To Build a New Capital City, Indonesia Must Design for Resilience
By 2025, Indonesia will have a new capital city in the East Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo.
The sheer scale of such development is hard to imagine. The Indonesian government plans to transform 200,000 hectares of inland forest—almost three times the size of New York City—into the country’s new administrative headquarters. With a price tag of over $32.79 billion and a total of 1.5 million civil servants estimated to make the move from the current capital Jakarta to the tentatively named Ibu Kota Negara—literally translated as “New Capital City”—the project is an ultimate exercise in transformative planning and design. The mammoth task is matched by monumental ambitions. Constructing the new capital is the government’s political and technocratic response to social and environmental issues in both the current capital and the countryside.
Plans for Ibu Kota Negara promise to alleviate environmental and population pressures in Greater Jakarta and more evenly distribute development across the country. As Indonesian President Joko Widodo explains: “The decision to move the capital is not merely to relocate the Presidential Palace or ministries. We want to shift our work culture, to build a system where we can swiftly address and respond to threats.”
In addition, Indonesia seeks to solidify a self-determined national unity in the diverse archipelago by strategically shifting the center of power from its economically developed colonial port city to the rural geographical heart of the country. Outlining the importance of this move, Widodo paints a picture of Ibu Kota Negara as one of the world’s most sustainable forest cities, free from Jakarta’s congestion and climate-vulnerable coastline. Creating this city is more than a civil infrastructure megaproject—it is a rewrite of the national narrative in built form.
Relocating a national capital is not unprecedented. With the move, Indonesia will join over a dozen countries worldwide that have relocated their administrative centers since the mid-twentieth century, including its Southeast Asian neighbors Malaysia and Myanmar. These experiences offer poignant premonitions. Putrajaya’s green infrastructure is undermined by energy-intensive architecture. Brasília’s beauty is overshadowed by inequality. Yamoussoukro in Côte d’Ivoire has yet to achieve the dynamism of its former capital Abidjan. Will Ibu Kota Negara be able to avoid a similar fate?
With COVID-19, such a question is timely. The disease effectively paused the new capital’s once fast-track construction plans and shone a bright light on long-standing disparities in Indonesia. Within cities, COVID-19 cases rose precipitously in dense, poor, and informal settlements with little water or sanitation infrastructure. Between cities and towns, unequal access to health services revealed the need for extending basic healthcare throughout the country. Citizens are left to wonder how relocating the capital will alleviate environmental and social issues in Jakarta and avoid their recurrence in Kalimantan.
Understanding the dynamic conditions of these disparities across layers of the human environment—from land to water infrastructure to housing—will be foundational to achieving climate-resilient and equitable development in East Kalimantan, Jakarta, and Indonesia as a whole. Peeling back these physical layers prompt a number of questions that hinge this megaproject’s success.
Land Use in the Past and Future
East Kalimantan is not the blank slate the new capital’s planners envision it to be. In the wake of the pandemic, where social and historical inequalities are made apparent now more than ever, concepts of “resilience” must be tied to issues of equity relating to land and property rights in Kalimantan.
Environmentalists had initial concerns that the new capital would be developed on Bukit Soeharto, a forest reserve. The outrage was assuaged when plans revealed the site to be composed of degraded and secondary forests, timber and palm concessions, and coal mines. Brownfield site development is portrayed through a lens of restorative action—creating anew through regenerative land use. Yet these degraded lands are legacies of historical development. Large-scale deforestation and land conflicts between Indigenous communities, private companies, and the provincial and federal governments are the source of degradation. As such, local communities question how replicating the same practices can yield different outcomes.
These land conflicts are entrenched in policies that extend from the Dutch colonial administration of the nineteenth century. In 1870, the government of the Dutch East Indies introduced the Agrarian Law, a sweeping legal document that codified definitions and rights to land in the colony. The Law introduced the concept of domein verklaring—in which all unclaimed land was declared to be the domain of the colonial state. At that moment, land was systematically dispossessed from Indigenous and local communities. This dispossession was partially driven by the colonial forest service belief that it was customary or Indigenous forms of land use that led to environmental degradation—especially of soil and hydrological conditions. Thus, environmental protection became a goal in opposition to Indigenous rights to land and land tenure.
