Amman Has a New Mayor

Urban Crossroads #132

This article is also available in Arabic
يمكن قراءة هذا المقال أيضاً باللغة العربية 

 

 

The Greater Amman Municipality (GAM) has a new mayor, Akel Biltaji. He occupies one of Jordan’s most prominent public positions as he is responsible for managing a capital city, where over 40% of Jordan’s population resides and over 70% of its economic activity takes place. However, he is also in an unenviable situation. Considering the city’s rapid growth on the one hand, and the decline in the level of services that GAM has been offering Amman’s residents on the other, the quality of urban life in Amman has suffered over the past few decades. This is evident in a variety of issues including public cleanliness, movement in the city, the availability of open public spaces, and the regulation of land uses.

I had argued in a previous article of this series that the overwhelming urban challenges facing Amman would be best addressed through a process of decentralization that would de-amalgamate GAM and that would revert to the municipal divisions that existed before establishing the Greater Amman Municipality in 1987. The Amman municipality then essentially consisted of the Amman downtown area and surrounding hills, with a series of independent municipalities such as Sweileh, Wadi al-Sir, al-Jubeiha, and al-Qweismeh encircling it. I believe that metropolitan Amman would be best served if it returns to including a set of independent municipalities, each of which would have its elected mayor and city council. These municipalities would coordinate services that cut across municipal borders, such as transportation, through one or more metropolitan-level organizations. It does not seem, however, that such a solution will be implemented in the near future. In the meantime, the urban management of metropolitan Amman will be under the authority of a centralized institution that has an appointed mayor with considerable authority.

If Mr. Biltaji’s tenure is to be successful, he will need to effectively tackle a number of interconnected tasks. He will need to quickly implement changes that will have a marked positive impact on the quality of daily life for the city’s residents. The most urgent of these relates to the state of public cleanliness, which has deteriorated at an alarming rate over the past decade or so. Streets are strewn with garbage, not only because of littering, but also from the heaps of garbage thrown in and around the city’s communal dumpsters, which basically are unsightly and unhygienic garbage dumps spread throughout the city, and which GAM uses as locations for municipal garbage collection. The amount of garbage continues to increase as the city’s population increases, but GAM’s ability to manage it has fallen behind.

Although GAM acknowledges the problem, it has often blamed it on a shortage of staff and equipment. The problem, however, is much deeper than that. Along the street where I live, the residents complain about the GAM sanitation worker who may show up for a couple of hours every now and then, but spends most of that time sitting on the sidewalk under a tree, smoking cigarettes. We have yet to see him do any meaningful work. The challenge is not about the availability of resources; it is about how to manage those resources.

If Amman’s garbage problem is to be efficiently addressed, the existing workforce has to do its job more efficiently. A recycling program also will need to be established, and it is scandalous that none exists. Not only will recycling limit the amount of garbage generated, but will also result in income for the city. GAM moreover will need to revert to the old system of collecting garbage from individual addresses rather than from the communal dumpsters littering the city. And of course, there is a need to put in place strict regulations against the widespread problem of littering.

While the issue of public cleanliness is probably the mayor’s most urgent priority, there are other pressing issues that need his attention, but will require more time to tackle. Of these, the first to come to mind is movement in the city. Transportation in Amman is dominated by the private automobile. Driving and parking in it are becoming increasingly nightmarish experiences. This is not surprising considering that the number of vehicles in Amman is increasing at an annual rate of 10%. This means that the amount of vehicles doubles in the city every seven years. There are only so many vehicles that a city’s street network can absorb. Add to this the almost complete absence of any serious enforcement of traffic regulations. Amman therefore is becoming a city where one may drive as one wishes and park wherever one wishes.

Public transportation in the city is extremely weak and is almost exclusively used by those who cannot afford a private vehicle rather than by those who do not wish to drive. Amman in fact has relatively high densities, which means that various urban services, whether commercial, institutional, or educational, are often very close to places of residence, and one can walk rather than drive to them. Unfortunately, it is not possible to effectively take advantage of this density since one simply cannot safely or comfortably walk in Amman. Functional sidewalks and street-crossings essentially are non-existent. If you walk in Amman, you are surrendering your life to the mercy of vehicular traffic. If movement in the city is to be improved, traffic needs to be tamed down; people should be able to walk safely and comfortably throughout the city; and efficient public transportation needs to be provided (beginning with the implementation of the city’s Bus Rapid Transit project). In addition, alternate transportation modes such as cycling should be considered.

The issues of public cleanliness and movement in the city are only the tip of the iceberg. The city also is in desperate need of safe and well-maintained open public spaces for recreation and relaxation. Such breathing areas are particularly important for a population that is increasingly being housed in apartment buildings with no gardens. In addition, efficient and transparent zoning and land-use policies need to be instituted so that residents do not have to worry about nightmarish developments taking place next to their homes, whether a shopping mall that is visited by thousands of people every day, or a wedding hall with horrifically noisy parties that last well into the night.

Moreover, Amman is a city where civility is becoming harder to come by. This is common in conditions of rising densities. As more people are packed in a specific area, their levels of tolerance are increasingly tested and conditions of social tension greatly increase. This creates a serious need for establishing codes of civility between them, which means that people should be made to drive more courteously, and that they should not be allowed to throw garbage wherever they wish or blast their music well into the night every time they decide to celebrate an engagement, wedding, or the passing of an exam. Municipal authorities are the primary bodies in charge of establishing and enforcing such codes of civility. GAM should have begun doing so a long time ago.

None of these improvements may be achieved without reforming GAM as an institution. With over 23,000 employees, it is a bloated bureaucracy. In addition to suffering from problems relating to performance, the media often features stories about financial impropriety in the organization. GAM unfortunately has evolved over the years as a place for employing people rather than serving the residents of the city. The new mayor therefore will need to take bold actions to address this state of affairs. GAM staff will need to be downsized. This may be achieved through early retirement programs and not renewing employment contracts, although resistance to such downsizing measures will be vicious. The remaining staff should undergo continuous training and should be provided with an incentives program. The institution also will need to be run in a very transparent manner. Among other things, this means that close interaction with the city’s residents should be established through regularly holding public consultations and through encouraging the establishment of neighborhood associations that link the city’s residents with the municipality.

All this hopefully will begin to build confidence in the organization, which at this stage is very low. This is evident not only in the anecdotal evidence that one continuously comes across, but also in the quantitative data available to us, as with the unimpressive voter turnout for the latest municipal elections (10.29 % of eligible voters). Also, the Center for the Study of the Built Environment (CSBE), with which I am affiliated, recently organized a public survey about urban management in Jordan. 71.1% of the respondents indicated that they are dissatisfied with the quality of services that their municipalities provide.

Addressing the numerous urban challenges that Amman faces is an uphill battle. It is admittedly easier for a commentator such as me to propose solutions than it is for a public official to implement them. The challenges facing Amman, however, have to be faced head on and immediately. I never had any contact with Mr. Biltaji, and cannot speculate as to what kind of mayor he will be. What is definite is that his performance will be very closely monitored by the city’s residents, who are frustrated by the declining quality of urban services in Amman. He clearly will have a legacy to think about. I fully wish that he will succeed. The city cannot afford otherwise. If he does not succeed, Amman simply will edge closer to becoming yet another third world dysfunctional city. That would be a shame considering the considerable potential that Amman has always had to become a high-quality urban center.

 

Mohammad al-Asad 

September 29, 2013

 

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