I have only been in Indonesia for about a day and a half at this point, but I’ve noticed something that most urban dwellers in the developing world (or Chicago, Detroit or any other boom city of the 19th century) have noticed: the local government simply cannot keep up with the rapid rate of urbanization.
I’m currently living in a medium-sized city about an hour’s flight south of Jakarta called Jogja (also called Jokjakarta or Yogyakarta). I have met one person who’s address, the post office assures her, simply doesn’t exist. I’m not really sure how she gets her mail. This problem is hardly relegated to Jogja with a little under 400,000 residents: another man in Jakarta, a city of over 10 million and the center of a relatively stable democratic and bureaucratic nation, has the address “the house at the end of the street on the left” written on all mail.
For a city that can hardly keep track of the structures being built, and unlike Jakarta, Jogja’s public transit system is quite clean and safe. It is, however, not particularly well planned or executed.
One person whom I’ve met has remarked that to get to the nearest stretch of shops and restaurants, she needs to get on at the station across the street from her home, travel north to a terminal and transfer to go back south stopping across the street from the station she got on from. All this is because the bus system only sells tickets at certain stations. More than simply poor planning, a problem that many western transit systems suffer from as well, huge swaths of the city are left untouched by the bus system despite the fact that (according to most
Jogja residents) buses are sitting in warehouses unused waiting for the right bureaucrats to get paid off (a rumo
r I will speak to in more detail if I can learn more about it).
The lack of options and efficiency means few people take the bus system, especially since it stops running at 10 at night. Most blocks in Jogja are filled with 1-3 story densely buildings. Though sidewalks on all but major thoroughfares are rare, the hectic, narrow streets are more than pleasant for walking. Still, hardly anyone walks, instead electing for cars, taxis and (most common of all) motorbikes. In a city of vast, contiguous and quite walkable density, this preference for driving produces the outcomes one would expect: ever worsening traffic.
The lack of government oversight does lead to some delightful idiosyncrasy, though. In my opinion at least, these are the things that make cities worthwhile. While residents of New York spend months arguing over whether a neighborhood zoned “C-2″ (which is light commercial and manufacturing in New York, if I recall correctly) can be
switched to residential without destroying school size, infrastructure, traffic flow and neighborhood character, in Indonesia people seem to just build what the market (or their tastes) demand. I have been living in what in the states would be an illegal hotel but here proliferates
through the narrow streets (see New York’s attempts to quash the attempts of apartment owners’ attempts to rent out their homes to tourists). These so-called “homestays” have 5-10 guest rooms usually opening into the home’s courtyard across from the family’s quarters.
Jogja isn’t a chaotic mess (except for the traffic). Cities, as countless thinkers have pointed out (most notably Jane Jacobs), have a way of self-organizing. Most shops are on main thoroughfares where people will see them. Homes fill the quiet, narrow side-streets. The only real regulations anyone has been able to produce are those that affect either height or (and this is recent) susceptibility to earthquakes.
Structures of governing (and recording changes in) neighborhoods are well articulated though. When one person I met set up offices for her NGO in her home (something that would only be allowed with proper zoning in the states) she filled out paper work at the sub-neighborhood level. The registration then traveled through the bureaucracy to the neighborhood, sub-district, district, province and then national government.
In many ways, a strong bureaucracy with a well-articulated chain of command bodes well for the success of Indonesia’s urban areas, though the infamous corruption here certainly raises concerns. What makes Indonesia’s cities so exciting, though, is the propensity for bottom-up governance. While zoning in the states is dictated by city-wide agencies, Indonesia’s land-use governance (or lack thereof) begins with the homeowners. Certainly this sort of governance will prove ineffective in many ways as urbanization slows and governments focus less on accommodating the waves of urbanizing migrants and more on improving quality of life. To address traffic problems, nothing short of system-wide analysis will suffice. Moreover, in the US and Europe, small jurisdictions of neighborhoods have increasingly pushed for local interests through neighborhood level governance similar to Indonesia’s, notably the curbing of dense and tall construction to protect view corridors and neighborhood character, at the expense of city-wide well-being.
It may be that ever boring cities are a sign of wealth and prosperity. In many ways, Singapore is a better city than Jakarta or Jogja. But the visceral humanity that emanates from the chaos of Jogja and other southeast Asian cities outside of Korea, Japan and Singapore will increasingly be lost as Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh and other nations fight to join the economic successes of their neighbors. In most ways, this is good. I just wish that the growing class of Indonesia’s Tata Kota (urban planners) would recognize the mistakes of the west in turning cities into car-oriented Disney Worlds ever tied to the whims of scleratic regulations and caintophobic landowners.