One Man’s Grand Plan for Jakarta

By webadmin on 11:38 am Aug 11, 2009
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Armando Siahaan

if you want to live in a better city, you have to do your part. After 20 years of being involved in various aspects of urban planning, Marco Kusumawijaya has come to believe this is the key to sustainable living.

“People keep taking advantage of Jakarta for their livelihood, but there’s no investment flowing back into the city,” said Kusumawijaya, a staunch critic of the government and its inability to protect the country’s resources from being exploited. “Change will have to come from individuals eventually.”

Putting his words into action, he launched an Web site, Rujak.org, last June to tie in with the 482nd anniversary of Jakarta. The site aims to serve as a venue for Jakarta’s residents to share ideas on how to transform the city into a sustainable metropolis.

“There are a lot of initiatives among citizens that are not known by the public,” Kusumawijaya said.

“I wanted to facilitate exchanges of initiatives, knowledge and experience among citizens to increase the speed of change.”

The site features such articles as a collaborative housing community, a 10-year-old boy’s first-hand encounter with the water conservationist responsible for rehabilitating the Pesanggrahan River and a story on a Pondok Indah resident who grows more than 30 plants that can be used either as food or for cosmetic purposes.

Kusumawijaya said giving back to the city should not be seen as a moral obligation.

“In the long run, you’re actually giving back to your self, to the place you live,” he said. “I am optimistic because I have encountered many people with great initiatives.”

The Web site is the first of a four-pillar grand project. “Rujak is the permanent communication channel,” he said.

Next, he plans to organize a conference where citizens can share ideas on how to improve the city. “I don’t mean it to be a formal conference,” he said. “It’s more like a fair, [with] workshops on things that they’re doing.”

The third component is a print publication on Jakarta and its urban issues, and the last pillar of his plan is a collaborative exhibition showcasing an alternative vision of Jakarta’s future, which he hopes would encourage residents to think about the city in a more creative way.

Rujak is not Kusumawijaya’s first online project seeking to involve Indonesians in sustainable living. In 2001, he was part of the group that brought Green Map to Indonesia, having learned of the concept while on a visit to New York.

Green Map, established in 1995, is a mapmaking system that charts the ecological, social and cultural resources of a particular area.

“It basically works with the citizens of a neighborhood mapping their own environment,” he said.

The system maps not only natural and cultural resources, but also business practices that are environmentally sustainable and organizations that promote green living.

“It is important for people to revisit, and get to know their neighborhood in a comprehensive way,” Kusumawijaya said.

“The idea behind this is: if you know more, you can love more,” he said. Green Map can also be used to voice concerns on neighborhood problems, which are often overlooked by urban planners, he said. “People should use Green Map to re-plan their neighborhood and make it more vibrant and sustainable.”

Although Kusumawijaya’s urban expertise is concentrated on Jakarta, his journey began elsewhere.

After getting his degree in architecture from Parahyangan Catholic University, in Bandung, in 1986, he spent two years teaching at Widya Mandira Catholic University in Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara. During this time, he completed a research study on a settlement in Belu district, which was published in Paul Oliver’s acclaimed “Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World.”

Afterward, he pursued a master’s degree in architectural engineering from the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, concentrating mainly on urban planning with Jakarta as his main case study.

“My fascination in urban studies was not really a special case,” he said. “The whole world had an interest in city studies back then, so it was kind of fashionable at the time.”

Following his time in Belgium, Kusumawijaya began “writing and preaching” prolifically about Jakarta in major Indonesian publications such as Kompas and Tempo. His published writings have been compiled into two volumes, “Jakarta: Metropolis Tunggang-langgang” (“Jakarta: Helter Skelter Metropolis”) in 2004 and “Kota, Rumah Kita” (“The City, Our Home”) in 2006.

“I think that for a very long time, people became frustrated with Jakarta, but they didn’t know how to articulate it,” he said. “From how I see it, people started to feel like I’m writing on their behalf.”

His writing also brought him to the attention of others concerned with urban issues, both at home and abroad.

“I started to get invitations from different groups of people to discuss urban issues,” he said. He spoke at the “Cities, Cultures, Languages” international symposium in Germany last year and has received a number of fellowships from international institutions.

Last year, he spent two months at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture in Los Angeles, and next September he will fly to Japan to attend the Asian Leaders Fellowship Program endowed by the International House of Japan and the Japan Foundation.

Kusumawijaya also participated in the Urban Poor Consortium-led project for the reconstruction of 23 villages in Aceh destroyed by the 2004 tsunami. The project in 2008 won an Indonesian Institute of Architects Award and a Dubai International Award for Best Practices.

In 2006, Kusumawijaya took what seemed like an unusual turn in his career — he became chairman of the Jakarta Arts Council.

He said that since the fall of Suharto in 1998, artists and arts activists had invited him to talk about Jakarta, and they were the ones who nominated him for the position.

But Kusumawijaya was never a stranger to the art world. In 2004, he launched a project called Imagining Jakarta, a collaborative effort by people from various disciplines, including architects and artists, which aimed to envision the future of the city.

“The city had been planned too technically, done by technocrats who don’t have much understanding of a richer relationship taking place in city planning,” he said. “It has to do with the limited perspective of the disciplines involved in city planning.”

He said that urban planning should no longer be field exclusive to urban planners, but that it should engage artists, sociologists, culturalists and other experts from different fields.

“Studying the city should not be only for the sake of planning the city,” he said, “but also to understand the city. That’s how I started to learn about the city from different angles.”

Kusumawijaya’s presence on the Jakarta Arts Council was evident during this year’s Jakarta Biennale. With “Arena” as its theme, the arts festival was an exploration of existing spaces in the city using the arts as a medium.

“There’s a general interest among artists and intellectuals in the relationship between arts and the city,” he said. “All of us have the same idea to bring art to public places. Art should play a role to humanize urban spaces.”

After Kusumawijaya’s tenure on the council ends this year, he said he would focus more on his Rujak Web site and on encouraging Jakarta’s residents to give back to the city.

Sustainable living is not impossible to achieve, he said, and there is no shortage of ideas, energy or funding for the task.

Behind all of Kusumawijaya’s projects lies a simple goal: “I just want to live in a better place.”