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This week in Jakarta: 488 years of living dangerously

This week in Jakarta: 488 years of living dangerously
Published 26 Jun 2015 

Jakarta in 2015 is one of Asia's biggest megacities, with a population in its greater area close to 28 million. It's hot, it's crowded, it's deeply unequal, it has arguably the worst traffic in the world and it is in real danger of sinking into the sea. Yet the Indonesian capital continues to function and even grow. This week the city marked its 488th anniversary, sparking discussions on its past, present and future.

As a port, Jakarta's history goes back to the 4th century CE, but commemoration of the city proper is marked from the year 1527, when the port of Sunda Kelapa was reclaimed from the Portuguese and renamed Jayakarta. Since then it has taken on several names under several powers, including Batavia under the Dutch, Jakarta Toko Betsu Shi under the Japanese, and finally Jakarta as the capital of independent Indonesia.

Governor Basuki 'Ahok' Tjahaja Purnama led celebrations for this year's anniversary with a theme that encapsulates his vision for the capital: 'Jakarta: Modern, Creative and Cultural'. Public celebrations included food, fashion and craft fairs, as well as a million-dollar street parade called 'Jakarnaval', complete with decorated floats and cultural performances. The main festivities were held a few weeks prior to the anniversary date out of respect for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which started last week. Still , the ethnic Chinese Christian Ahok was criticised for including on the anniversary logo a red Chinese dragon, and not the official mascot of Jakarta, which is a white-headed eagle carrying snake fruit in its talons.

Speaking on the anniversary on Monday, Ahok highlighted his government's progress in pushing ahead with large-scale infrastructure projects started under Jokowi before he ran for president. These achievements are mainly related to the 'modern' and 'cultural' goals of the anniversary slogan, such as the construction of new flyover roads, adding more buses to city fleets, starting work on a much needed mass transit system, and revitalising heritage buildings in the Dutch-era Old Town.  [fold]

Less focus was given to Jakarta's creative potential, yet this will be the crucial element that keeps the city afloat in the years to come. The reason the city continues to function today is because of the myriad creative solutions Jakartans have come up with to navigate the challenges it throws their way. Many of these solutions are informal, and not all of them are entirely legal: for example, the territorial parking attendants who charge for space they don't own, but who nonetheless provide a service for motorists.

An international urban planning summit hosted by Jakarta earlier this month held a contest for 18- to 35-year-olds to find innovative solutions to the city's mobility and traffic problems. Entries included smartphone applications to measure air quality, or to enable women to report assault on public transport, as well as offline infrastructure such as cyclist 'hubs' with useful amenities. The winning idea was an app to find shorter, safer routes for walking and cycling through non-motorised residential streets.

As Jakarta's population continues to grow, so will the need for innovative solutions to the city's problems. Like megacities around the world, Jakarta will face huge challenges in meeting the needs of its citizens, managing resources sustainably and maintaining social harmony. The good news is that among its tens of millions of inhabitants, there are bound to be more than a few good ideas.

Photo by Flickr user tripletrouble.