Whether documenting or depicting, we make certain assumptions, even if only temporarily. To draw a city–to construct a city over time–essential structural elements are often the starting point. Places for public gathering, resource and transportation hubs, and (most often) natural elements–rivers, lakes, oceans, and mountains– lay the framework for the city. These points, nodes, or primary elements as various theorists have referred to them, are connected by sight, movement, and infrastructure. This establishes essential services, defines boundaries, and creates an operating order. The elements connected by and retained within these structures may change over time; they may be added on to, appropriated for new uses, or they may fall into disrepair. Eventually, we know all of these things will happen. Prevailing practice has shown, however, that as long as essential structures accommodate change, the city and its inhabitants persist.
What happens when the rate of change outpaces the rate of accommodation?
Today, approximately 300 million people in south and southeast Asia live in cities with some of the highest rates of urbanization on the planet. Internal migration—defined as rural populations relocating to urban areas—is often the principal cause of these swelling numbers. For a city to satisfy the expectations of newcomers, its political, cultural, economic, and physical mechanisms must meet the increased demand with opportunity and services. Yet, even in an ideal scenario of accommodation, the extreme pressures that such rapid growth places on the physical and environmental conditions of the city cause instability, frequently leaving large numbers of people vulnerable.
Entire communities–millions of people–that the city was never imagined to serve, literally have built themselves into the hearts of those cities. In Jakarta, for example, they live largely unseen (officially), layered along the banks of rivers. Elsewhere they are stacked beneath infrastructure overpasses, and along railways. They serve a city in a multitude of roles, yet remain missing from that city’s official plans. They are not only a shadow economy; they are a shadow populous.
Through documentation, a new image of the city may be drawn through the voices of these citizens.
Over the past 3 decades, Jakarta has sustained one of the highest rates of urbanization of any single metropolitan district. A magnet within the archipelago, Jakarta is home to approximately 28 million people, all of which live within a coastal delta fed by 13 rivers. These rivers traverse the city, to the Java Sea.
In recent years, the magnitude of issues that arise owing to this path; has rendered a once manageable system volatile. In the 2013-2014 monsoon season, the precipitation was 50% greater than the preceding year, inundating 30% or more of the city. Studies project that these numbers will rise, and quickly.
During the 2013 summer, I spent 10 weeks in Jakarta working in two kampungs (villages) located along the banks of the Ciliwung River. These kampungs (Kampung Pulo and Bukit Duri) are in the heart of the city, straddling the river. Where once a symbiotic relationship existed between the communities and the river; today, their relationship puts both the estuary and urban community at risk.
Since 2012, the Ministry of Public Works in Jakarta has been working to “normalize” the river via concrete waterways and dredging. This process requires the eviction of a large percentage of the population living along the river, throughout the city. Consequently, these vibrant, welcoming, resilient, and officially undocumented communities are constantly under threat of erasure. On August 20, 2015, evictions began in Kampung Pulo. After years of threat and negotiation with the residents, the government cleared a large swath of land along the river’s edge, demolishing the homes of approximately 1,200 families.
The stories, evolutions, and struggles of these communities deserve to be heard and seen.
Kampung Pulo, one month after evictions began along the river | Photograph by Christina Leigh Geros
For a city of 28 million, this may seem like a small event. Yet, these evictions and relocations happen often. In an attempt to relieve water pressure from a concrete delta, entire communities are uprooted. But most simply relocate within the city. Meanwhile, thousands of people pour into Jakarta every year to join the same fate.
If we can imagine the city, free from the restraints of our preconceptions, we might begin to document the lessons of the city, so that we may draw it anew.
Christina Leigh Geros is a designer, researcher, and educator whose work lies at the intersection of urbanism, ecology, and politics. Over the course of her Fulbright National Geographic Fellowship, she will be in Jakarta, Indonesia weaving a cartographically-referenced multi-media narrative to give voice to both the urban and estuarine conditions that make up the littoral spine of a city that is facing some of the greatest pressures of global climate change in the 21st century. Christina will be working with community members, activists, and scholars who are harnessing the power of social media to both study and promote community resilience in neighborhoods of the urban poor through data collection and visualization. Using this data to peer into the fluctuating network of event and adaptation, the human stories behind the data will rise to the surface, contributing to an actionable global narrative about cities and people.