Managing Amman

Urban Crossroads #115

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


Amman will be getting a new mayor. At such a time, city residents begin to look back, assessing the performance of the outgoing mayor. They also begin to look into the future, predicting what policies and approaches the new occupant of this important position may take.

I had the opportunity to interact with outgoing mayor Omar Maani a few years ago, when I served on a committee connected to the Greater Amman Municipality. I found him energetic and dedicated, and one who thought strategically about the long-term evolution of Amman. During his five-year tenure, he managed to implement a number of worthwhile accomplishments: he established controls over the unregulated spread of high-rise buildings; he removed the overwhelming number of commercial signs that littered the facades and tops of buildings; he greatly improved the signage system for street names and building numbers; and he ensured that Amman's first fully pedestrian street, Wakalat Street, was realized.

Maani also started two long-term initiatives whose results will only become apparent in the future. The first is the Amman Bus Rapid Transit system, which currently is under construction. The second is the Amman master plan. If the first is completed and managed successfully, and if the second ends up being implemented and turns out to be well thought out, Amman will have Omar Maani to thank.

Although substantial and impressive, these accomplishments unfortunately are dwarfed by the overwhelming urban challenges that Amman is facing. No matter how effective and energetic Amman's mayor may be (and Maani is both), the city had reached a point during the 1990s after which it essentially has become unmanageable. It simply has grown too much and has grown too quickly.

Over the past two decades or so, Amman on the one hand has emerged into an increasingly cosmopolitan center that is economically and culturally lively and diverse, and that offers considerable consumer and entertainment amenities to its residents. On the other hand, the urban management of Amman has been undergoing considerable deterioration. Traffic congestion has progressively gotten worse to reach unbearable levels. Public transportation is of very poor quality and is only used by those who are unable to afford any other transportation options.

The state of garbage collection and street cleanliness in Amman has been falling behind year after year. It also is a disgrace that Amman still does not have a municipal recycling system. Amman's public green areas remain too few and far in between, particularly on the neighborhood level. Moreover, Amman continues to be overwhelmed by uncontrolled and chaotic expansion. This expansion is eating up valuable and scarce agricultural land, and is making the city too expansive to allow for ease of movement in it. And of course, there is Amman's notorious pedestrian problem. Because of the city's reckless driving, dysfunctional sidewalks, heavy levels of vehicular exhaust fumes, and lack of pedestrian crossings, moving on foot for any significant distances has become an extremely difficult and unpleasant task.

If Amman is to reverse this ongoing process of urban deterioration, action needs to be taken on two fronts. On the one hand, population growth needs to be directed to other cities in Jordan. It is in fact a source of deep concern that over 40% of Jordan's population lives in Amman. On the other hand, Amman will need to undergo an extensive process of administrative restructuring. To accomplish this, the experience of amalgamation needs to be revisited.

Beginning in 1986, various small municipalities surrounding Amman have been overtaken by the newly-formed Municipality of Greater Amman, transforming Amman into one large centrally-administered metropolis. The reasoning given behind amalgamation was the need to elevate the quality of municipal services available in the towns surrounding Amman, which had become de facto suburbs of the city.

As a result of this amalgamation process, the Greater Amman Municipality today occupies an area of about 1,700 square kilometers (over three times the area of the country of Bahrain), has a population that is approaching three million people, and is centrally administered by a municipality with over 23,000 employees. Such an arrangement provides for a highly-impersonal and inefficient municipal structure. It also is one that alienates the average city resident. Under such circumstances, achieving direct, open, and continuous interaction between the city's administration and its residents becomes a very difficult, if not impossible, goal to realize.

There is an urgent need to decentralize the current municipal structure governing metropolitan Amman. The Amman municipality should be reduced in size to include Amman's historic central core (downtown and surrounding hills), accommodating about half a million people. The remaining parts would be restructured as independent municipalities. Each would have a population of about 150,000 people. Also, each would have an elected mayor, an elected city council, and an independent tax base.

With the current arrangement for Amman's city council, a rough calculation indicates that each council member represents about 40,000 people. Considering that half the members are elected and the other half are appointed, each elected member represents the overwhelming number of 80,000 residents. This does not allow for any meaningful relation to emerge between the council member and his or her constituency. If smaller municipalities are created, it will become possible for each council member to represent a more realistic number of people. This will allow for a much closer relation to emerge between the council member and his or her constituency. It also will ensure that council members are more responsive to the needs of their constituencies.

The new municipalities would carry out various municipal tasks including zoning, issuing building permits, the construction and maintenance of streets and sidewalks, solid waste management, as well as the creation and maintenance of public green spaces.

There also will be a need for some sort of metropolitan municipal institution that accompanies this decentralized municipal structure. Such an institution would manage issues on the metropolitan scale, as with public transportation and the construction and maintenance of major arterial roads. This institution also would act as a coordinating body between the various municipalities that make up metropolitan Amman. It may even develop a set of municipal standards that all of greater Amman's municipalities may agree to follow.

Implementing these changes and developing such a two-tier municipal system will not be easy. It will face setbacks as it is put in place and undergoes a process of fine-tuning. This new system also will require considerable adjustments on behalf of municipal staff. They will need to develop a more direct and constructive relation with smaller constituencies that elect their mayors and city councils. Amman's residents will have the ability and also the responsibility to take on a more active role in running their municipality. In addition, we have to accept that while some of the new municipalities will shine, others will stumble along the way before they evolve into well-functioning municipal bodies. Still, a state of healthy competition between these municipalities will emerge, and eventually all will benefit.

Irrespective of who will become Amman's next mayor, and no matter how energetic and dedicated he may be, he will not be able to effectively address Amman's ongoing urban problems. His energies will be totally subsumed by fire-fighting and crisis management. What Amman needs is a complete restructuring that transforms it into smaller independent municipal units. The sooner this restructuring begins, the better.

Mohammad al-Asad

April 08, 2011

An Arabic translation of this article is available from and


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