Indonesia and the Diversity of Urbanism


Text and pictures by Christopher Kelly*

Indonesia is surely one of the most diverse regions on earth; from the steamy jungles and rushing rivers of Kalimantan to the arid hills of Komodo, the white sand beaches and breathtaking marine diversity of Maluku to Java’s 45 smouldering volcanic peaks and all points in between, the breadth of natural wonders in this island nation is perhaps matched only by the kaleidoscope of different cultures which make up its more than 250,000,000 inhabitants. Indonesia is famous around the world for its natural wonders, and rightly so, but in 2014 more than half of the total population now resides in urban areas. Urban populations are especially high on Java, home to the nation’s capital of Jakarta and several other major cities, and the world’s most densely populated island.

As a bule, or Westerner, making my way around Indonesia, I too wanted to experience Indonesia’s biological and cultural diversity first hand, but during my travels I was also struck by the deeply unique characters of many of Indonesia’s bustling cities. With a keen interest in both urban studies and development, I was intrigued by the different forms of urbanism I witnessed emerging across the Archipelago. Of course, not all cities will experience modernisation in the same way, since each one is a product of distinct social, physical and economic processes which cannot be easily replicated or translated across contexts. The analyses presented here are largely superficial; as a traveller I seldom spent more than a couple of days exploring each city, however I am grateful to Rujak for giving me the opportunity to share some of my thoughts, feelings and questions on the diversity of urbanism in Indonesia.

PADANG, West Sumatera – Arriving in my first Indonesian city from Malaysia was a definite contrast. Although not a large city by Indonesian or global standards, the street level activity was feverish, and easily matched that of many larger cities I visited. The first thing that struck me about  Padang was the extent to which the physical space of the city seemed to be undergoing a process of change. Of course, all cities are continually evolving entities, influenced by dynamics both local and global, but the high levels of seismic activity in the vicinity of Padang, including the large scale destruction following the 2009 earthquake, may well have stimulated a new desire for renovation amongst its inhabitants. I could not see any obvious signs of earthquake damage to either buildings or infrastructure, but there was construction going on everywhere – I wonder if techniques designed to minimize the impact of seismic activity are being incorporated into the design of the city.

The second thing I noticed in Padang involves an interaction between local transportation habits and urban culture. Unlike most other cities I have visited in South East Asia, including those in Indonesia, there were relatively few motorbikes amongst the city’s traffic, perhaps only slightly more than the number of traditional horse and carts. Instead, the vast majority of vehicles on the road were bright, neon coloured mikrolets, different colours for the different routes through the city and personalised by their drivers with stickers, stencils and all manner of decoration. Although the reasons for this are not entirely clear, it appeared to have two simultaneous and profound effects on the lives of the city’s residents. First, Padang appeared to have avoided the worst of the perennial traffic problems which plague many of Indonesia’s larger cities, with the flow of traffic seldom interrupted by bottlenecks or frequent traffic lights. Secondly, this appeared to have encouraged a great deal more pedestrian activity than is common in other cities, with street stalls sometimes two or three rows deep along the roadside and a great many more people travelling around on foot or enjoying the famous Padang cuisine in streetside warungs, evident particularly along the busy beach front roads.


