Managing the Traditional Arab City
Urban Crossroads # 107



The challenges of managing contemporary cities in the Arab world are daunting. They have grown at a faster rate than have the resources of existing institutions, municipal and otherwise. Of the various economic, political, cultural, and social challenges the Arab world is facing, urban management is among the more serious. Today’s urban scene is dominated by exceedingly large cities. Providing them with the most basic services, whether water and electricity, waste management, or transportation networks, in any efficient way has become an increasingly difficult task. Developing them into healthy urban environments that feature ample open green spaces, a healthy pedestrian life, and mixed-use neighborhoods where people live close to essential services seems more and more an unrealizable dream.

Under such circumstances, it is very instructive to examine as many existing models for urban management as possible, and to see which of them may be of value for addressing the contemporary challenges affecting the Arab world’s urban centers. Some of these models will come from other lands; some will come from other times.

There is a wealth of traditions regarding urban governance found in the pre-modern Arab-Islamic heritage. Among the best work written on the subject is by the Saudi Arabian planner Saleh Al-Hathloul. He wrote his PhD dissertation on the traditional Arab-Muslim city at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology back in 1980. In 1996, he published a book based on his dissertation entitled The Arab-Muslim City: Tradition, Community, and Change in the Physical Environment. This examination of the traditional Arab city had special relevance to Al-Hathloul. He had served as Deputy Minister for Town Planning at the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs for two decades, from 1984 until his retirement from public office in 2004.

Al-Hathloul’s study emphasizes the important role that tradition played in helping shape the urban fabric. Tradition expresses the cumulative knowledge of a given society. It establishes continuity between past and present. At the same time, if traditions are to be relevant from one generation to the other, they need to be receptive to criticism; and they need to be adaptable to, and also capable of, evolution and change.

In his historical research, Al-Hathloul concentrated on pre-modern municipal manuals (known as hisba manuals) and also on court records from fourteenth-century Tunis and sixteenth-century Medina. Regarding specific issues that city officials (known as muhtasibs) and judges often had to address, many related to the street. In most traditional Arab cities, streets were narrow. This was partly because they followed the topography on which they were located, partly to allow adjacent buildings to easily provide shade from the hot sun, and partly because the wheeled carriage, which requires relatively wide streets, was not used in Arab cities until the second half of the nineteenth century.

Owners of properties adjacent to streets often attempted to extend their buildings onto the street, thus encroaching on public property and hindering the movement of people through it. Many of the decisions and rulings that muhtasibs and judges made were to order the demolition of such encroachments. Municipal manuals also addressed other issues affecting streets. For example, Al-Hathloul mentions a hisba manual that prohibited residents from draining the water they used for cleaning or washing onto the street.

City officials generally followed the principle that any construction is allowed, but if it was established that such construction caused harm to neighbors and to the public, it would be removed. He cites the example of a house owner who built a gate along a semi-private lane (such gates were common). One side of the gate was located along his house, but the gate opened and closed along the house located at the opposite side of the lane. The owner of that house complained that the opening and closing of the gate was causing damage to his property. The judge who looked into the complaint ordered the gate to be removed. In a similar vein, interventions in the built fabric that caused smoke, odors, or noise - as would result from keeping certain animals or using a property to house a furnace or a tannery - could not be located in residential areas and had to be placed outside city walls.

Al-Hathloul points out how this makes the traditional Arab city intrinsically different from the modern one. The modern city is based on top-down planning regulations. Planners and other city officials put forward regulations governing issues such as setbacks, street widths, and building heights. They conceive a predetermined physical form for the city, and the regulations aim at ensuring that all construction conforms to it. How successful they are in enforcing the regulations depends on various factors including the competence of the municipal staff and the effectiveness of the prevailing legal system. With the traditional city, in contrast, no such prescriptive conventions were put forward. There was more flexibility in determining what was allowed or not allowed. More importantly, it was customs (i.e. traditions) that determined what people could build and how the built form changed with time.

Al-Hathloul admits that such a system for urban management may not be feasible today. Arab cities of the pre-modern past (as with cities elsewhere) were much smaller than cities today. Also, they grew at much slower rates than today, if they grew at all. Such stability allowed for building norms, as well as changes to them, to take place at a very gradual pace. In other words, established traditions gave city residents a clear idea regarding what was allowed and what was not allowed. Municipal officials and the judiciary only needed to interfere when building activity resulted in harm to the public good or when disputes arose between neighbors. This would not be possible today. Cities are expanding at breakneck speeds, construction activity is continuously ongoing, and new building types and uses are regularly being introduced. Under such circumstances, established traditions cannot effectively accommodate changes affecting the built environment. Clear prescribed regulations therefore are needed.

Still, the flexibility of the legislation defining the traditional Arab city deserves serious consideration. It allowed building practices to gradually evolve before they became codified. This meant that rules and regulations only crystallized as an acknowledgement of prevalent traditions and accepted practices. Today, what we often have are ready-made regulations that are imported from far away places, and that have not gone through processes of testing, adaptation, and development. They are not necessarily the most suitable for addressing prevailing local economic, social, and cultural conditions, nor do they necessarily best serve private needs and the public good. Revisiting urban regulations to make them more responsive to local conditions may provide one suitable starting point for improving the condition of cities in the Arab world today.

Mohammad al-Asad

August 12, 2010