The Radical Plan to Save the Fastest Sinking City in the World

In Jakarta the next day, the national assembly is in session, and will hear from Jokowi staff just back from East Kalimantan, along with some ministers. Outside the chamber is a neatly kept atrium fed by sprinklers, and near it, a room of smoking bureaucrats, journalists, and hangers-on.

Inside, the ministers and their aides are distinguishable by their matching attire. Public Works people are wearing matching batiks. Transportation Ministry staff sport white with epaulets.

One after another, the ministers unveil the government’s master concept of the new capital. A Planning Ministry official flashes a slide with the headline, “The Best on Earth.” The capital, he says, will include a botanical garden, a zoo, and a national park. It will feature clean industry, electric vehicles, and a power utility run on renewable energy. Other urbanist buzzwords go up on subsequent slides. But first, the quotidian — water and sanitation systems, the prerequisite order of business somehow forgotten when Jakarta was built.

A new slide depicts three concentric circles. In the innermost is written “6,000 hectares” — an unspecified place in the East Kalimantan forest where government buildings such as the presidency will be located. The second, larger circle says “40,000 hectares,” the site of a sports center, a museum, a mall, and a co-working space for 50,000 in a garden setting. The third, largest circle encloses a 980-square-mile national park, a space larger than all of Jakarta, to be left pristine.

When it is his turn, a Public Works official says capital residents will live in high-rise apartments served by light rail and fancy water taxis. Thus far, Indonesian cities have developed organically, with no planning, he says. The new capital will be different.

Airlangga Hartarto, Jokowi’s economics coordinating minister and one of his most senior advisers, tells me these flourishes will be a stark change for the typical government worker traveling 90 minutes to the office, rarely seeing family. Jokowi himself commutes into urban Jakarta from the suburban presidential palace. “Every day, he can feel the traffic,” Hartarto says, “the reality for how Indonesians live.”

There is an indisputable seriousness to how Jokowi has gone about his plans. Conspicuous in his pronouncements have been steadfast assurances that he is not abandoning the current capital. There is a hint of profligate unreality when he so speaks, especially in the sums he casually tosses around — more than $400 billion when you add up all his promised projects around the country. In Jakarta alone, he says that, even though the government is leaving, he will spend some $40 billion to ensure that every person will have access to clean, piped water within five years. If that actually happened, subsidence would be slowed, minimizing the existential need to move to Borneo at all, and there are already construction crews installing the new sanitation projects in some neighborhoods. But Jakartans have been waiting for ordinary hygiene for centuries, and few seem to be holding their breath for such services to arrive this time.

Very few people seem convinced that, even if Jokowi’s plans are fully realized, Jakarta will turn into a modern, clean, and efficient city. Jo Santoso, a retired history professor at the University of Tarumunagara, says the city cannot be fundamentally changed. “This is Jakarta’s natural state,” he says. Through time, very few cities on the planet have been planned. Like them, Jakarta has evolved organically into its present state of chaos. Jokowi is right to go elsewhere and start over.

The coronavirus is somewhat tying Jokowi’s hands. He has been forced into budget austerity, including the abolishment of 18 state agencies, though he does not seem to be carving into the muscle of government, instead killing bodies like the Peat Restoration Agency. He seems determined, once the pandemic passes, to resume the big migration to Borneo, and has repositioned the move as a post-pandemic boost to the economy.

Recently, Heri Andreas sent me a new slide deck. In it, he highlighted a fresh rush of floodwaters into Pluit and 10 other neighborhoods in June. One torrent of water again damaged the tall new floodwall on the bay. “Coastal inundation is back!” he remarked on one slide.

Andreas, his professor Hasanuddin Abidin, and their colleagues only sought to get the government to do something about the sinking capital. They did not know they were triggering a chaotic transformation of the current capital, and the creation of a new, distant one.

Even if they do not currently recognize it, that same set of choices — What do we do? — sits with planners in Houston, Miami, Virginia Beach, and elsewhere. Retreat, miniaturization, or a do-over of these and other cities seem impossibly extreme. But since the savannah, we have relentlessly adapted — or moved on, often probably because we had to. Countless cities have been built, then lost through time. Jokowi does not want Jakarta’s enduring story to be transitory, or dystopian. But, given unforgiving geology and a heedless history, that is his unsentimental road. Around the world, a billion more of us face the prospect of a similar path.

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