BANDAR LAMPUNG, South Sumatera – Another small to medium sized Indonesian city, only just larger than Padang, Bandar Lampung nevertheless has a totally different atmosphere. Named as the capital of Lampung province, which itself only received this status in 1963, exploring this city there is a tangible sense of the struggle between, on the one hand, traditional lifestyles and cultural independence, and, on the other, the seemingly unstoppable onset of modernity and globalisation. Clearly a proud people, the inhabitants of Bandar Lampung, like those of the province at large, are quick to praise the culture and natural beauty of the region, and for those who don’t speak Indonesian the point is reinforced by the numerous t-shirts, signs in shop windows and bumper stickers bearing the name of Indonesia’s youngest province, right up to the large, hollywood style sign overlooking the harbour. Despite this obvious local pride, Bandar Lampung, like so many cities, is clearly feeling the pull of globalisation, owing to its proximity to Jakarta. The historical operation of the main Sumatera-Java transit route through Bandar Lampung has meant the city’s population contains a large number of Javanese, and before the age of cheap domestic flights was once also on the main tourist route through Indonesia. Particularly amongst the younger generation, modern styles of dress, obvious familiarity with technology and more cosmopolitan social activities contrast with the atmosphere of Padang. The occasional Western advertisement that I found unusual further North, particularly since they never once featured an Indonesian person, seemed to be taking over the streets of Bandar Lampung, proclaiming their messages from billboards and huge TV screens all around the city. In place of streetside bamboo warungs, in Bandar Lampung you are more likely to see groups of youths parked outside more modern coffee houses, and Western chain restaurants like KFC are clearly popular. Although the ferry terminal has now relocated to the small town of Bakauheni around two hours away, the city remains orientated around the harbour, with the constant flow of trans-Sumateran traffic to and from Java bringing not only global commodities and cultural exports, but a return to the familiarity of serious traffic backlogs, as large trucks compete for roadspace with a large number of private vehicles and taxis.

YOGYAKARTA, central Java – My first city stop on the world’s most densely populated island was Yogyakarta, often referred to as the heart of Javanese culture (a title vehemently resisted by its close neighbour Surakarta). Yogya (as it is commonly known) is divided equally between a rich heritage and a dynamic future, and this hybridisation can be seen throughout, manifest here and there in conflict over the character of the city itself. The interplay of heritage and modernity is thrown into sharp contrast on Jalan Malioboro, one of the busiest commercial areas of the city and tourist hotspots. Yogya is Indonesia’s second most popular tourist destination after Bali, as people from distant corners of Indonesia and around the world come to experience traditional Javanese culture and explore the nearby temples at Prambenan and Borobudur. Paradoxically, but not surprisingly, the sheer volume of tourists visiting Yogya have irreversibly changed its character, and appear to have had as much of an impact on the daily life and infrastructure of the city in a relatively short time as the legacy of the empires which gave birth to it. The commercialisation of traditional Javanese culture, whilst benefiting the city’s economy, has resulted in some truly absurd contradictions; the sale of Batik, a traditional Javanese art form, to the swathes of tourists around Jalan Malioboro is big business, but a friend I made in the city showed me the early morning arrival of delivery boxes, clearly marked ‘made in China.’ The economic necessity of selling mass produced versions of trinkets like Wayang puppets is likely to have a detrimental effect on the surviving traditional industries in the area, and in many places traditional Javanese dress is as  much a tool to convince tourists of authenticity as a genuine cultural expression. Similarly, Yogya’s traffic is an eclectic mix of motorbikes, taxis, becaks, city buses, huge tour buses, private cars and horse-drawn carts, servicing everyone from tourists to businessmen, politicians and those heeding the call to prayer. This generates some truly chaotic situations at traffic junctions, particularly around the central Kraton. The famous Kraton, itself really a city within the main city of Yogya, just a stones throw from the main industrial area, seems also to sit uncomfortably somewhere between the past and the future. Motorized vehicles beep furiously as they compete for space with becaks and horse-drawn carts along the walled city’s narrow streets, and every traditional Batik gallery is matched by a newly opened cyber cafe or cellphone shop. The recent influx of university students from across Indonesia to take advantage of the city’s relatively low cost of living may well present an employment crisis for locals who must compete for jobs and opportunity. The ongoing commercialisation of Yogyakarta’s cultural heritage may well be the only option available to them, but how long can it last?