The 1870 law solidified the primacy of centralized authority that persists today. While strictly state authority of land was revoked in 1960 with the post-colonial passage of the Basic Agrarian Act—in which adat (customary practices) became the primary legal framework for land ownership based on land reform tribunals—the Basic Forestry Act of 1967 under President Suharto swiftly reintroduced centralized control. It stripped legal and administrative capacity from local land users by redefining hutan adat (customary forests) as hutan negara (state forests) and dismantled land tribunals. This framing remained dominant during Indonesian decentralization. While some land governance shifted to provincial and local governments, Indigenous and local communities have not regained legal rights to their lands.
Indonesia’s forest and land policy exposes how regional policies can impact local Indigenous land use and tenure. The manifestation of this policy in management practice has an even more identifiable impact. With up to 200,000 hectares of land expected to be cleared for the new capital by 2045, historical inequities in defining land rights will continue to play a role in the city’s development. As the capital expands beyond its initial footprint, the government and its planners may increasingly push against the bounds of customary lands. In thinking about how land in the new capital will be contested and negotiated, these land histories provide essential context to understanding and crafting a sustainable and just new capital.
Veiling Social Realities Through Technocratic Water Management
Jakarta is no stranger to global threats, be it the pandemic or climate change. With intensified rains, growing areas of hard surfaces like roofs and roads, and increasing deforestation surrounding the city, the new capital can learn from the former’s cautionary tales in water management.
While the site in East Kalimantan may not share the sinking delta soils of Jakarta, many of Jakarta’s water woes are likely to reemerge in any new development without adapted flood management. Flood potential in the new capital’s inland location is dependent on how seasonal torrential rains are managed and how potable water is supplied. Following lessons in Jakarta, where over 40 percent of city residents and businesses rely on bore water, subsidence from water pumps has the potential to exacerbate flood vulnerabilities. The increased hardscapes (i.e., solid, man-made structures) in Ibu Kota Negara and even modest loss of surrounding forests and wetlands are all contributors to flood risk—an issue that persisted in Jakarta over time regardless of its coastal location.
Government efforts to introduce water management best practices in Jakarta through infrastructure updates—like increased flow capacity in channelized rivers or improved infiltration through water retention parks—have resulted in forcible removal of as many as eight thousand households from the current capital’s lower-income areas each season. Historical and contemporary infrastructure projects are a reflection of how water management approaches rationalize the displacement of the urban poor in the name of technocratic need.
Reflecting on past and contemporary water management practices in the current capital prompts a series of questions in the design of the new one. How will urban design of the new capital ensure that flood management is conducted in tandem with equitable development? How can both East Kalimantan and Java recognize and address entrenched disparities related to the location of vulnerable populations? How can flood and water management strengthen stability in these communities instead of upending them time and again?
A Cautionary Tale about Housing and Sanitation Needs
It is critical that the new capital design takes into consideration the persistent problems of inadequate housing and sanitation in Jakarta. The pandemic has taught us lessons from the ground, emphasizing the importance of how the built environment intersects with its equitable function.
For about a year since the outset of COVID-19, large-scale social restrictions and partial lockdowns (known as Pembatasan Sosial Berskala Besar, or PSBB, in Indonesia) required schools, offices, and religious places of worship to close. Yet the stark reality is that the urban poor who depend on a daily wage not only cannot afford to stay home, but their homes and neighborhoods are the very places that have long been centers of disease.
For the majority of the urban poor, it is arguable that the current pandemic in Jakarta takes the form of a housing crisis, rooted in longstanding issues of inadequate sanitation facilities and land policies. In informal housing settlements, or kampungs, residents are often unable to engage in basic yet privileged forms of social distancing and hygiene measures, even for some of the most private activities. Many of the sanitation facilities in urban kampungs are shared and managed communally. A 2015 report by the Jakarta Drinking Water Service Regulatory Agency found that only 2 percent of the population is part of the centralized sewage infrastructure. In Semper Barat, North Jakarta, a study noted how a single toilet can be shared by more than 30 households. As dwelling units in the kampung tend to be single rooms, it is difficult to practice physical distancing measures.
