Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Living In A Bubble....

Greetings from Jakarta! I just arrived yesterday and have been fortunate enough to be able to stay with a friend of mine in one of the gigantic housing complexes that dot this massive metropolis of over 20 million people. But the housing complexes here are different from the large apartment blocks you may be used to. These places are almost like cities within cities, offering all sorts of services and amenities for the convenience of their residents. From the 32nd floor I was able to survey all that this particular complex has to offer, and it is impressive. I've included a video to illustrate some of the features of this particular complex. In addition to the pool and sports fields, there are two mini-markets, a greengrocer, a health spa, two dry-cleaners, a drug store, and a restaurant. You could stay in the complex and never leave....the only thing that isn't provided below is health care.

But aside from the convenience, these types of complexes raise some interesting questions. The complex also serves to insulate the residents from the rest of the city. This particular place employs an army of private security guards, and entry to the complex is tightly controlled. There is a wall surrounding the 17 or so towers of the facility and so the park-like area is only accessible to people that pay to live in the complex. You can see the stark contrasts between the complex and the older kampungs in the picture to the right.

Another point about this is that the complex provides many of the services that are traditionally provided by the government. In democracies like the United States and Indonesia, the government is supposed to represent the will of all the people, and is supposed to provide services to all of them as well. Government services are available to everyone regardless of how much money they make, the color of their skin, or their religious faith. Providing services like parks, fire protection, garbage disposal, etc all cost money, though. The government gets this money through taxes, and the more services that are provided the higher the taxes will be. The problem in Indonesia is that many people are able to evade their taxes, and the government has a difficult time collecting money and effectively channeling that money to services. Thus what ends up happening is that private corporations fill in the gap and provide the same services government is supposed to provide to everyone, but only for the people that pay. For the people living in the complex this is great, but what about those living just beyond the wall?

Like most things in life these large housing developments have good and bad points. Some argue that new, modern complexes help the rest of the city grow and prosper. In addition, by increasing the density of population (1) you can decrease the cost of providing services to them. Think about the housing complex in the first picture in this post. How many people do you imagine live here? I was told the current total is somewhere between 10 and 15 thousand people! Now, imagine how much space it would take if those people were instead living in two or three thousand houses. All of those houses would require separate pipes for water and sewage as well as electrical lines. By concentrating the people in towers the amount of material required for water and electricity decreases, which increases efficiency. This is sometimes referred to as economy of scale. By scaling a process or phenomenon up, it gets more efficient (2). Scale is one of the things we geographers are very interested in.

Additionally one might argue that some problems are just to big to handle. In previous posts I have discussed some of the problems facing cities in Indonesia. Housing complexes help wealthier people avoid some of the problems of living in a sprawling city, and therefore might help the city attract talented people. However, some experts argue that the separation that comes with housing complexes increases tensions between richer and poorer residents. This is part of what geographers refer to as "spatial segregation". Many urban geographers argue that this is bad because it hurts the spirit of the community and could possibly lead to conflicts between different groups. Another problem with so many unconnected, private complexes existing in the same small area is that it is hard to plan for the sustainable management of resources. Can you think about all the things that cities need? Some things include water, sewage services, electricity, and garbage disposal require a certain degree of coordination and management to work properly, especially in a city of 20 million people. Water, space, and electricity are not unlimited resources, and without some kind of planning they can be depleted quickly.

It's interesting to think about these issues. Geography provides a lot of neat mental tools that enable us to think about these problems so that we can design better solutions in the future.

Lastly, for the picture of the day. The name of this big complex is "Epicentrum". I've taken a picture of the logo of the development and posted it to the right. The graphic reminds me of a planet being rifted apart by seismic forces! Given the fact that Indonesia is among the most seismically active places on the planet, I thought this choice of logo was a little peculiar!

(1) Population density is an example of a ratio or relationship of one number to another. In this case the relationship is between the number of people you have and the amount of space they occupy. Can you think of some other ratios?

(2) In addition to electricity and water, can you think of some other goods or services that might be cheaper to provide if people live closer together? What about other products that might benefit from economies of scale?

For Further Reading
1. Winarso, Haryo. 2011. Urban Dualism in the Jakarta Metropolitan Area. Chapter 8 in Megacities: Urban Form, Governance, and Sustainability. A. Sorensen and J. Okata, editors. Tokyo:Springer

2. Douglass, Mike. 2005. Globalization, Mega-projects and the Environment:
Urban Form and Water in Jakarta.

3. Goldblum, Charles, and Tai-Chee Wong. 2000. Growth, crisis and spatial change: a study of haphazard urbanization in Jakarta, Indonesia. Land Use Policy 17:29-37

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