To Centralize or Decentralize
Urban Crossroads #45

                                             Downtown Amman (The Jordan Times)

                                            Downtown Amman (The Jordan Times)

As cities expand, they eventually reach the smaller towns surrounding them, eating up in the process the empty stretches of land (usually agricultural) located in between. As a city reaches surrounding towns, one scenario is to end up with a sizable metropolitan area consisting of the large city and the adjoining set of towns (and in some cases smaller cities), but with each maintaining its own administrative autonomy and its own character. A very different scenario is for the expanding large city to swallow up the surrounding human settlements to create a single monolithic urban conglomerate that is administered by a single municipal structure. It is this second scenario that has been taking place in Jordan.

These two scenarios are very much connected to two competing positions regarding how metropolitan areas should be administered. One position argues that a single unified administrative structure for metropolitan areas is more efficient than having a series of independent municipal bodies governing a group of towns that adjoin a major city. Accordingly, the metropolitan area would have fully unified infrastructure systems that would address issues including traffic, public transportation, water supply, and sewage disposal. The unified municipal system also provides for unified zoning and building regulations. The argument is that it is easier for the residents and businesses of a given metropolitan area to deal with one regulatory body rather than a multiplicity of them. Also, a single metropolitan municipal system would create a situation that allows for economies of scale, in that it will have far more resources available to it in comparison to a series of smaller municipalities, and therefore would be able to implement projects and offer services for the inhabitants of the metropolitan area that smaller municipalities would not be able to carry out.

Within the context of the developing world, another argument supporting the development of unified single municipal bodies is that small municipalities simply do not have the needed capacities in terms of human and financial resources. They consequently are unable to carry out their municipal duties with a minimal level of competence. Such competence only would be available in larger municipal structures.

It is such reasoning that has prevailed in Jordan, and has provided an impetus for the creation of the Greater Amman Municipality in 1986, which resulted in an amalgamation of Amman proper and a series of surrounding towns such as Suwaylih, Wadi al-Sir, and Quwaysmih. As a result, Amman has become a centralized entity that incorporates a series of towns that until that time had been separate municipal entities. This same reasoning more recently has been provided for the amalgamation of Jordan's over three hundred municipalities into less than a hundred.

The counter-argument to this reasoning supporting unified municipal structures emphasizes that as cities grow, we need to protect the individual character and also the smaller scale of the pre-existing towns surrounding them. Such protection allows for maintaining a high level of diversity in the quality of urban life within a metropolitan area. The independent municipal structure in each of these towns allows it to maintain and develop its own character, whether in terms of the physical character of its buildings and urban features, or in terms of the types of people and businesses it would attract. Therefore, if the inhabitants of a town located in a metropolitan center only wish to include low-rise buildings in it, or want it to become a place where artists and artisans would want to live, or want it to attract businesses involved in a field such as information technologies, the administrative municipal independence of the town allows them to develop the necessary regulations and incentives to create whatever special physical or economic character they would like to have for their town. Also important is that the multiplicity of municipal structures within a metropolitan center creates a degree of competition between the various municipalities to provide a higher quality of life and better services to the residents and businesses that choose to locate in each of them.

As for the services that may need to be provided and coordinated on the metropolitan level, such as roads, public transportation, electricity, water, and sewage disposal, these do not necessarily have to suffer within the context of independent municipal structures since they may be placed under the supervision of specialized metropolitan or regional authorities that would coordinate activities between the various independent municipal authorities in the metropolitan region.

Personally, I prefer the second option, which emphasizes decentralization and diversity in urban life, and also results in competition between municipal structures within a metropolitan region. However, such a decentralized system is based on the availability of the human and financial capacities for each of these small-scale independent municipal structures. Admittedly, such capacities are available in very limited supply in Jordan, and what is available generally still is in need of tremendous improvement and development. In the meantime, we might have no other choice but to follow centralized unified municipal structures in the country. However, as soon as the opportunity arises, and as soon as the overall available municipal human and financial resources in the country achieve the needed levels of competence, we should immediately begin a process of decentralization that supports the creation of smaller municipal structures that are freed from the domination of the larger centralized monolithic bodies. Let us hope that day comes sooner than later.

Mohammad al-Asad

July 21, 2005