also set the tone for other slum-upgrading proposals in achieving a bottom-up communication channel. It was commented that:

 ‘after years of exposure to the literature advocating participatory, bottom-up approaches to local development, here (the East Wahdat Upgrading Programme) was tangible evidence that it was soundly based.’ (Asquith, Vellinga, 2006)

In another case study, the author stated that:

‘… Proofs that the houses (houses in East Wahdat Upgrading Programme) are products by people’ (Al-Azhari, 2012)

Despite being funded and initiated by governmental organizations, the East Wahdat Upgrading Programme did not fall into the realm of a project that neglected voices from the actual users. As written by Jane Jacobs:

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

The upgrading program was able to cater needs of all the residents only because the residents took part in the planning. As quoted from Al-Azhari:

‘Architects must go and live with people to learn what a school cannot teach. Education is imported, but culture of the poor is a local product.’


Al-Azhari, A Study of Housing Identity in Refugee Settlements in Jordan: Al-Wahdat Refugee Camp as a Case Study, International Journal of Environment, Ecology, Family and Urban Studies (IJEEFUS), vol 2, issue 3, SEP 2012, p.26-45

Asquith, Vellinga, Vernacular Architecture in the 21st Centure: Theory, Education and Practice, Taylor and Francis, 2012, p.169-170

Jadallah, Client’s Record of East Wahdat Upgrading Program, 1988

Hasan, Technical Review East Whadat Upgrading Program, Aga Kahn Architectural Award, 1989

Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Radom House, 2016

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