Beyond Image: The Effects of the Visual Noise in the City of Damascus. By S. Farah for Syria Comment
Posted by Alex on Thursday, May 6th, 2010
Damascus is a legendary city. Described by the Roman emperor Julian as the “Pearl of the East”, its landscape is defined by three natural features that also have historical significance: The Kassioun Mountain where Cain is believed to have murdered Able; the Barada River where St. Paul was baptized; and the Ghuta, the legendary lush green belt that once encircled the city and earned it the title “Paradise of the Orient”. It is said that the Prophet Muhammad refused to enter Damascus because he believed that “man should only enter Paradise once.”
The past 50 years however saw a confluence of factors that put tremendous pressure on the city. The most notable is an exponential population growth. This was the result of several factors. First, for a strange and as of yet unexplained reason, Syria’s birthrate has been one of the highest in the world, higher than any other country in the Middle East and North Africa. In addition, the Arab Israeli war brought to the city waves of Palestinian refugees who are still languishing in refugee camps, their number today is estimated to be around 400,000. Furthermore, the proximity of Damascus to the frontline with Israel necessitated a massive military build up around the city that brought with it a large numbers of military personals. All this, plus a large migration of people from the rural area seeking better jobs and government jobs concentrated in the capital that otherwise could be located in other cities, resulted in a ten-fold growth of the city’s population over the past 50 years. Today it is estimated that 3.6-4 million people live in Damascus — this, even before the recent wave of Iraqi refugees that flooded the city after the US invasion of Iraq. For many years Syria’s GDP lagged and government spending on infrastructures stalled. The results have been devastating on many levels with around 40% of the city now an unplanned development. The city is suffering from one of the lowest ratio of parks and open areas per capita in the world and the stress on its infrastructure is beginning to show by the acute shortage of water and electricity.
While the big, apparent and most pressing planning and infrastructural issues are being addressed, perhaps the most destructive force that is contributing to the degradation of the city has been the lax enforcement of the city’s building code. Residents feel free to install whichever accessory they wish on the facade of their apartment or store. Today in any one building each floor can have different windows and shutters, and balconies are modified, screened, glazed or enclosed. One balcony might be converted into a sunroom, another balcony on the same building can have ornate byzantine style stone wall decoration, and yet another balcony above can have a modern style wood finishing with recessed lights. People are free to hang their laundry to dry off of these balconies even if they face the main street. Signs and posters also litter the seen with no guiding style or rule. Government buildings are some of the worst offenders; these buildings are often rundown with big signs announcing the occupant of the building, in addition to haphazardly placed banners disfiguring the entire façade. Posters advertising entertainment events, the passing of a member of the community, or introducing a new plumbing service can be plastered on any surface. The worst of all signs are the long fabric signs that can be stretched across the street, often torn and forgotten months after the event had ended. Any city pole seems to be a free for all to hang their advertisement or sign. All this leads to the loss of the original architectural features of buildings, and either destroys or creates an unruly character of the city.
Crowd control is another big challenge. You can hardly find a stanchion anywhere in the city; consequently people mostly crowd for services, and seldom queue for anything. Again this is worst at government agencies.
Littering is also becoming a major concern. On my last trip to Damascus the road to the airport was littered with plastic bags stretching along the right side of the highway all the way from Bab Sharqi to the parking lot of the airport. As a matter of fact this problem has began to attract the attention of tourists. Martina Schmidt, an art historian and archaeologist fascinated by Syria and its treasures, was so offended by this seemingly ubiquitous plastic litter she thought it was one of the worst examples she has ever seen even worse than Vietnam. Unfortunately, these plastic bags, which seem to litter the whole country, are now a part of the world literary heritage as they were referred to by the author Stephanie Saldana in her wonderful book The Bread of Angels about her one-year experience living in Syria. All this disorder contribute to a seen of chaos and visual noise.
The broken windows theory, the brainchild of the psychologists James Wilson and George Kelling, can help explain and pave the way toward a solution to this crisis of visual noise in Syria. Willson and Kelling argue that if in a neighborhood windows are broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon more windows will be broken and the sense of anarchy will spread from one street to the next, sending a signal that anything goes. In a city, minor problems like the unsightly electric wires traversing the exterior of buildings, litter, laundry on balconies and unsightly satellite dishes contribute to the broken window psychology — the sense that no one is in control. The famed author Malcolm Gladwell used this theory in his book The Tipping Point, to explain how trends spread and become contagious.
Today, social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if these minor violations are left unrepaired, they will, as a contagious disease, spread from one street to another. This is as true in affluent neighborhoods as in poor ones.
What’s fascinating is that the mere perception of disorder, even with seemingly irrelevant petty minor violation of building code, precipitates a negative feedback loop that can result in total disorder. Violation of building codes leads to perception of corruption, even when they are merely due to Lack of enforcement. One also has to wonder whether the recent rise in crime in Damascus like purse snatching and home burglaries is not a result of the continuation of the downward spiral of this negative feedback loop.
So what start as a simple violation, can lead to wide spread visual noise and may lead to larger challenges in community control and increase in crime. The police department In New York city was highly successful in recent years in reducing the crime rate throughout the city and in the subway system by among other measures combating graffiti, and other manifestation of visual noise, and cracking down on petty crime in communities across the city.
These challenges are besetting all the Syrian cities and, are said, to be much worse in the countryside. Today, the Syrian government seems to be acutely aware of these problems and is taking action. The ministry of municipal administration is undergoing a modernization project with the help of the EU. There are no less than three groups working on grand municipal plans and urban design for all the Syrian cities and the government introduced a new real estate development law. The President recently honored the sanitation workers in Syria with a reception and dinner during Ramadan. There are plans for a tax on plastic bags, and in a pilot project the city of Damascus signed a contract with a private company for cleaning and the disposal of waste in several neighborhoods. There are also plans for major architectural landmarks, such as the future Rose Center for Childhood Development and Education on the banks of the Barad River, and the government is planning to invest $50 billion in new infrastructures through a BOT model.
Experts and people inside the government today believe that there is an urgency to clean up the city and its countryside from the litter and visual noise. The facades of buildings are public property, and this should be made clear through a public campaign and also put into the law. It is important to protect the special character for each city and village. All building permits should be approved by the local city council to ensure an architectural and aesthetic standard. Once a building permit has been issued no alteration should be allowed to the exterior of a building without the prior approval of the council. There is a need for the creation of new enforcement agency to ensure compliance with the building code and law. A similar agency (such as the one is Singapore) should be created to penalize littering. These enforcement systems should have zero tolerance for violation to avoid contagion. Some community leaders are advocating stiff fines for violators and a government backed loan program for individuals to clean up current violations. The government should also set the example by restoring the façade of the buildings it occupies and it should also set the standard for crowd controls by employing well-groomed hospitality and information agents that help manage the flow of people through its agencies. These measures will enhance the image of the city, create jobs, and will be a great resource of revenue to the city. Finally, all these new government urban initiative will fail in the long run unless Syria’s seemingly uncontrolled birthrate moderates to international average. One urban designer familiar with the issues facing Damascus put it in medical terms and said “uncontrolled growth is like cancer; it will lead to death unless it is addressed with decisiveness and urgency.”