Australian Outlook

Indonesia's New Capital

27 Sep 2022
By Dr Sharyn Davies and Chindy Christine
President Joko Widodo, cabinet members, governors and all invited guests in Capital City of Nusantara / March 14, 2022 [Presidential Secretariat Photo by Laily Rachev]

Indonesia has a new capital city. To be a truly inclusive capital, the design team must include women, young people, ethnic minorities, sexual and gender diverse people, and the disabled community.

If you were designing a city from the ground up, what would you prioritise? Affordable, quality housing with easy access to work, childcare, healthcare, education, and entertainment would surely be front runners. A critical emphasis on environmental sustainability and clean energy would no doubt underpin these. Indonesia has a rare opportunity to implement these elements in its new purpose-built capital, Nusantara. But there is one more thing that must be a priority for planners: ensuring the city is safe and supportive for all residents.

Relocating a capital city is not undertaken lightly, but Indonesia has no other option. Its current capital, Jakarta, is quite literally sinking. The megacity is home to more than 11 million residents but frequently swells to 30 million. Overpopulation is not the only issue, though. Jakarta is built on a delta system of 13 rivers. A staggering 40 percent of the capital now sits below sea level. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that the city is sinking as its aquifers are being depleted. Further, the city is heavily built up, which means that water cannot soak into the ground. Thus, flooding is a regular problem that will increase with climate change, the growing population, and aging infrastructure. Moving the capital will certainly ease some of Jakarta’s population pressures that are causing toxic levels of air pollution and chronic traffic congestion, but it will not address the underlying factors causing Jakarta’s water problems.

In August 2022, the first shovel of earth was turned over at the site of the new capital. Located on the island of Borneo, Nusantara is expected to be home to almost two million residents by 2045. It is hoped that local and global talent will be enticed to take up residence there.

Serious conversations about moving Indonesia’s capital had been going on for some time, but it was not until 2021 that a master plan was developed. The first priority has been the construction of a toll road, Sepaku Ring Road, which is the main access road to Nusantara. This road is now reportedly 77 percent complete. Other priorities in this first period, between 2022 and 2024, are land acquisition and developing a detailed engineering plan. The Indonesian Public Works and Public Housing Ministry has committed AU $530 million (Rp 5.3 trillion) to this first phase of infrastructure development.

There are lofty goals for the new capital, including promoting economic equality and inclusivity, as well as deriving 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources and ensuring 80 percent of mobility is by public transport, cycling, or walking. Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese recently showcased this trend by cycling on bamboo bikes around the current capital. While the goals are impressive, key consideration should be given to how the city will function for women and minority groups.

In order to attract international residents, which is part of the remit of the new city, Nusantara must support and celebrate a diverse range of people. To develop a truly world-class liveable city, it must be inclusive. To achieve inclusivity, the design team must be representative of the people who will live there. If the appointed design team is made up of only able-bodied men, which is a highly likely possibility, the city will only be truly inclusive for men. The design team must have tangible input from women and gender-diverse people, disability advocates, children and young people, locals, and foreigners.

A key consideration must be whether women will feel safe in this city. Since the new capital will reportedly have 75 percent open green space, what security factors have been considered? Will there be adequate lighting, monitoring, security guards, and safe and accessible transport? Will disabled people be able to take advantage of all that the city has to offer? Without disabled people on the design team, it is likely that accommodations will be at best tokenistic, and at worst inappropriate.

It is evident that there has been some consideration of the needs of women. For instance, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals have been invoked in associated planning documents. There has been acknowledgement that women have a right to live safely in cities, and there does seem to be a desire to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” and “prevent and eliminate all forms of discrimination, violence and harassment of women and girls in public spaces.” But there is no point just acknowledging the needs of women. What tangible practices will be put in place to support them? Again, this highlights the need for women on the design team.

There are some other issues with the new capital that will require creative solutions. First, ironic for a capital that is being relocated because of too much water, the new capital will experience water scarcity. The region around Nusantara is prone to drought and has limited supplies of fresh water. Where will the water come from? Second, planners have stressed that they want to avoid issues arising from private investment, such as inequality and corruption, but they will be reliant on private funding to find the estimated US $35 billion it will take to build the city. Will investors buy in?

Third, Indonesia has a track record of being great at the planning stage but lacking in the implementation stage of major projects. With such ambitious goals for the new capital, bringing them to fruition seems to some an impossible endeavour. For instance, the government would like to move its Presidential Palace and other offices to the new capital in early 2024, yet construction has barely begun. When Japan’s SoftBank Group visited the construction site in late June 2022, the investors were puzzled because they barely saw anything aside from trees and a white sign with the words Titik Nol Nusantara (Nusantara Ground Zero). They withdrew their funding saying the project lacked a big-picture vision. It seems then that investors may not all be likely to buy in. If they do not, this will leave Indonesia’s government in a particularly difficult place.

Fourth, local residents have been vocal about their concerns of losing their homes and the destruction of sensitive rainforests. Indigenous groups such as Paser, Balik, and Basap worry the government will destroy their villages. Given the government does not acknowledge ancestral land claims, there is no legal mechanism for Indigenous landowners to be compensated.

Fifth, there are concerns about who will eventually live in Nusantara. People in urban Jakarta question whether they will move to Nusantara because they still see it as a forest, while Jakarta offers them everything they need. In order for Nusantara to be an attractive destination for bureaucrats and others used to city life in Jakarta it will need to ensure it offers things Jakarta does not, such as no congestion and breathable air. But it will also need to focus on offering some of the things people love about Jakarta such as a fabulous food scene, a dynamic arts sector and good transport connections to other places.

There is still time to ensure the new capital is built so that it is inclusive of all residents. Let us hope the design team reflects the diversity of people who will live there.

This article was one of the top ten most read articles published in 2022.

Dr Sharyn Davies is Director of the Herb Feith Indonesia Engagement Centre at Monash University. Sharyn has held visiting fellowships at Cambridge, Yale, Sydney, Peking and Airlangga universities, and has been awarded Fulbright, Leverhulme and Marsden funding. Sharyn is recognised internationally as an expert in the field of Indonesian Studies and for her contributions to the study of gender, sexuality, policing, social media, and moral surveillance. Twitter: @sharyndavies. 

Chindy Christine is a Master of Translation Studies student at The University of Western Australia (UWA) having a work placement at Herb Feith Indonesia Engagement Centre at Monash University. Chindy has become an English language enthusiast with her eight-year experience of being an EFL tutor and a translator (specialised in English and Indonesian) since 2017. She has also published some of her studies in the literature and ELT scope.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.