The Demands of the Few and the Rights of the Many
Urban Crossroads #58

A major inefficiency affecting the decision-making process in cities everywhere lies in the "loudness" of the few, and the silence of the many. The majority of people often are silent and passive about the processes through which such decision-making takes place, even though the resulting decisions strongly affect the quality of their daily life. In contrast, interest groups, who in many cases represent small minorities of constituents, usually are very vocal and aggressive about protecting acquired privileges, and also expanding upon them. Public decisions consequently often are made in a manner that tends to disregard the public good and acquiesce to the pressures of interest-groups. This is one reason why it is very important to raise public awareness amongst the residents of the city, and to encourage them to take an active role in the debates, dialogues, and overall processes affecting their daily life as urban citizens.

Decisions affecting life in the city include issues that range from the regulation of commercial signs to land-use zoning. In many cases, the requirements for enhancing the public interest are very clear, but the decisions taken do not necessarily reflect those requirements. For example, very few would deny that the proliferation of commercial signs in Amman has become an aggravating source of visual pollution in the city. However, many store owners and advertisers would strongly resist any attempts at developing effective regulations that aim at toning down the commercial signs of Amman and addressing the excessive visual pollution they are causing. Shop owners would argue that they put considerable resources into those signs, and removing them would mean that the significant investments they have allocated to these signs would go down the drain. Advertising agencies would argue that placing limitations on the size, type, and location of advertising signs would be an infringement on their right to pursue investment opportunities in a country that has made serious efforts at developing an investor-friendly regulatory environment.

Building and zoning regulations are an even more serious manifestation of this phenomenon. Zoning a specific area as residential, commercial, industrial, or as a green area always will have a very strong and direct impact on the lives of the inhabitants of the city. Changing the zoning of an area from one use to another will completely alter the character of that area, and of course will alter the price structure of real estate in it. Any rezoning decision will create a rupture in the habitation patterns in the area. It also will transform the movement of traffic in it and in areas beyond it.

The same applies to deciding on allowed maximum building heights. This will greatly affect the areas in which those building are located. Allowing additional building heights will put increasing demands on existing infrastructural systems, including road networks, as well as water, electricity, and sewage grids. It even will affect sun and shade patterns in the area.

Decisions affecting such issues have extremely serious repercussions, and the dynamics through which these decisions are made need to be continuously assessed, reviewed, and developed. Mechanisms therefore need to be developed to ensure that the public good is addressed when making those decisions. This is not an easy task to achieve. Many people feel that their opinions do not count and therefore surrender to taking the position of passive or even indifferent observers regarding the decision-making process. There also are many who have not developed the awareness needed to understand the impact of decisions affecting the city on the public good. Educating the public about what makes a good city therefore is necessary. In some cases, important public decisions affecting the city need to be opened up to full public debate. These debates would allow concerned citizens, such as the residents affected by a zoning decision in a specific part of town, to attend and voice their opinions, hopes, and concerns. Such forums, however, require considerable civic maturity, and a respect for the principle of civilized dialogue that accepts differences in opinion. If these prerequisites are not available, such meetings may degenerate into shouting matches where any hope for consensus-building that promotes fair and long-term sustainable solutions is lost. These forums also may end up as platforms where purely narrow individual interests, rather than the needs of the public good, are primarily pushed forward.

Another option is to establish technical commissions of independent experts known for their high level of competence and integrity to make binding recommendations regarding decisions that affect the face and character of the city. In such a case, a clear mechanism needs to be put in place to ensure that the selection process of members for these commissions results in the choice of experts whose technical and ethical qualifications are beyond reproach. Also of importance is ensuring that the decisions that these commissions make are implemented rather than ignored and shelved to gather dust.

There also is no escape from the fact that city officials often need to make decisions in favor of the public good that interest groups will fight - and will fight hard. These officials nonetheless should be willing to defend those decisions and to stand by them. They very well may make enemies in the short run, but will have society's deep gratitude in the long term.

The issue is not one of fully ignoring the rights of interest groups. They also have legitimate concerns. Accordingly, visually polluting commercial signs may be phased out over a period of one or two years so that store owners may be given a grace period to make adjustments. Additionally, they may be granted waivers from the yearly signage fees that the municipality charges as they replace their original signs with smaller, more tasteful ones to compensate them for the costs they put in their old signs. Regarding building heights, although investors should not be able build high-rise buildings wherever they wish in the city, suitably-located zones with adequate infrastructure and transportation networks should be developed for this purpose.

Still, for a city to develop as a place that supports a high level of civic life, tough decisions need to be made, decisions that very well may make interest groups angry. Accordingly, in order to support the long-term health of any urban center, visually polluting signs need to be removed; building height limits need to be placed and strictly adhered to across the board; and green areas, historical buildings, and residential neighborhoods need to be protected. Every decision tackling these issues may face strong opposition, but if such opposition is allowed to dominate the decision-making process, the result will be a dysfunctional city.

Mohammad al-Asad

April 27, 2006