It has been over half a year since Akel Biltaji has been appointed Mayor of the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM). Unless a person adopts controversial ideas or carries with him / her negative baggage from before, the public usually receives new appointees to important public positions with some goodwill. This applies to Mr. Biltaji, particularly since his tenure as the first Chief Commissioner of the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority from 2001 to 2004 is generally remembered positively. As Chief Commissioner, he also more or less took on the role of mayor of the city, and I have heard a number of people positively comment on his commitment to the city of Aqaba during his tenure. Such goodwill, however, does not last very long unless it is accompanied by positive accomplishments, so a new official cannot depend too much on it.
Soon after Mr. Biltaji became mayor, I wrote an Urban Crossroads article mentioning that whoever becomes Mayor of Amman is in an unenviable situation considering how the quality of urban life in the city has been suffering over the past few decades. This is evident in issues relating to public cleanliness, movement in the city, the availability of open public spaces, and the regulation of land uses. I mentioned that any new mayor who wants to realize positive change will need to effectively address these issues, and added that any new mayor also will need to work on reforming GAM as an institution, since the quality of its performance is in need of improvement, and public confidence in it at this stage is very low.
It remains too early for the residents of Amman to expect to feel any transformations affecting its urban condition. Realizing such transformations definitely takes much more than the 100 days that Mr. Biltaji initially promised. In this context, I recall a comment that the famed former mayor of the Brazilian city of Curitiba, Jaime Lerner, once made. Lerner is one of a group of impressive Latin American mayors to have emerged over the past generation who have been able to positively transform their cities. The media may have exaggerated their accomplishments, but these accomplishments nonetheless are not to be underestimated. Lerner had commented that any city, no matter how large it is, no matter how poor it is, and no matter how many challenges it might face, can be positively transformed in three years. My natural reaction was that three years is too little time. Still, I would tend to take what someone of Lerner’s caliber says seriously, so three years may be a good timeframe that any new Mayor of Amman should be given to get the process of transforming the city moving.
In the meantime, Amman remains more or less how it is, with some minor improvements and some minor setbacks taking place here and there. And as the city and its population continue to grow, Amman will continue to move along a gradual but definite path of urban regression.
Although one may agree with Mr. Biltaji’s public statements, they do not seem to project to any comprehensive vision regarding the city, and instead concentrate on disparate and disconnected issues, which, while important, do not in any way address the challenges facing the city in a strategic all-encompassing manner.
The Mayor has made a number of encouraging remarks about the importance of public transportation and about the need to go ahead with implementing Amman’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project, which unfortunately was halted a few years ago. However, he has given no indication as to how and when this may be realized. Also, the statements that Mr. Biltaji and that GAM have made to the media so far have focused on issues such as removing unlicensed street vendors who have taken over many of Amman’s sidewalks; halting the construction of service facilities on the roofs of apartment buildings; and terminating the licenses of cafés that serve water pipes and of coffee places that serve passing cars. Sidewalks are public spaces that should serve pedestrians and should not be taken over by street vendors; society should do all it can to mitigate smoking; and vendors selling coffee to passing cars will cause traffic hazards. The challenges facing Amman, however, are far more overreaching than these, and such challenges need to be addressed as part of an overall strategy rather than in a piecemeal manner. To make matters worse, street vendors continue to occupy Amman’s sidewalks; cafés continue to serve water pipes; and coffee shops still sell coffee to passing cars.
It would be very unfortunate if someone with Mr. Biltaji’s rich administrative experience ends up attempting to tackle secondary problems affecting Amman in an unfocused manner. This will sap his energies and will not allow him to leave a positive impact on the city. At this stage, the people of Amman have the right to expect from him more than statements that may or may not be realized. They have the right to expect from him and from his team at GAM a comprehensive work-plan for transforming Amman that is developed through consultation with a wide range of stakeholders. Such a work-plan will need to address issues such as garbage collection, traffic congestion, public transportation, pedestrian movement, open public spaces, land-use regulations, and institutional reform at GAM. Equally important, this work-plan should be presented along with a timetable for its realization.
Mr. Biltaji still can be an agent of positive change and transformation, and he can leave a legacy as someone who has positively impacted Amman’s evolution. One would hope that although the past few months have not been a period of accomplishments on the ground, they at least have been a period of learning about the particularities, challenges, and opportunities relating to the management of Amman. Hopefully, Mr. Biltaji will focus his energies in the upcoming period on presenting and implementing an overall plan for improving the city. I and many others truly wish him success, but time is not on his side.
April 27, 2014