Bottom-Up Urban Development
Urban Crossroads #80

Kampung Kali Cho-de, Indonesia. © Gregorius Antar/Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

Kampung Kali Cho-de, Indonesia. © Gregorius Antar/Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

There are many tasks that municipal authorities can and should do for the city. They need to ensure that it functions in a reasonably smooth and efficient manner and to support the quality of urban life for its residents. This includes keeping the city clean; overseeing its traffic; maintaining, upgrading, and expanding its infrastructure; as well as managing growth and land uses through developing and implementing suitable zoning and building regulations. In doing so, municipalities usually function in a top–down manner, carrying out their tasks through a bureaucratic structure that administers staff and machinery.

A generally forgotten half of this equation relating to urban dynamics involves a bottom–up arrangement. This depends on the city’s residents coming together, often through grassroots community-based organizations, to work on improving the quality of their urban life. Examples of such an arrangement abound in both affluent as well as poor settings.

One example is the local, neighborhood-based volunteer zoning committees often found in North American cities. These committees work in association with municipal authorities. The municipality presents all building permit applications or proposed zoning modifications affecting the neighborhood to such committees, and their members review the proposals and provide the municipality with their feedback and recommendations.

Although the recommendations of these committees are not legally binding, municipalities generally take them seriously. These committees consist of volunteer representatives from the local community who actively care about their neighborhoods and the quality of life in them. The committees also function as an important asset for the city in that they create a link connecting the neighborhoods’ residents with the centralized bureaucratic municipal structure. Through these committees, neighborhood residents are provided with direct access to the decision-making process taking place in the municipality, and also are provided with the opportunity to have a say in it, rather than feeling helpless and alienated in relation to a faceless, impersonal, and occasionally inefficient bureaucratic machine. From the point of view of the municipality, while such committees may not necessarily always support its actions and often may take on the role of an irritating watchdog, they nonetheless provide the municipality with a much needed open channel of communications with neighborhood residents and a mechanism for understanding their needs and concerns.

Comparable, though different, structures also exist in impoverished parts of the world. A great example is what has been taking place during the past couple of decades in a number of kampungs, or informal settlements, in Indonesia. The relevant authorities have carried out upgrading projects in these kampungs, as with developing certain infrastructure services including the installation of sewage lines and paving paths. Impressive improvements, however, also have resulted from the initiatives of local residents, who have come together to form community groups that work on elevating the quality of life in their neighborhoods. I had visited one such kampung a number of years ago and was most impressed by how safe and clean it was, and how its residents had successfully confronted the challenges of poverty to improve the quality of their urban life. For example, residents take shifts in guarding their neighborhoods. Also, each family assumes responsibility for cleaning the segment of the neighborhood path that runs in front of its dwelling, the result being some of the cleanest neighborhoods I have seen anywhere.

In both of these divergent examples, local residents work together and take the initiative to preserve or improve the quality of urban life. Without such a sense of civic responsibility, the quality of urban life will inevitably suffer. This sense of public, neighborhood-based responsibility unfortunately is significantly lacking in our part of the world, where residents may display strong allegiances on the immediate and extended family levels, but do not usually expand these allegiances to encompass the neighborhoods, communities, and cities in which they live.

Those of us who grew up during the 1970s remember the popular television comedy series Sahh al-Nawm (Time to Wake Up) starring Syrian actors Durayd Lahham and Nihad Qal’i. The series took place in a fictional neighborhood named “kull min ido ilo,” which roughly may be translated as “each person’s hand is his own.” This metaphoric neighborhood name was intended to convey the message that its residents were not in the habit of lending a helping hand, but carried out their lives in a manner that is selfish and self-preservationist.

Like many of Lahham and Qal’i’s works, this series addressed all sorts of social, cultural, and political issues affecting our part of the world, but what it also did, probably unconsciously, is bring attention to an issue with an urban dimension, in that it shed light on the lack of any sense of civic responsibility in our neighborhoods. In this, Amman unfortunately is no exception. Too many of its residents engage in various sorts of negative behavioral patterns, whether carelessly putting their household garbage along the street, littering their surroundings, listening to music at blaring volumes, or driving recklessly through the city’s streets.

To a certain level, these problems may be addressed through higher levels of diligence in implementing and enforcing existing regulations. However, while the relevant authorities need to carry out their duties as efficiently and effectively as possible, residents also need to assume their share of responsibility. Community-based neighborhood associations can function as an important vehicle that allows this to happen. They can address all sorts of issues including public cleanliness, traffic, urban beautification, as well as opening communication links and establishing dialogue with municipal authorities. In other words, the top–down and bottom–up approaches both need to come together. One hand cannot clap.

Amman’s urban situation features a highly bureaucratic municipal structure that the average resident too often perceives as forbidding and unreachable, except possibly through that infamous system of familial and social contacts as well as socio-economic greasing agent, the wastah. At the same time, that average resident often treats the city, including the immediate neighborhood in which he or she lives, with indifference, detachment, and neglect.

Judging from the statements and decisions made by the mayor of Amman, Omar Maani, it is clear that he is fully aware of the importance of forming community-based organizations that would take on an active role in improving the quality of life in the city and also in providing a link between the city’s residents and its municipal authority. He also is fully aware of the challenges that face developing such social mechanisms of civic responsibility within a context where they are not actively present. The mayor accordingly is exploring possible ways of addressing these challenges and encouraging such organizations to come into being.

Amman therefore seems to be at a very appropriate juncture for initiating serious efforts through which the municipal leadership and various community development organizations join forces and embark upon putting in place mechanisms that enable the formation of neighborhood-based community organizations devoted to improving the quality of the city’s urban life. With this, a much-needed bottom–up approach to urban development can come into being, linking up with, complementing, and engaging the already-existing top–down urban management structures.

Mohammad al-Asad

May 8, 2008