Open space needs local governments’ political will

Beijing Olympic Stadium Model detail by Jan Spacir CC FreeCommons

By Mathias Hariyadi, Jakarta, media and communication manager of UCLG ASPAC. The views expressed are his own.

Compared with other nations, including ASEAN neighbors, Indonesia has not provided enough open spaces, as is commonly expected, for the modern urban community. In the 1970s alun-alun (town square), where people could meet and socialize freely, were easily found across Java. 

Alun-alun are now used for food-stalls, troubadour art and musical performances rather than as a place for gathering. For years, environmentalists, city planners and local governments have been debating the issue.

Early this month a conference in Manila strongly voiced the concern. Co-hosted by three groups, United Cities and Local Governments Asia-Pacific (UCLG ASPAC), UN-Habitat (UN’s agency for human settlements and sustainable urban development) and the Philippine Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council, the international forum urged all city stakeholders to address this urgent matter seriously.

A joint statement issued by the League of Cities of the Philippines (LCP), UCLG ASPAC’s members, city planners and all Philippine mayors and 50 various partners said political will to establish green, safe, inclusive, accessible and “inter-connected” open space is a must.

However, in highly urbanizing cities in Asia, including Indonesia, such calls are not easy to respond to. As we could see most local governments prefer open space for commercial purposes rather than a “melting pot” zone where people can socialize conveniently and safely.

Manila Conference’s keynote speaker Vice President Jejomar Binay underscored that mayors play a key role in managing urbanization. That’s why, it’s important for city mayors to balance growth with the political will to design and build more sustainable and livable urban systems.

Thomas Melin from UN-Habitat shared the benefits of good public space. According to him, inclusive, healthy and safe public space promotes social cohesion, which in turn also builds a sense of community and civic identity. Even small investments in public spaces provide significant returns as it boosts the well-being of people living in cities.

UCLG ASPAC’s secretary-general Bernadia Irawati Tjandradewi emphasized three key considerations in designing public space — quality, quantity and the users of public space — that any city mayor should address. According to urban engineering experts, public space must entice social interaction.

Urbanization is the world’s current challenge as recognized by UN-Habitat. Its 2014 Annual Report said the population living in urban areas will reach 50 percent in 2017 and increase to 60 percent by 2030 with the fastest rate of urbanization taking place in the developing world.

As a developing country, Indonesia will also face challenges in urban life, such as poverty, segregation between rich and poor, inadequate housing, poor basic services, lack of proper means of livelihood and climate change risks. Escalating burglary and frequent fires in most densely populated areas in Jakarta’s poor pockets reflect these challenges.

However, as UN-Habitat’s historical economic studies found, there is a positive correlation between planned urbanization and development. Research shows that urban economies are more productive than rural economies due to the proximity of the factors of production, increase specialization and market sizes. Therefore, planned urbanization can be a powerful tool for creating employment and livelihoods.

That’s why people are expected to shift their mindset from viewing urbanization as a problem toward a powerful tool for development, citing the UN-Habitat’s last Annual Report.

Prosperous cities must consider the importance of the public realm. Cities that prioritize quality of life of all experience a higher level of prosperity. Such cities strive toward social equity by providing access to urban commons, such as green areas, squares, ample pavements and streets, recreational facilities and other public spaces.

Public spaces will also enhance community cohesion and civic identity and support the level of urban density required for environmentally and economically sustainable cities. Cities with sufficient public space will emerge as well-maintained, safe and attractive places to live and work in.

Public spaces and streets are multifunctional areas for social interaction, economic exchanges and cultural expression among a wide diversity of participants. The role of urban planning is to organize public spaces and the role of urban design is to encourage their use.

Managing urbanization indeed is a daunting task, but it must be accomplished to make cities livable. Local governments need to invest in designing and building public spaces as a means of social cohesion.