Indonesia Expat

A Mental Exercise: Surviving Jakarta as a Megacity

With 9.6 million residents, Jakarta is becoming a megacity that in a way is hard to pin down. Seven speakers gathered to discuss new ways of thinking about Jakarta as they reflected on problems and hopes for the future of the city.

There is not a simple way to describe Jakarta. As a local, I myself find it hard to understand how so many people can endure years of living in the capital. Traffic is indeed one of the biggest problems, but certainly there are more – albeit sometimes less evident – problems that also need to be addressed.

I recently attended ‘Jakarta at 30 Million: Where Does the City Go Next?’, an open discussion where a number of speakers were invited to share their thoughts and aspirations for the Big Durian. The event, held by Guardian Cities in collaboration with the local organization Rujak Center for Urban Cities (RCUC), in essence aimed to explore what it means to live in the city and to be a Jakartan.

Chris Michael, Guardian’s Cities’ Deputy Editor, was present at the event as a moderator along with founder and director of RCUC Marco Kusumawijaya. Before the discussion began, he gave an opening speech, noting that the event was part of the publication’s initiative to travel to a megacity every year and conduct a week of in-depth reporting.

Michael thinks that focusing on cities is an interesting way to find new angles on stories, while also breaking away from the agendas that most publications are normally associated with.

“When you look at cities, you can take a step back, you can look at issues with a little bit more depth, you can have a little bit more time, and as a result, you come to a new understanding that it isn’t so much about violence, it isn’t so much about personality politics, it is a little bit more about people and people who live in cities,” he explained.

In line with this strategy, discussing Jakarta as a megacity means that we are unearthing the social, environmental and other issues that exist based on the people’s own perspectives. Yet for the speakers, imagining the future of the metropolis was not an easy task.

Most of them struggled to make sense of their experience in the city that has offered more complexities than consolations; although they wonder why the city itself keeps pulling them back, like a magnet.

One of the speakers, Kartika Jahja is a musician and feminist who has moved in and out of Jakarta four times due to the tremendous level of stress she had suffered throughout her time living in the capital. But ironically, none of the places she moved to could give her the kind of support system that Jakarta could.

“There is something about Jakarta that I long for, that I even failed to attain from the so-called ‘most livable city in the world’ Ubud. There is something about Jakartans and their characters that have made me the way I am today,” she said.

Even with this in mind, Jahja still plans to move to another city yet again. Jahja has decided that Jakarta is a great city to launch her career, but it would be impossible for her to feel safe and be happy here.

Another speaker similarly shared her concern about living in Jakarta, even going so far as to use the analogy of having an ‘abusive relationship’ with the city. “Most Jakartans, in my opinion, are actually afraid to dream. They have no courage to think that they can actually figure out [other alternatives],” said Evi Mariani.

According to Mariani, when people are involved in an unhealthy relationship, they are usually unaware of the fact that they deserve better – much like the people in Jakarta. To give an illustration, Mariani revealed a survey suggesting that 66 percent of Jakartans claim that they have no problems with slum evictions. As a journalist, she thinks that there are actually ways for the city to survive without eliminating these areas, but the people of Jakarta are sadly not used to think outside of the box.

See: Architecture that Preserves Megacity Slums

For Urban Poor Consortium community leader Gugun Muhammad, that kind of thinking also gives rise to injustice. Muhammad questioned why many people won’t give so-called slum communities the chance to build themselves up into thriving neighbourhoods, when in fact they may be capable of doing so.

“It is not just about housing, but also a case of justice. Yes, we might not have house certificates; we are called wild, the cause of floods, disease, drugs and criminal activities. But we are also human beings,” he emphasized.

In contrast to common preconceptions of slum areas, Muhammad said that residents often work to make their communities sustainable. These people, for example, build their own rafts to clean the river; but most of the time the government does not acknowledge this kind of activity. Slum dwellers are instead forced to relocate at the end of the day.

Despite all these issues, thinking about Jakarta is not solely about mulling over the problems it presents. One audience member asked how she can start taking the initiative.

Jahja responded to the question by suggesting the ‘Do It Yourself’ method. Instead of relying on the government, she thinks that the people of Jakarta should find the answers to their own problems. She does it by using her music to promote gender equality.

Meanwhile, architect Ign Susadi Wibowo suggested that people start from a smaller scale as opposed to immediately thinking of a grand narrative.

“Every initiative should be personal. So the initiative that we create should also be about giving back to yourself,” he said. “Therefore, the endurance and persistence to keep going will be worthwhile. You won’t feel like you have saved the world, but inside you’ll know that you are not actually doing it for yourself.”


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