SURABAYA, East Java – Indonesia’s second most populated city was my first experience of the density, congestion and also the energy of Java’s commercial cities, and also a stark example of the influence urban planning can have on the behavioural lives of a city’s residents. My first impressions were a little overwhelming as I left the train station; Surabaya appeared busy and chaotic, as well as a prime example of Indonesia’s famous traffic problems. However as I started to get my bearings I began to enjoy the frantic energy of the business driven city. The presence of diverse communities were most evident of any city I had visited in Indonesia so far, and I was particularly intrigued by the historical ‘Arab quarter,’ where the winding streets and ornate masjid seemed to generate a palpable calm, bordering on reverence, in contrast with the city outside, and particularly the even more frantic and noisy Chinese districts. The immense traffic highways of Surabaya which separate many of the neighbourhoods therein are an imposing feature of the city, and dictate not just the movement of traffic through the urban sprawl, but also, for those lacking private vehicles, present almost  insurmountable barriers to access for other areas of the city. The first time I dared to cross one of these central highways on foot (an experience I will not be repeating), I was trapped in between the two directions for several minutes, and a local man on the other side was kind enough to inform me that walking was a bad idea, and that people would typically get an Ojek (motorbike taxi) to the nearest junction in order to cross the roads. The local population are immensely proud of their city, particularly for the role Surabaya played in Indonesia’s independence or as the birthplace of the first president Sukarno, and whilst the city is decidedly lacking in green spaces where people can congregate, they have instead taken to using the many monuments and statues for gathering, adapting them into spaces for discussion, meeting and socialising.


DENPASAR, Bali – While the majority of tourists visiting this renowned island (and indeed the majority who visit Indonesia writ large) are concentrated in the Southern urban centres, with others heading for the tranquillity and calm of Bali’s Northern reaches, I found the island’s administrative capital, Denpasar, to be a real highlight. Rich with traditional culture and yet lacking the overwhelming tourist numbers which dominate many other areas, the Balinese way of life runs deep here. Certainly, Denpasar is a world away from the remote Northern villages, last refuges of a ‘traditional’ culture, but having largely avoided the attentions of international tourism which have so commodified Javanese culture in Yogya, Denpasar remains home to genuine expression of modern Balinese life. Shrines and temples can be seen rubbing shoulder to shoulder with modern homes, high rises, and even squeezed in between huge commercial or governmental buildings, the countless statues dotted around the city are carefully dressed in the traditional sarong, and the local population of more than 800,000 still take part in prayers and daily offerings to appease minor spirits. Despite its relatively large size and bustle, Denpasar retains a fairly relaxed atmosphere, in part due to the numerous temples which provide islands of calm in what could otherwise be a fairly hectic place, and in part because the population has managed to retain many aspects of traditional life, including vibrant street markets and open air cultural performances. Nevertheless, impacts from the deluge of tourism in nearby Kuta and the ever increasing numbers on the rest of the island are clearly visible. Bali as a whole and its cities in particular are amongst the most modernised in Indonesia, with gaudy shopping malls and luxury goods available everywhere to cater for the some of the wealthiest tourists in the world. Similarly, the tastes of the local population are changing, with increasing levels of consumption in accordance with modern living beginning to cause trouble for the island as a whole, and the cities in particular. Private car ownership is on the increase, causing huge traffic problems on the few main roads connecting Denpasar with other settlements and to the Java ferry, since large American and European brand vehicles are ill suited to the city’s still relatively narrow streets. This is compounded by an exponential increase in the number of large trucks, which are the primary means by which products and materials are brought to the island. This process was initiated by the tourist population, but as the locals’ consumption habits continue to increase in kind, it is unclear how Bali’s infrastructure is going to cope. Finally, the ecological security of Bali is likely to come under serious threat in the years to come; aside from the air pollution generated by vehicles, planes and boats and the ever rising demand for increasingly scarce water, the large scale introduction of plastics and waste produced by the tourism industry, the mass influx of Indonesian migrants to take advantage of Bali’s economic boom will likely present a serious challenge. Already the small island’s population density is approaching that of mainland Java, and swathes of agricultural land have already been cleared for development into urban space, roads and housing areas. The urban Balinese of Denpasar may have avoided the worst of the island’s conflict between traditional life and the modern world, benefiting from their islands prosperity, but with Bali’s population growth reaching record levels and showing no signs of slowing down, it is likely that there is trouble on the horizon.

