In his first address to regional lawmakers in early October, Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan reiterated his commitment to maintaining urban villages in the capital.
“We have to eliminate the slums, but not eliminate the urban villages because those are part of our tradition. Kampungs should be empowered and developed,” Anies said.
The word kampung, which means “village” in Bahasa Indonesia, has long been associated with poor and sometimes illegal neighborhoods in the city.
Most urban villages are remnants of the original settlements before the start of urban development, while a few others are the result of the illegal occupation of riverbanks, empty lots, or floodplains during massive urbanization over the past decades.
Urban villages are often located behind new buildings and away from major access roads, with most permanent residents working in the informal sector. Up to 30 percent of Jakarta residents are estimated to live in such urban villages, according to a 2003 study by UN-Habitat, a United Nations agency for human settlement and sustainable urban development.
Anies’s comment signals a change in direction from the policy taken by his predecessor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, who adopted an iron-fist approach by evicting residents from illegal slum areas and relocating them to government-subsidized high-rise apartment blocks, known as rusunawa.
However, this approach was heavily criticized and often met with stiff opposition.
“Many studies show that the rusunawa program is a way of ousting the urban poor,” said activist Sandyawan Sumardi. “They used to have land or houses before the eviction, and along with it, their jobs are gone.”
The former Catholic priest also noted that after an eviction and development of an area, it is often businesses or people from surrounding areas that benefit from such area’s increased commercial value.
Experts argue that urban villages are worth keeping, because they could be an answer to urban problems such as a lack of affordable housing, high transportation costs and even the isolation of city dwellers.
“The human-scale social systems of kampungs permit those not in the top economic strata to get a foothold into the city and access its benefits,” said World Bank lead municipal engineer George Soraya.
“Whether by providing an inexpensive space to rent temporarily, a mat to sleep on by the day/week/month to work at a nearby factory, the high social capital permitting mothers to leave their children with neighbors, the personal flexible financial systems, or the availability of food for a tenth of the price in a formal restaurant,” he added.
Even well-developed metropolitan areas such as Singapore are experimenting with initiatives to reintroduce kampungs naturally into the city, Soraya said.
However, Sandyawan and Soraya agree that the kampung of the future requires a special design.
“To face the development needs of the future, there should be a movement to promote ‘going vertical incrementally’ from typically one or two stories to three- to four-story walk-up kampungs, in a safe way to maintain their inherent social structures, informality, flexibility and creativity,” Soraya said.
Sandyawan has been advocating for a kampung susun, or stacked design in squatter areas along the banks of the Ciliwung River in Jakarta. This will allow for several rows of houses to be built on top of each other with each level connected by ramps and social areas that resemble those in the old neighborhoods.
“So, it is not as rigidly linear as living in apartments,” Sandyawan said.
While the approach has yet to be implemented, market forces can pose a major risk to the continued existence of kampungs. The UN-Habitat study showed that the total area occupied by kampungs in Jakarta shrank by 50 percent in just two decades, squeezing out the poor from the city.
“Because of the shortage of available land in big cities, at a minimum, intervention in the land market is needed to protect and improve the living conditions of inhabitants, such as transferring titles to collective ownership and land-banking,” Soraya said.