These issues are becoming all the more visible during the pandemic, where vulnerability to COVID-19 is defined by the structure of the economy as well as the structure of the city itself. How will the design of the new city learn from these lessons of the old? How will Ibu Kota Negara be designed to offer the growing population sufficient housing and sanitation infrastructure? And how will the mass emigration alleviate the pressures on Jakarta, both in spatial distribution and in equitable access to sanitation? Planners for the new capital must recognize housing as foundational to the structure of a city and necessary for Ibu Kota Negara’s success.
May the Pandemic Be a Period of Inflection
After pandemic-related delays, the project of the new capital resumes. Ibu Kota Negara is now in its planning stage, with international consulting firm McKinsey undertaking a feasibility study, the administration selecting a winning design, and Nikken Sekkei and AECOM awarded the design contracts. Yet by revealing the unequal landscape created by traditional development, the pandemic has the potential to shift the physical bias (i.e., an emphasis on physical features) in urban projects toward practices that reflect environmental and social systems.
As the armature of design and development practice, policy could leave millions of residents at risk even in the best of times. Across the world, it is common practice for countries and consultants to propose large-scale architecture and infrastructure solutions as a symbol for human wellbeing and environmental conservation. Now, with the tolls of inequality increasingly visible in traditional urban development, it is clear that it is the unseen—the underlying conditions and policies—that define urban sustainability and the lack thereof. Highlighting the difficulties of addressing a public health crisis amidst poor water, housing, and sanitation infrastructure, COVID-19 prompts contemplation about the features, processes, and structures necessary to create healthy urban societies. Governments, consultants, and citizens alike can harness the pandemic as a point of inflection to offer a new template for genuinely healthy urban development in a climate-fragile world.
Designing for New Imaginations
This piece is a call to action. May the construction of Indonesia’s new capital be informed by a reading of the complex landscape of lived experience, of policy, and of ecology. Designing the new capital must involve designing the units of resilience—secure land tenure, flood protection, and sufficient space and sanitation—in both capitals as well as the means by which the public can engage with these physical features. Housing must be inherently adaptable to social and environmental changes without exploiting existing inequalities. Successful flood protection mechanisms must account for both hydrological challenges and population growth. City residents and rural Indigenous groups ought to be considered key stakeholders in the new capital expansion and Jakarta’s re-organization.
The new capital is an opportunity to address issues that plagued both Jakarta and East Kalimantan for decades. Building the new capital is an exercise in structural imagination, political will, and effective implementation. Amidst the legacies of inequitable development and transformative potential of the project lies the central question of who Ibu Kota Negara is for and who gets left behind.
Featured image: A path leading to farmland in degraded peat swamps in Kalimantan. Image courtesy of Jeamme Chia, 2019.
Jeamme Chia is the Tropical Forest Restoration Research Fellow at The Forest School at the Yale School of the Environment (YSE). She is interested in using multi-stakeholder collaboration to drive sustainable land use and its intersection with agriculture, forestry, and development. Previously, she worked as a management consultant and as a land use analyst specializing in agricultural commodities in Southeast Asia. She is a recent Master of Environmental Management graduate from YSE. Contact.
Gioia Montana Connell is a sustainability consultant and designer. She is a recent Master of Environmental Management graduate from the Yale School of the Environment (YSE) and Master of Architecture graduate from the Yale School of Architecture. Her research connects climate resilience and regional governance in infrastructure in the United States, East Africa, and the Amazon, with a particular focus on Dutch water management projects. Contact.
Dewi Tan is a recent Masters of Environmental Science graduate at the Yale School of the Environment (YSE). Her interests lie in environmental anthropology and political ecology and her current research focuses on understanding Jakarta’s water supply crisis and its relation to anthropogenic disasters such as land subsidence, urban floods, and depleted aquifers in “informal” kampung settlements. Contact.