MAKASSAR, South Sulawesi – Makassar’s history as one of the colonial era’s busiest trading ports maintains a strong influence on Indonesia’s sixth largest city, with most activity centred around the harbour, and its role as a transport hub undoubtedly defining much of the infrastructure. With numerous domestic and international connections by both sea and air, it is little wonder that Makassar gives the impression of being a modern, efficient, cosmopolitan city, continuing to attract tourists from around Indonesia and beyond. Largely dependent on the services sector, particularly the hospitality industry, Makassar has successfully transitioned to a modern economy, and it is perhaps only its relatively small population which has thus far prevented it from rising to the status of a global transport or trading hub. Although I was just a brief visitor to the city, perhaps the one noticeable downside of its rapid advancement is that many traces of its rich history appeared to have been buried under a thick carpet of hotels and shopping malls. Makassar has certainly inherited the relatively high prices which come with a flourishing hotel and restaurant culture, but with Fort Rotterdam the only obvious attraction for international visitors, and domestic tourism a notoriously fickle market, largely associated with an emerging middle class, there is a chance that in the coming decades Makassar may join the ranks of cities like Blackpool in the UK, or the Catskill Mountains in New York state, where massive hotel developments sit empty for much of the year. 2014 will see the planned launch of Makassar’s  monorail system, it will be the first city in Indonesia to possess one, but will hopefully retain its friendly, down-to-earth ambience through the continued use of its ubiquitous becaks, and the ongoing dedication of the local population to their seaside culture, – the marina busy late into the evening with a multitude of home-style fish warungs and their legions of loyal customers.


MANADO & BITUNG, North Sulawesi – Despite being two distinct cities, separated by almost 30km  of far less densely populated land, the specific economic and geographical realities of Sulawesi’s Northernmost tip mean that life in either one is inextricably linked to the other. Close physical proximity, however, has not resulted in homogeneity, and indeed it is the differences that are most apparent, with each one counterbalancing, and in many ways completing, the other.  Manado, the larger of the two and Sulawesi’s second most populous city, is affluent, modern and dominated by countless bright blue Mikrolets, whose unceasing stop-start journey around the busy streets seems to be rendering private vehicle ownership obsolete for much of the population; despite their numbers they have no shortage of passengers. Home to one of Indonesia’s major international airports, Manado is equally thronged with tourists, particularly from wealthy East Asian nations like Japan, Malaysia and Singapore, many of whom come here to scuba dive at the world famous Pulau Bunaken a couple of kilometres off shore.The lure of Bunaken and other nearby attractions leaves Manado in an unusual position; much of the tourist population is here to enjoy North Sulawesi’s abundant wildlife, and the National Park status of several surrounding areas places a limit on economic expansion. Commerical use of Manado’s port, for example, is restricted by the needs of the nearby diving and beach resorts, which despite efforts continue to suffer the effects of the city’s waste, which is regularly washed up on the islands, particularly following tropical storms. At the same time, the heavily urbanised city centre offers little to tourists in the way of attractions, and many opt to stay outside Manado itself, or make straight for the islands of Bunaken National Park. Nevertheless, the city certainly seems to reaping the benefits of sustained tourist interest, and is amongst the most developed areas in Sulawesi.  Local prosperity and the influence of affluent tourists on the culture is immediately apparent, particularly amongst the younger generation, with big label fashion brands, luxury cars and expensive gadgets everywhere, whilst new developments of ultra-expensive houses and apartments dot the hills on the outskirts of town where motorcycle teams show off and race their latest Japanese models. With just a narrow strip of land connecting the Northern Peninsula of Sulawesi to the mainland, life in Manado is understandably revolves around the sea, however the extent to which the city depends on the waters of the opposite coast becomes obvious when one joins the unending line of buses, trucks, cars and motorbikes making their slow journey to Bitung. True of urban fringes everywhere, the population residing between the two cities are no less dependent on them; at times the traffic between the ports is so bad that the backlogs extend right into the heart of Manado, and for many people in the hinterland this provides an opportunity to supplement their income by selling cold drinks, snacks and cigarettes to the frustrated drivers, who may sometimes barely move for ten minutes or more. Bitung feels like everything that Manado is not; smaller and decidedly more cramped, with a serious, businesslike atmosphere and narrow streets that wind their way through decidedly less attractive architecture towards the harbour. Whilst Manado’s transporation sector revolves around the airport, reflecting its more modern inclinations, Bitung remains Northern Sulawesi’s busiest and most important deep sea port, and it is the constant arrival of massive cargo ships, floating in the waters of the Lembeh strait, that explain the appalling congestion on the road linking the two. Almost all raw materials and consumer goods in Manado must first pass through Bitung, and the orientation of almost all buildings towards the water reflects the primacy of the docks in local life. Welcoming commercial vessels from around the world, but also providing the main maritime link to Maluku and Papua, it the docking, unloading and onwards movement of not only goods but also people which comprise the community’s economic base, with secondary and tertiary industries arranged concentrically from the dockside. Unlike Manado, few tourists visit Bitung, save those curious individuals heading to dive in the murky waters of the Lembeh strait, and the few large cars, normally charters from Manado, seem out of place, often congesting the streets as they struggle to navigate between hawker stalls. Similarly unusual for the first time visitor is the large number of small, single person motorised canoes weaving amongst the hulking commercial tankers; the islands around Bitung house numerous small villages, the inhabitants of which work the docks, engage in small-scale agriculture or even fish for a living, although the heavy commercial use means that fish numbers in the Lembeh Straight are not what they once were. By absorbing almost all shipping traffic in Northern Sulawesi, Bitung has ensured the continued survival of the Bunaken reefs, which support Manado’s economy, at the expense of much of its own marine life. It has, in turn, benefited from the ever increasing demand from its larger neighbour, creating jobs at each stage of the transit and supply process, not to mention the improvements in roads, communications and other infrastructure in the region largely funded by the success of Manado’s tourist industry. The relations between cities are always complex, but I had never seen the necessity of interaction at various levels as clearly as during my time around Manado and Bitung.



