New City Idea Stirs Debate

Initial reaction divided on proposal to create an administrative capital.

New City Idea Stirs Debate

Initial reaction divided on proposal to create an administrative capital.

Friday, 10 July, 2009
A newspaper article that suggested the establishment of an artificial administrative capital away from Damascus has stirred heated debate among the people of the city, with views split on whether it is a good idea and government officials firmly opposed.

Air pollution, traffic congestion, urban sprawl, water scarcity and other factors lead many Syrians to complain about the deteriorating quality of life in Damascus. Over the years, many proposals have been put forward to tackle the city’s chronic problems but not enough has been done.

The article that sparked the debate was first published on May 13 in Al-Qandil newspaper and circulated by more than 20 local websites, where it provoked a large number of comments.

The author of the piece, Waddah Saeb, an engineer working at a private contracting firm, proposed the creation of a city near the town of Hasiaa, 110 kilometres northeast of Damascus near the city of Homs, where all government and administrative buildings would be located.

The idea is to reduce the overcrowding of the capital and slow down the resettlement of rural inhabitants to the capital, he wrote.

“The core of the issue was to choose the location of the new city so that it is far enough from Damascus in order to encourage the mass of public employees and their families to move there,” Saeb told IWPR.

Saeb advised the authorities to contract out the building of the new city to an international company over a period of five years.

He said that the project could be partially financed by selling administrative buildings in the capital to private companies and selling housing on credit to public employees, he added.

About six million people live in Damascus and its suburbs, accounting for around a third of the country’s population, according to the official census data.

Figures show significant population growth and a continuing migration from rural areas into the capital.

In addition to traffic jams, pollution, and the high price of real estate, one of the capital’s main problems remains that 45 per cent of its people reside in neighbourhoods that lack any urban planning and are full of unlicensed buildings, observers say.

Although many agree that life in Damascus is becoming more and more difficult, some criticised Saeb’s proposal, arguing that it undermined the historical and cultural value of Damascus, which is considered to be one of the oldest cities in the world.

Saeb said that some people had misunderstood his proposal. He explained that Damascus would still be the political capital of the country and the council of ministers and the foreign ministry would remain there.

Several countries around the world have turned to the establishment of administrative capitals as a solution to overcrowding in their main cities.

However, officials dismissed the suggestions of Saeb, who has never presented his ideas to any relevant public institution.

Abdel-Fatah Eyaso, the director of the urban planning bureau in Damascus, said there was no plan to create a new administrative capital.

The authorities were currently working with local and international companies on the design of comprehensive urban plan for Damascus to be completed within three years, he said.

The project would include rehabilitating the slum areas as well as building new bridges, roads and tunnels and developing economic zones and tourist attractions on the outskirts of the city, he said.

The decision to produce a comprehensive development plan for the city was taken last year after a government idea to establish a large complex of administrative and government offices near Damascus was aborted.

Some experts say that the way to bring down migration from rural areas into the capital is to develop other areas of the country and reinforce decentralisation.

Haitham al-Maleh, a civil rights activist who has written many articles about the need to rescue Damascus, has suggested the development of the Al-Jazeera, an area 500 kilometres north of Damascus that is rich in water and oil resources.

This would encourage people to move there and persuade those from the area who now live in Damascus to return because there would be better jobs, he said.

“A doctor from the Jazeera area would not come and work in Damascus if hospitals were built in his hometown,” he said.

Maleh also proposed more use of the internet for official administrative procedures in order to reduce congestion in Damascus.

Meanwhile, the capital’s residents remain divided about the best way to enhance life in their city.

Farhan Ajoub, a 44 year-old civil servant living in Damascus, said he found the idea of a new administrative capital attractive as an alternative to long journeys to and from work in Damascus.

Hanadi Mansour, a 38-year-old housewife, said that she could not stand the heat in the capital exacerbated by road traffic and factories in and around Damascus.

“We leave the city every week to go to parks outside Damascus because of pollution and the lack of gardens,” she said.

“The state should discuss the project (of a new administrative city) seriously instead of devising partial and ineffective solutions,” she added.
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