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Jakarta's New City Plan an Exercise in Democracy


The Indonesian capital of Jakarta is drafting a new urban plan for the next 20 years, aimed at easing the problems plaguing the city's residents, from recurrent floods to horrendous traffic jams. For the first time, the government drawing up the plan is elected and some Jakartans have grabbed the issue as a way to increase the public's say in the third largest democracy in the world.

The main attraction in the new City Planning gallery is a miniature of the center of Jakarta.

But this Jakarta is unfamiliar to the city's residents. The miniature city is clean and green, modern train lines slither between high-rise buildings, and the rivers that course through the city are a clear blue instead of the brown-black of real-life canals.

Izhar Chaidir, the city official in charge of the gallery, is much like other middle-class Jakartans: forced from the city center because of high rents, he lives in a distant suburb and spends four to five hours a day commuting to work. The miniature display is the Jakarta he wants to see.

"In this gallery, we are focusing on describing the future of Jakarta in this mock-up. This is our challenge, to get this future state," he said.

The development starts from this dream and Izhar hopes the new city plan makes the dream reality.

"I hope that the public transportation problem, in 2030, will be settled. I hope like that. … and, I, personally, believe that it can happen in Jakarta," he said.

For the first time, an elected city government is in charge of deciding how Jakarta will look in the next 20 years.

Ahmad Harjadi, the deputy governor in charge of city planning, explains that to comply with new decentralization laws, the city will draft a detailed plan that requires increased public participation.

"It is a learning process for our government, for our agency, but in policy level, in document level, we already put it there. Some say input is a gift… So I believe that," he said.

The stakes are high: nothing less but solving the daily mayhem in Jakarta's streets.

Outside the Blok M terminal, big red buses rev up their engines for their race for customers. When the light turns green, they gun for the street in a cloud of black smoke, oblivious to the passersby who scatter away.

For about 30 years, little has been done to address growing problems caused by overcrowding and rapid expansion in Jakarta. Citizens like Sinaga, an unemployed man, have learned to just accept the chaos.

He asks: "who am I to say what Jakarta is going to become in the next 20 years?" He says the city is peaceful, and as long as nobody bothers him he is O.K.

Sinaga's the attitude prevailed for decades. Successive plans failed to slow the deterioration of life in the city, because of poor implementation and widespread corruption.

But Marco Kusumawidjaya, an urban planner, says those times are over. Democracy demands that citizens act.

"People become apathetic, because they don't feel they're engaged," he said. "And you can no longer build a city that way. Because when you build a city, you build the citizens, you build a society. We need to change the approach of planning. Because if the people participate in making basic options, they will feel they own the plan, and with that, they will feel responsible in making it happen."

Marco is part of the Coalition for Jakarta 2030, a new pressure group that wants a voice in city plan.

Elisa Sutanudjaja, the group's coordinator, says: "I was already fooled once, with the 2005 city plan that erased a lot of green spaces and they changed it into malls, shopping centers, etc. I don't want to be fooled twice."

Rarely a week passes in Jakarta without a demonstration in the city center. But in the world's third largest democracy, citizens are starting to find another way to express their concerns - by rolling up their sleeves and participating in policy-making. The Jakarta urban plan is one step in a new process that involves citizens, as well as the government.

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