JAKARTA, Western Java – The sprawling, crowded metropolis of Indonesia’s capital is the last of the country’s cities on my list, and certainly deserves special attention; as a student of urbanism, environmentalism and development, Jakarta has always fascinated me. Sitting as it does on the Northern coast of the world’s most densely populated island, as well as being one of the largest cities on earth, Jakarta’s influence on the surrounding region cannot be overstated. Like all megacities, and particularly national capitals, the diverse population, socioeconomic stratification and sheer size means that, for those who call this city home, there is not just one Jakarta but many; from the shimmering towers and trendy bar scene of the Sudirman Central Business District to the home-style warungs, flooded streets and shabby mosques of the harbourside communities in the North. The scale of Jakarta is unparalleled elsewhere in Indonesia, and as a relative newcomer to the city a thorough analysis would take years to compile. Instead I shall focus on the areas North of the city centre, extending through the districts of Taman Sari and Tambora, and then for several kilometres along the shoreline. Aside from being one of the most densely populated areas of this colossal urban agglomeration, these areas’ location at or near Jakarta’s  coastal edge means that they are the last stop for Jakarta’s many rivers before they reach the sea, and therefore bear the brunt of the city’s famous water management issues.

Heading North from Taman Fatahillah square, which hosts a lively market on Saturdays and live music performances in the evening, the heaving, traffic-laden roads contrast sharply with the barren desolation of the canals flowing beneath. Like all coastal cities, much activity in Jakarta is directed towards the harbour, and, of course, the sea, and indeed one of the first things those arriving in Jakarta by plane will notice are the literally thousands of commercial ships just off shore, queueing up to unload their cargo. This has resulted in a high density of heavy duty traffic in the Northern area of the city, amongst crumbling dutch-era buildings which take on a new life as crowded warungs or makeshift pool halls. Desperate to escape the chaos of the crowded roads, I headed down a small side street into the heart of one of North Jakarta’s canal side communities. Unlike the other cities I visited, in Jakarta it appears that those who live closest to the water gain the least from it in any meaningful sense; with barely any vegetation and no signs of animal life, the greyish-green of the now brackish water is a far cry from the vitality these rivers once provided to the people living in the Jakarta floodplain. At best those living near the canals may raise a freshwater turtle or two each year on the meagre harvest of tiny fish. A local informs me that their proximity to the water is the source of the community’s most persistent problems; totally undrinkable, he goes on to say that in hot weather the smell from decomposing elements in the water can get so bad that his entire family sleeps on the roof of their house, not to mention the devastating floods which plague Jakarta every year. He then directs me to a bend in the canal, where the slowing of the current has deposited a huge heap of floating waste. Swarms of rodents and thick clouds of flies cover the stinking heap, posing a serious risk of contamination and disease to the residents. He tells me that in the past people have attempted to clear the blockage, but since someone died as a result of an infected cut from the pile, no one has tried again. The heap always returns anyway, he says; the inevitable result of the waterway’s use as a method of waste disposal by millions of people. Despite the obvious deprivation, this is a friendly place, where a communal water pump provides enough water for drinking and basic hygene, at least most of the time, and the industrious residents have crafted a number of novel improvements to their urban space. The canal side communities are a wholly three-dimensional environment, with ladders extending in every direction, overhead walkways between buildings and even a simple, home made ferry system by which locals can cross the dirty water without walking the long distances to the major traffic bridges. The narrow streets are poorly suited to traffic, and aside from the occasional motorbike, it appears to be bicycles which dominate this laid-back neighbourhood, whilst the surprising abundance of trees overhead and the tunnel-like nature of most streets provide welcome respite from the punishing Jakarta sun.

