Monday, March 10, 2014

Public Image Limited

The capital has a woeful amount of public space to offer its citizens, who are instead usually to be found taking sanctuary down in its shopping

Let's not mince words here, Jakarta is in dire need of public space and parks for its citizens to unwind in. Now admittedly a certain amount of progress on this issue has been made over the last few years and parks such as Taman Tebet, Taman Menteng and Taman Aydoya, for example, have been spruced up in an attempt to offer the city's residents some non-retail-based respite. However these parks are but a drop in the ocean given the city's eight-digit population and given a 2007 spatial-planning law which states that Jakarta should dedicate at least 30 per cent of its total area to green space.

 This ambitious target is seemingly impossible to achieve without the demolition of a huge number of the shops, plazas, offices and private residences that cram this densely packed rabbit warren of a city, and so increasingly, the only option available is for people to traipse around privately owned shopping plazas and gawp at the goods on offer, while developing their own pathological addictions to conspicuous consumption.

A prime example of this phenomenon came last month when an enormous crush of people pushed, jostled, gnashed teeth, wailed and fainted outside the Pacific Place shopping mall in a bid to get their hands on the latest model of BlackBerry smartphone, which was being offered at half price. The expressions on these people’s faces as they shoved and shouted were no different from those worn by emaciated refugees as they fight over food aid. There are always new needs that need to be sated, and identity is now more defined by what you own than it is by what you are, think or do.

A moratorium on the issuing of permits for the construction of shopping plazas is now in effect. The city is already hyper-saturated with retail palaces though, many of which have been constructed to the detriment of public parks and spaces. As well as offering fresh air to the lungs, parks also have an important cultural role to play in offering a public sphere in which people can mingle and socialize, external to the hyperactive demands of consumer commerce.

It's a tough ask though. If 30 per cent of the city's total area was turned into parks and public spaces, the results would clock in at around 650 square kilometres. Compare that with the park that surrounds Jakarta's National Monument (Monas), which covers a mere 0.8 square kilometres. Hmmm.

As well as parks, pedestrian space is also an important element of any modern metropolis’s public sphere. Alas however, most of the city's pavements are filled with parked cars and food stalls, and pedestrians and their green use of bioorganic leg power are all too sadly stacked at the bottom of the pile in this heaving city.

Citizens of other cities around the world though think nothing of a 20-minute stroll down to the shops or to their local subway station. This is largely due to the fact that it's possible to complete such journeys without tripping over, falling down a manhole, being forced into the road to play chicken with endless motorcycles or otherwise being asphyxiated, shouted at, tapped up by primary-school beggars or scalded by flying fried rice. Recent attempts to clear the sidewalks of such obstructions have been, to say the least, rather halfhearted, and so the inveterate walker faces an uncertain future.

One doesn't have to leave the country to find more positive pedestrian scenes however. In Java's lush countryside, school kids think nothing of cycling or walking for kilometres through verdant palm trees and paddy fields to get to their schools. In Jakarta's urban jungle however, trying to negotiate oneself through the city's chaotic Brownian motion on foot is perhaps not unlike walking along the pavements of a more-organised metropolitan environment having drunk five bottles of Bintang.

All of these problems, the commercialisation of public space, the difficulty of pedestrian travel and the lack of green areas, all serve to alienate and isolate the city’s comparatively well off, with their cars and credit cards, from the city's bustling but impoverished street life and thus the deep wound of Jakarta’s yawning income chasm is never challenged by the soothing balm of trans-class interaction and pollination.

Yes, Jakartans love their shopping malls but they represent something of a consumerist, self-fulfilling prophecy. If people have nowhere else to go in their leisure time other than such places, then where are they going to end up? If someone had the vision and bravery to build a sports centre, a theatre, an art-house cinema, or even a park, basically anything one step removed from the need to turn an instant return on one's investment, are we to believe that no one would go to them? Perhaps, a thousand years hence, cyborg archaeologists and anthropologists will unearth the remains of Jakarta's great plazas, along with petrified Starbucks beakers and fossilised mobile phone casings and pontificate on what strange religion their ancestors practised in these places. I have seen the future, and it is latte coloured. January sales anyone?