Before they all become like Jakarta

Earlier this month, I went to a cultural festival in a tiny village in West Java, more as an escape from boisterous Jakarta than anything else.

Early hopes of momentarily forgetting all the problems of living in a big metropolitan city were dashed as soon as I arrived in Jatisura, a small village in Majalengka that was holding a festival to mark its 111th anniversary.

The festival’s theme, Sebelum Semuanya Menjadi Seperti Jakarta (Before They All Become Like Jakarta) hit home the message that the quest for an escape from big metropolitan cities is not the exclusive desire of Jakartans. Many who live far from the hustle and bustle of big cities have also warned of the perils of big cities.

Abdullah Azwar Anas, the regent of Banyuwangi in East Java cautioned when he spoke at the National Leadership Training in Surabaya last month. “Don’t plagiarize Jakarta, because the problems and potentials are very different.”

As a Jakartan, I take no offense at his remarks. I don’t mean that I hate Jakarta, but I feel that it would be a bad idea if the whole of Indonesia became like Jakarta.

Jakarta is no role model for other cities. If anything, Jakarta is what other aspiring metropolitan cities in the rest of Indonesia don’t want to become.

Progress in Jakarta has been dedicated mostly to physical economic development, and not so much for the wellbeing of its people and the environment. Even as green open spaces rapidly decline to less than 10 percent of the total area, Jakarta will see eight mega shopping centers opening up this year, bringing the total to over 80.

Even as we cry out for more public transportation facilities, the city will inaugurate six new inner toll roads worth Rp 42 trillion (US$4.3 billion), twice the sum earmarked for the mass rapid transit (MRT) system, whose construction has been delayed.

Prioritizing physical economic development means brutal construction which in turn leads to never-ending destruction. Small scale and unproductive spaces, such as spaces for parks and housing, will become devalued and destined to be demolished. Only those who can pay, can enjoy living inside Jakarta.

If you go Jakarta’s rapidly shrinking public spaces, you’d hardly think the city had hopes. Few of its own citizens respect their own city. At the risk of sounding cliché, how residents behave shows the extent of how much they appreciate their city. Rampant traffic violations and littering at will are very telling of our own attitude.

We can’t blame city planners for lack of vision. Go to the Jakarta city planning website ( or gallery, and you’ll find exciting images of Jakarta. One vision sees more than 30 percent of open spaces — 40 times the Monas (National Monument) area is needed to achieve that — and an MRT as the backbone of public transportation.

There is no guarantee that this vision will ever be realized. The city spatial planning is reviewed every five years, and it seems that each time it retreats.

In the 2000-2010 city planning, the administration cut back its green open-space target from 26 to 14 percent of the total land area. Even this proved to be overly ambitious.

Yet, who can resist the blinking sweetness and dazzle of the development that has taken place in Jakarta? Becoming Jakarta, for many other cities in Indonesia, is too tantalizing to be avoided.

In Yogyakarta, which is rapidly turning into a forest of billboards, a mall has been constructed on the land of Balai Mardi Wuto, which the central government had earlier declared as a heritage site. The Yogyakarta sultan is even planning to build car parks under the historic Vredeburg Fort and Bank Indonesia buildings.

In Makassar, pedestrian walkways were demolished to make more room for automobiles. In Bandung — soon to be a rival to Jakarta — traffic congestion is already choking and the temperature is rising with the rapid development.

In Bali … Okay, let me stop there.

Ismal Muntaha, a Jatisura villager related to me how Sutrisno, the regent of Majalaengka, on a visit to Jatiwangi, the district that oversees Jatisura, had promised to build a super mall so that people would not have to go to big cities anymore. Oh, how the people of Jatiwangi cheered him.

The regent wasted no time in making good on his promise. In December, construction of the Jatiwangi Square began on the former site of a historic sugar mill. It follows on a supersize “10-in-1” concept: a shopping mall, a hotel, a convention hall, a commercial complex, houses and shophouses, a waterpark, a sports center, a hospital and culinary center.

It was a slow but sweet ride to Jatiwangi — three hours from Gambir Station to Cirebon by train and another hour by bus. However, Majalengka will soon begin construction of an international airport at Kertajati, an hour’s bus ride from Jatiwangi, along with a toll road. Pretty soon, we will all be able fly to this lovely place.

As if forewarning that becoming Jakarta is unavoidable if not inevitable, Ono Haryono, the Jatiwangi district chief said in closing the festival, “We [Jatiwangi residents] should respect the place where we stand.” He knows that respect for their hometown is their last resort, before they all become like Jakarta.

The writer is an architecture graduate of the University of Indonesia, and a city blogger for Yahoo! Indonesia.