Little more than five hundred metres West, the evidence of the impact small changes in space can have on quality of life becomes obvious, even between some of the city’s poorest residents. Underneath a major traffic carriageway sit a multitude of shacks constructed from sheet metal, tarpaulin and cardboard, well camouflaged amidst the piles of refuse and fringing a desolate patch of earth, featureless but for a large, shallow puddle. It is desperately hot here; the intense power of the midday sun and the unceasing traffic from the nearby road generates a stifling micro climate, compounded by the thick clouds of smoke given off by countless piles of burning, mostly plastic, refuse. This is one of Jakarta’s youngest slum communities, likely rural migrants, making their living largely by burning what others throw away and extracting the metals and other valuable materials that are left behind. Despite the frantic urban activity going on all around them, this community are largely isolated from the rest of the city; access to the road overhead is more than a kilometre away, and the irregular nature of their settlement means that no municipal services are provided here, let alone education and healthcare. At the same time, the piles of refuse, apalling air quality and stagnant water, itself boiling with countless mosquito larvae, present a multi-faceted urban health crisis for those who make their lives here.

Heading south, following one of this areas major roads into the subdistricts of Grogol Petamburan, the ramshackle houses around the harbour are replaced by more regular, if incongruous warehouses and higher story buildings. The urban space here is far less influenced by the canals, which now serve primarily as a dividing line for two-way traffic, passing by largely ignored under the surface of the road. The major thoroughfares serve to separate large areas of densely populated residential space, which is itself sub-divided by a few wide, leafy roads. From these, cramped alleyways and maze-like passageways define the bulk of the housing area, serving almost as extended communal houses, where children play together and socialisation is as easy as opening your front door; an urban recreation of the traditional Indonesian village, or kampung. Of course, these tiny alleyways severely restrict economic activity, and the multitude of motorbikes which join the pedestrian traffic on the larger roads mean that little more than a few street vendors and in-house warungs have space to make business here. This appears to have resulted in an increasingly heavy use of any available open land, particularly for those who make their living within the neighbourhoods themselves instead of heading to other areas of the city. What little space there is to be found here appears to serve almost all of the communities needs, from setting up makeshift street stalls, socialisation and waste disposal to, somewhat troublingly, food preparation. The train tracks which slice their way through the surrounding houses are once such source of open space, and appear to be used intensively, with open-air mechanics set up amongst huge piles of household waste, alongside baskets of drying rice and fish just a few metres away. The lack of economically viable space in Jakarta’s poor areas has undoubtedly affected the behaviour of those that live here, but the necessity of communal living has ensured the continuation of the traditional village lifestyle; one of interdependence, friendliness and sharing. Making your way back towards the high towers and pristine urban planning of Jakarta’s central plazas, one can’t help but think that perhaps this global city has something very important to learn from its local past.

*Chris is a 22 year old activist, writer, environmentalist and traveler who has graduated from a development studies degree and is now looking to transfer his skill set into practical solutions for 21st century problems, whilst continuing to learn as much as he can about the world around him.


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