Urban Change: Management and Resistance
Urban Crossroads #78

Cities are living entities that undergo constant change. Their population, size, wealth, and density increase or decrease according to prevailing economic, political, cultural, as well as environmental conditions. The challenge is how to manage such change so as to optimize positives when times are good, and minimize negatives during difficult periods. Such management requires policies and strategies to be devised, human and financial resources to be earmarked, as well as laws and regulations to be drafted and implemented.

The success or failure of managing change affecting a city greatly depends on the reactions of its residents to change. Change often is imposed by external factors, and not usually initiated by those it affects, let alone embraced by them. This applies to all societies, but more so to those for which change has not been institutionalized and built into their political and cultural systems. Human beings are conservative by nature, and generally are very comfortable continuing to do things the way they always have. They may accept change if it is of the quantitative “easy” kind that allows them to continue doing what they always have done, but with more ease. They may grudgingly accept change that finally is implemented after being instituted or legislated for some time. And change can be embraced under certain circumstances, as when reaching a “tipping point” at which the status quo no longer is tolerable. Otherwise, people generally are comfortable sticking to their usual routines although such routines may not necessarily maximize efficiency or pleasure in their lives. When asked to change those routines, even if for the better, the reaction often is that of resistance. People generally are comfortable with what they have known and tried, and apprehensive towards what they do not know or have not tried.

There is no shortage of such patterns of reaction to change in urban life. Consider street cleaning and garbage collection. If municipal authorities implement “easy” quantitative changes that feature increased street cleaning and garbage collection, city residents generally would welcome such changes as they would make the city cleaner, but would not require any significant modifications to their behavior or lifestyle. To take this a step further, if the city initiates a campaign aimed at more effective enforcement of anti-littering regulations, this probably would be met with a grudging acceptance. Such enforcement would require residents to institute changes in their behavior. These regulations, however, have been there for some time, though not seriously enforced, and therefore already have been mentally internalized by most. Moreover, they are intended to serve the public good. On the other hand, if the city puts in place a compulsory recycling program that requires residents to make the effort of separating their garbage and penalizes those who do not, a wave of public complaints and resistance very well may break out.

If the city authorities are persistent in the face of such complaints and resistance, and implement the garbage recycling program effectively and efficiently, residents eventually will accept the change imposed on their lifestyle, and at one point even may embrace it. This may result from increased environmental awareness. The city authorities also may build up support for the program by showing, for example, how the income generated from selling recyclable garbage provides additional financial resources that help improve garbage collection and street cleaning services.

Another example is that of traffic. If a new traffic artery is built that provides an easier and more direct link between a central and suburban part of the city, most residents will welcome it as this is an “easy” type of change. To take this a step further, if there is increased diligence in enforcing parking and traffic violations in a systematic, across-the-board manner, residents also will grudgingly accept it, even though this will require changes in driving behaviors. As with the implementation of anti-littering regulations above, such change already has been mentally internalized as these driving regulations have existed for some time, and are intended to promote public safety.

If a street, however, is closed in the face of vehicular traffic and converted into a pedestrian zone, complaints and resistance will emerge from most of those who regularly drive through the street or park along it. Such a reaction in fact has accompanied every pedestrianization effort in Amman, the most recent of which is that affecting Wakalat Street. Again, people simply do not like change, and those who used to drive their cars through Wakalat Street or park them right in front of its shops no longer can do so. However, as examples of pedestrianization throughout the world have shown, people with time accept such change. They settle into new behavioral routines that accommodate the new change, and in most cases come to appreciate it as they discover how the automobile-free street can provide a far more pleasant environment in which to walk or sit, is safe from the hazards of moving traffic, and is less polluted than congested, automobile-dominated streets.

There also are unique conditions when people readily and fully accept change. This is when a “tipping point” is reached. One scenario for reaching it is when the status quo becomes so intolerable that an overwhelming consensus, if not demand, emerges for change. This is more or less what has happened in Jordan over the past few weeks with the latest tragic loss of lives resulting from traffic accidents. These included a hit-and-run accident that took the life of a high-school student. Soon after that, a passenger bus collided with a truck and overturned into a valley, resulting in the death of 21 of its passengers. With those tragedies, the public seems to have reached a tipping point regarding traffic accidents, which have been killing, maiming, and injuring people in the country for years. At such a juncture, substantive change affecting traffic regulations and the use of the automobile not only is accepted, but even expected and demanded.

Otherwise, change in most circumstances is resisted. To remain on the issue of traffic, but to move outside Jordan, consider the example of congestion fees being implemented in London and Stockholm, according to which all private vehicles entering a certain zone within the downtown core are charged a certain fee. Public transportation buses, of course, are exempted from such fees. Moreover, the quality of their service is improved upon to ensure that city residents who wish or need to commute to or from the city core have a decent-quality alternative to private cars and taxis. The argument in favor of such congestion fees is that they considerably reduce traffic congestion in the affected zones and also provide increased income for the city. Even though both cities have long and established mature urban traditions, the idea of congestion fees was met with considerable resistance, and all sorts of arguments were put forward to the effect that they would result in more harm than good. The authorities still persevered, and implemented them. Residents of both cities gradually came to the realization that this new regulation, although obliging them to modify their patterns of accessing the inner parts of the city, has greatly improved the quality of life in it as traffic congestion decreased, while public transportation provided full and efficient access. New York City currently is planning to institute such fees, and, not surprisingly, the authorities there are facing considerable resistance to the plan.

Change continuously affects cities whether we want it or not. The residents and authorities of a city will have to deal with it, but ideally should do so proactively rather than reactively. As city authorities manage change, the knee-jerk reaction for many residents is to resist any changes that affect their daily routines or require additional effort even though the changes very well may positively impact their daily lives. The authorities are not in an enviable position here. Not only must they persevere and implement those changes in face of such resistance, but also have the added responsibility of carrying out careful and thorough diagnostics and planning regarding problems and solutions, initiating a full public dialogue on those problems and solutions that would accommodate modifications, and putting in place an effective campaign that explains those changes and their results to the public.

As decision-makers deal with those difficult and demanding tasks, they need to resist the temptation of giving in to short-term public resistance and taking the easy way out by retreating from implementing change. After all, “you cannot make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.” Change will happen whether we like it or not, but if we do not prepare for it and engage it, we very well may have to face a future that compares poorly to the present.

Mohammad al-Asad

March 6, 2008