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Jakarta is among the ‘megacities’ with a population of more than 10 million people.

Indonesia ‘discards’ its capital Jakarta for a new one, but we can’t just dispose of cities

Indonesia’s government is advancing plans to relocate the country’s capital more than 1,000 kilometres away, from Jakarta on densely populated Java island to Borneo island.

At a time when modern consumer societies are awash in disposable products, the relocation plan seems to exemplify global society’s tendency to throw things away once they can no longer be used. In other words, Jakarta is a “disposable city”.

Indonesia is not alone. For various reasons, including environmental challenges, a number of countries have “disposed” of their old capitals in favour of new ones.

In 1960, Brazil moved its capital from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia. In 1991, Nigeria named Abuja as its new capital, replacing Lagos.

Since 2015, Egypt has been constructing a different site for its government, about 40 kilometres from Cairo. There are also discussions in Mexico about transferring some government agencies from the capital to other cities.

These capital relocation plans serve as a warning about urban development, revealing environmental problems associated with rapid urbanisation in industrialising countries.

Shifting capitals but not urban complications

The situation with Jakarta is only the latest case of a country shifting its capital from an unmanageable urban context.

What does Indonesia have in common with Brazil, Nigeria and Egypt?

In each country, leaders faced limits in the urban environment.

Rio de Janeiro was hamstrung by a city design in which government buildings were spread out and where traffic was unbearable. Lagos suffered from unplanned growth and congestion. Cairo, too, endures inadequate infrastructure, crowding and traffic gridlock.

As for Jakarta, its situation is similar to these other cities, since it suffers from a lack of urban planning and public infrastructure. It is “overcrowded, sinking and polluted”. Its problems range from urban sprawl, to major flooding, to land subsidence.

The city is said to have the worst traffic jams in the world, and the poorest air quality in Southeast Asia.

Heavy reliance on passenger vehicles for transport and failures in urban planning almost appear as if they arise from a “disposable” short-term mindset.

Environmental experts have voiced their concern about Indonesia’s capital relocation plan as it will not solve problems in Jakarta and only create other ones in the new capital.

Read more: Moving Indonesia's capital city won't fix Jakarta's problems and will increase fire risk in Borneo

A throw-away society

The modern era is driven by consumerism, encapsulated by the term “throwaway society”.

To make room for new purchases, this system of continual replacement relies on planned or cultural obsolescence of products, and disposal after short-term use.

This is an intentional part of the design. We have single-use cameras, cheap Ikea furniture, and in Japan it is a custom that houses should be replaced after two decades.

Habits developed at an individual level, however, do not translate to entire cities, as these are not easily replaced.

Yet they are often constructed as if that is the case. Cities are designed with a lack of urban planning and built with cheap materials. They are heavily reliant on unsustainable nonrenewable energy sources and private transportation, instead of mass-transit infrastructure. And due to poor planning, many cities can’t handle population growth.

While a single-use item may serve us for one meal or a few days, at a much larger scale a “disposable” city would be liveable for years or decades, rather than a century or more.

The need for sustainable cities

Cities represent our present and future. If humans are to live sustainably, they must figure out how to do so within urban areas. Nearly 55% of the world population now resides there. The figure will increase to 68% by mid-century. As the global population rises to 9.7 billion in 2050, urban residents will increase from 4.2 billion to 6.6 billion, a 57% increase.

Jakarta itself is representative of the largest urban agglomerations with a population of more than 10 million people, called “megacities”. There are projected to be 39 megacities by 2030, accounting for nearly 10% of the global population.

The continued rapid urban population growth presents challenges for “sustainable development”.

Sustainable development is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. The United Nations (UN) points out that “sustainable development depends increasingly on the successful management of urban growth”. One of the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals focuses on sustainable cities.

Research suggests “urban sustainability transformations” are necessary to make existing cities viable for the long term. The transformations, such as inclusive transportation and more efficient systems of waste collection, are aimed at greater resource efficiency, quality of life, and resilience.

Solutions offer a way forward

Experts believe “Jakarta’s ecological woes are largely man-made”, but this means humans can solve these problems too.

The same goes for other capitals. Managing them requires thoughtful planning for their longer-term operations.

This includes having political commitment and good decision-making in adopting sustainable designs.

The designs may involve “investment in public transport, creating green public spaces, and improving urban planning and management in participatory and inclusive ways”.

Other solutions include “strategic spatial planning”. The planning will ensure “infrastructure development to promote more compact forms of urban expansion with focuses on accessibility and public transport”.

For Indonesia, starting anew is an appealing prospect, but complications do not necessarily require giving up on a city.

In the end, we need to heed the warning signs of unsustainable cities.

The situation in Jakarta did not arise suddenly. Discussions about moving the capital have taken place over decades. But, even with ample time, the Indonesian government failed to make necessary policy changes.

Now, shifting the capital of Indonesia and other countries may actually send the wrong message that cities too can be discarded.

The new location in Indonesia is appealing because it is “a resource-rich province of tropical forest”, but not every country has the land and resources to move and rebuild an entire capital.

The “throwaway society” and disposable model must not be applied to urban areas. As the saying goes, “there is no Planet B”. It’s the same for our cities.

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