Jakarta is like nothing I have encountered so far. The city is huge, sprawling over such a vast distance, with hundreds of tower blocks in the centre of the city, crazy traffic, and people everywhere. During the 80s, as Jakarta grew and developed, many historical buildings were destroyed, and areas of kampongs (slums) were removed to make way for high rise buildings and shopping malls. This boost in real estate led to an increase in foreign investment, as well as foreign architects. These architects did not understand the climate of the area, and built high buildings which resembled Western styles, without any consideration for the tropics. This has led to significant environmental impacts now, consuming a mass quantity of energy. The Asian financial crisis in 1997 led to high levels of violence and crime, with many riots taking place, the largest of which being in 1998, when 1200 people were killed and 6000 buildings damaged. The political instability continued for some time, however Jakarta now is a huge, diverse city. There are 30 million people in the greater metropolitan area, making it the second largest in the world, as many people move here from other regions of Indonesia for work and a better standard of living.
My first day in Jakarta was spent exploring the city to understand how the different areas vary, and ways of getting about the city. I found it particularly interesting that the main highways have segregated sections of traffic. The outer lane in each direction allows access to the adjoining roads, while the inner lane provides a direct route if using the road for a longer distance, and these are separated by concrete blockades. On many of these main routes, there are also rapid transit bus systems, which take after the system used in Curitiba. As there is no subway/metro in Jakarta, this provides key access to different areas of the city, yet it remains a mostly personal vehicle zone. Most people either drive themselves (cars or mopeds), or more commonly get taxis and moped taxis. The successful companies, such as Uber, Bluebird and Jo-Jek, show how flourishing this is.
I came on this trip knowing that I would be visiting areas of poverty, and I had some experience with this in Dharavi, Mumbai, but nothing prepared me for how I felt in Jakarta. I hadn’t noticed poverty in such extreme levels in the streets as I had in Mumbai, but if you venture down any of the dark holes at the side of the street... you find a whole other city. I was guided down one of these narrow lanes, with questionable ‘water’ running along one side of my pathway, and a doorway every few metres, signalling another home. Each of these is only around 2-3m squared, housing up to five people. Our guide explained that although the government says there are only 10% of the population under the poverty line, the truth is more like 65%. This is because the poverty line is below US$1 a day, whereas these people are possibly earning around $2, but are still forced to live in substandard, illegal housing, with limited access to facilities.
One of my first thoughts was that there were a lot more toilets here than I saw in Dharavi. They are shared between multiple households, and they are often simple squat toilets, but they still function, and I hope that this helps with the sanitation in the area. Toilets are not the only thing people share – kitchens, food, celebrations. The ability to work as a community and help one another is how these societies survive and find happiness. Everyone I met along the way, especially the children, were so excited to see a group of three white people. I lost count of how many people said hello, shook my hand and asked my name. It was such a humbling experience for them to welcome us into their lives. I know there is some controversy over this type of tour, however, the people genuinely seemed to enjoy meeting us, were happy for us to take photos (usually posing for us), and the funding from the tour goes on to support a local project teaching the young children in the area.
Unfortunately, the government seems to believe that destroying the illegal settlements will make the problem disappear. These people have nowhere to go, no other options, and no money to buy a legal house. We went to one of these areas, and It broke my heart to see the devastation. The government has demolished all of the buildings, yet many people remain, and have begun building new structures on the remains of their old homes. Here, we met a group of young children that Ronny (the guide) had been teaching in a centre he had built. Unfortunately, this has been destroyed, along with everything else, so now the children met us in the open, and showed us what they have learnt. They began by singing a song in 6 different languages, then going around the four tourists to introduce themselves and ask our names. As we left, each of us had two children who took us by the hand and guided us out.
The way that they are living, while still feeling positive and excited, really moved me. I almost burst into tears to hear that the children have ambitions to become police officers, doctors, and even an astronaut! I admire their drive and determination, but it is so upsetting to know that these opportunities are very unlikely for someone in their situation. Getting even basic education is unlikely, so the possibility of getting into University is next to none. I cannot stand the thought of this, and how unfair it is. My personal ambition in life is to work in humanitarian architecture, helping people in need, and this experience has developed my ideas and shown me how vital it will be.
Jakarta was a very interesting place to visit and research, and is becoming even more vital in understanding urban poverty while Indonesia is in the process of relocating their capital city. Jakarta is currently sinking, lowering 2.5m in the last 10 years. The new city will be in East Kalimantan and be approximately 180,000 hectares (three times the size of Jakarta) (BBC, 2019). There are concerns that this development will simply move the problems of Jakarta to a new area and cause huge environmental degradation. To mitigate this, urban design needs to understand and combat the existing issues in Jakarta, including the high population density, poverty and inadequate shelter for poor residents.
Writing this while sitting at home in lockdown, all I can think about is how privileged we are as a society in the UK. Yes, we are facing huge financial difficulties, illness, lost lives and emotional strain, yet we also have opportunities that a huge proportion of the world lacks. We have homes that allow us to practise social distancing, access to soaps and hand sanitiser, running water and community support to keep us safe. If the worst happens, we have access to incredible hospitals, technology and free healthcare from resilient and determined NHS staff. I know that I have needed a reality check this week to understand that yes, this situation is severe and scary, and yes, the boredom of being stuck at home is demoralising, but I can see how fortunate I am.
Meanwhile, people in informal settlements physically cannot socially distance themselves from their neighbours, who in many cases live in the same shack or with limited infrastructure to separate people. They have limited access to clean, running water, a lack of hygiene products, and do not have the freedom to free healthcare. The statistics of cases and deaths due to COVID-19 will almost certainly not include residents of informal settlements, so there is no way to understand how much this is impacting them. While much of the world comes together and shares in this atrocity, the most vulnerable populations are invisible.