Who was Jakarta built for? – The Diplomat


The Stadhuis, or City Hall, built by Dutch settlers in the early 18th century, which now houses the Jakarta History Museum.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons/J-lorentz

If you go to almost any city in Java, you will come across a public square called alum-alum, a large open lawn that serves as a place for gathering and recreation. Even small towns usually have one. Jakarta, the largest of Java’s cities and the national capital of Indonesia, has no alum-alum. The closest thing is Monas, the national monument which is in a large park in the city center surrounded by government buildings, including the presidential palace.

Nowadays it is called Merdeka Square but it had a different name: Koningsplein or King’s Square. The square was built by the Dutch in the early 19th century as they pushed inland to escape the sickly fumes of Batavia’s old town. Many of the buildings around Merdeka Square, those that weren’t demolished to make way for parking lots or high-rise buildings, were built by Europeans to house their social clubs and families. This includes the Presidential Palace, which before being transformed into the seat of the President of Indonesia is the place from which the Dutch Governor-General exercised control over the colony.

Cities arise for many reasons and are shaped by a myriad of forces over time, but when we try to understand modern urban landscapes, one of the most important questions to ask is: for whom did this city have- was it built? In Jakarta, one of the reasons why there is no alum-alum is that much of the city’s footprint has been laid out by foreigners to suit their tastes and needs. It was a city built to serve the commercial interests of a foreign power and many, but not all, of its modern urban problems derive in part from this.

The Dutch East India Company (VOC) first established a foothold in the area we now call Kota Tua or Old Town. This is where the old city hall, the Stadhuis, is located, built at the beginning of the 18th century and which is now the Jakarta History Museum. The Stadhuis was not a public forum where civic authorities exercised municipal governance in dialogue with the local population. It was a symbol and tool of mercantilist oppression, where the commercial interests of the VOC were defended and protected. In the early days of Batavia, the Stadhuis was inside a stone-walled fort and the inhabitants – Sundanese, Betawi, Javanese – were not allowed to live inside the walls.

Most Europeans eventually moved from the old town to the area around Koningsplein, called Weltevreden. They often traveled to their businesses in the old city along a large canal connecting the two parts of the city. Locals were of course not part of this plan either. Neither the Old Town nor Weltevreden were built for them or with them in mind and they simply filled the spaces around European residential and commercial areas into increasingly dense and unplanned kampung settlements.

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This basic pattern has been replicated time and time again throughout Jakarta’s history of urban expansion, with affluent residents moving ever further afield to live in private island housing estates detached from the urban core, making the commuting to and from work along increasingly congested highways. Meanwhile, just as in colonial times, the areas between these commercial and upscale residential developments have been filled in by largely unplanned and unregulated urban intensification, a process that scholar Abidin Kusno has described as a “leapfrog development”.

This has created a city of immense diversity and overlap, with millions of people living on top of each other in a largely unplanned sprawl that creates all sorts of traffic, flooding and environmental problems, while reproducing many inequalities of the colonial era. This is one of the driving forces behind the relocation of the capital away from Jakarta. It will be an opportunity to start afresh, with a capital built by Indonesians for Indonesians.

There’s no guarantee that this time will be different, of course. Investors are already cold-eyed and cost is going to be an issue. The money could just as well be spent on making Jakarta more livable. And the new capital might not be any more accommodating to the urban poor than the previous one, assuming someone even shows up to live there. It’s a huge gamble to move the capital to a more inaccessible part of the archipelago when Jakarta is already at its commercial epicenter – although moving to a less Java-centric location is itself part of the logic in game here.

There are also echoes of old colonial patterns in the relocation of the capital to greener pastures when the challenges of urban governance grow too great, just as the old town of Batavia has been abandoned for the cleaner air of the Koningsplein two centuries ago. The difference, at least in the minds of those who champion the project, is that the new city will represent from the ground up an Indonesian vision of the country and its future, free from colonial legacies. And while we might not agree with that, looking into Jakarta’s past at least allows us to grapple with some of the historical impulses behind it.

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