It seems silly bordering on ridiculous to suggest that the Greek architect Hippodamus of Miletus (498 – 408 BC) influenced the way we live in Indonesia.
But the polymath dubbed “the father of urban planning” by the philosopher Aristotle was also a mathematician, so thought in patterns and grids. His ideas expanded to Europe and were eventually brought to Indonesia by the colonial Dutch and remain still. Time for an update.
Java is one of the world’s most beautiful islands – and most overcrowded. In the worst cases density, along with poor sanitation, helps breed diseases like typhoid fever – a concern in some parts of the archipelago.
New housing developments are rushed onto the market before power, water and sewerage are installed. It’s still easy to find villages where the locals bathe, wash clothes, and even defecate in rivers and irrigation drains.
Stretching limited space without cramping needs unlimited imagination. Good design should not be confined to kettles and toasters. Ideally, it starts outside in the suburb or village, setting the tone for harmonious living and creative thinking.
Research by the University of Minnesota shows that where we settle impacts our emotional and physical health:
“The stress of an unpleasant environment can cause you to feel anxious, or sad, or helpless. This in turn elevates your blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension and suppresses your immune system. A pleasing environment reverses that.”
Gardens, well-maintained parks, and a clear view of the heavens help. Greenery soothes the soul and reduces global warming. Asphalt, concrete, glass, and other hard heat-bouncers don’t please our precious planet.
Traffic calming, rapid rubbish disposal far from waterways, easy access to services for all-particularly littlies, the elderly and the disabled, no pollution of ears, nose and eyes – these essentials are so often kicked aside in investors’ race for rapid returns.
The COVID-19 pandemic has tossed earlier thinking and values up in the air – and they are still fluttering down. One of the most significant shake-ups has been in the way we organise new housing developments. Much damage from quakes and landslips can be mitigated by avoiding unstable ground and riverbanks.
Blinkered planners followed Hippodamus’ principles, using a ruler and set square, streets straight and in parallel so a drone view reveals a chessboard. Fine for cars and motorbikes to practise for the next Asian Le Mans at Lombok’s Mandalika Circuit, though no joy for residents seeking peace.
Exasperated community leaders often resort to laying polisi tidur, literally “sleeping police”. Known as “speed bumps” in Australia and “judder bars” in New Zealand, bureaucrats tag them “vertical deflection devices”. They marginally slow traffic but boost noise as motorbikes throttle down – and then hit the gas.
The idea of a grid (a “grille” might be a better word as rigid layouts imprison), isn’t to please buyers but ensure the developers can squeeze many houses into a few hectares and reap the maximum return, unworried by government rules. Whether owners would live contently is beside the point. Now, slowly, it is becoming the point. Not just exist, but enjoy.
When the virus struck, authorities closed streets to hamper movement transforming through roads into dead-end streets. Noise levels tumbled and security was enhanced as the only passers-by were those with legitimate businesses. The safe quietude gave families the confidence to let their kiddies play outside, their cries and laughter replacing the roar and snarl.
As COVID restrictions are lifted, the pressure to open street-end gates grows. It’s being resisted. Whoever wins will determine whether suburbs are for people or profit.
Local governments are supposed to set sizes to lots and limit the usage of buildings. They don’t, so newcomers can find their neighbours have started a store or worst still a workshop using power tools.
Adding extra floors is often at the expense of others’ privacy as the renovators can peer down into the yards of neighbours, restricting their freedoms to dress and move around as they feel.
Even in a culture that embraces community living, personal space is still respected.
Zoning – to confine industry and commerce to non-residential areas – is essential. Malang, the second-largest city in East Java after Surabaya is growing fast, people from other provinces are drawn to the hilltown’s moderate climate (444 metres) and 28 tertiary education centres.
There’s work in the factories processing produce from the rich agricultural surrounds, like milk, tea, coffee, and tobacco, and before the pandemic, tourism.
Kos (boarding houses) can be set up in any house with extra rooms, though noise and parking cause problems for those who want to live rather than exist. This is another issue for the bureaucracy’s building departments to regulate
Apart from Jalan Ijen, the wide twin road boulevard built during the Dutch colonial period, the most beautiful and well-considered district is just outside the city. Built on the lower slopes of Mount Gendis (1259 m), east of Lawang, the wide pothole-free streets meander gently. The lots are big and many offer grand views across green paddy. The occupiers don’t get disturbed.
In many ways, it could be a showground for the ideal design. There are trees aplenty, their shade welcome. Power lines run underground so there’s no spider web of overhead cables to spoil the streetscape and no banner advertising. That’s because the citizens aren’t interested in commerce, though almost all are Chinese. It’s the private Asri Abadi Cemetery.
Hippodamus would be discontented here and that has nothing to do with a difference in faith. The meandering, lovely layout conceived by sensitive planners making the most of the topography would not have satisfied a geometrician.