Revisiting "Indonesia's Urban Story"

December 19, 2016
Indonesia's Urban Story

The fastest growing urban population isn’t in China or India but in the island nation of Indonesia. This rapid urbanization has resulted in higher incomes, better education, and overall improved standards of living, but at the expense of more traffic, pollution, infrastructure problems, and disaster risk. This juxtaposition makes for a fascinating study in urbanization, which was recently chronicled in “Indonesia’s Urban Story,” a traveling exhibit developed by the City Form Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Design’s Department of Urban Planning and Design and the World Bank.

“As with any urbanizing country…whenever there’s fast growth, it entails very complex issues and challenges,” said Andres Sevtsuk, Assistant Professor of Urban Planning at the Graduate School of Design and curator of “Indonesia’s Urban Story.” “The exhibit primarily tried to highlight some of the challenges that Indonesia is facing in order to tap into some of the knowledge that’s available to help overcome it.”

Professor Sevtsuk pointed out urban planners’ interest in Indonesia. Not only does it top the rapid urbanization growth chart, but it also has not been studied to the same extent as China and India. Additionally, it is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, and its strong democratic tradition differs largely from the general Western perception of Muslim nations, Professor Sevtsuk said. Previously a military-led country, it now embraces democracy, encourages different opinions and peaceful protests, and supports women in leadership roles in government – all of which contribute to its unique characteristics as a nation facing rapid urban growth.

The urbanization challenges and opportunities in Indonesia span the areas of housing, transportation, land management, disaster risk management, and solid waste management – and all of them are connected. Affordable housing in urban areas is limited, and private developers are not interested in building for the low-income market without any incentives, Professor Sevtsuk said. The problem leads to more than 300,000 people each year without a home due to lack of housing. With a fledgling construction industry in Indonesia unfit to handle mass developments of housing, more people have taken to self-building their homes and dotting the cities with predominantly two- and three-level buildings, often not built to withstand Indonesia’s relatively frequent earthquakes. Between this self-construction, the country’s earthquake vulnerability, and the strong interest in ground floor living with a yard, growth has happened laterally. Lateral growth has also been spurred on by early gas subsidies (no longer provided), making driving a cheap option for the 80% of Indonesians on motorcycles, along with a lack of viable public transportation options. Reliance on personal transportation has contributed to the city of Jakarta’s reputation for having the worst traffic in the world. The severe traffic issues and widespread burning and burying of trash due to limited solid waste collection also add to public health issues.

“The solution they need is to start going vertical rather than horizontal,” Professor Sevtsuk said. “That would reduce traffic, increase density, and economize the use of public resources like drainage and street upgrading. If you have a denser environment, you have more people benefitting from it.”

Despite the number of challenges facing Indonesia, its urban growth also provides a study in positive planning. The country’s historic heritage is largely preserved. Dense urban villages known as kampungs combine cultural preservation with housing solutions for low- to middle-income residents in well-located areas. According to Professor Sevtsuk, many rapid urban growth areas tend to destroy their heritage, but there’s a strong grassroots initiative in Indonesia to preserve the kampungs. “I think that’s an example that can be valuable for other countries because if we look back to central Tokyo or even central parts of Seoul, they maintained low-rise, organically grown housing areas…and now these neighborhoods are some of the best assets to the city.”

Professor Sevtsuk eyes other countries in Southeast Asia and Africa as the next to hit the rapid urbanization wave. In the meantime, his work with City Form Lab and the Harvard Graduate School of Design may still have him discussing urban planning solutions for Indonesian city governments.

“Indonesia’s Urban Story” concluded its run at Harvard but will move to The World Bank in Washington, DC in spring 2017.  To view the exhibit online, visit the City Form Lab website.