Jakarta Needs More Open Spaces, or Does She?

The question came when I read this article (“More open space in Jakarta, please!”) in Jakarta Post. The article criticizes malfunctioned open spaces such as Monumen Nasional Park, Cattleya Park, and Menteng Park and suggests the creation of new open spaces in Jakarta. People’s behavior toward public space, the writer says, will not change if there is no effort to provide appropriate ones.

It takes no hard effort to agree with the article. We all, by default, love open spaces. They sound green and great. Rarely, we critically address the need of them; we simply think that to add open spaces is always inherently good. And what else do we need in a dense, crowded city like Jakarta, other than new open spaces that can give us more spots to breathe?

But, here is why Jane Jacobs’ book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is still a classic book that we should refer to when we talk about urbanism, as in the book she tries to deconstruct our common (mis-)conception on urban features. Open spaces like parks, Jacobs says, is volatile. They tend to run to extremes of popularity and unpopularity: either we like it or leave it. Thus, Jacobs writes that their behavior is far from simple.

The nice thing about Jacobs’ writing is that she challenges the common conception with common senses, thus makes her thoughts very accessible. Try to think a place where you, as a child, were prone of being bullied. Or, if you were more as the culprit, where you were likely to perform your act. Open space is an easy pick. Giant, as the usual rascal in Doraemon, knows it so well; that is why he keeps bullying Nobita in the park. I experienced it myself — as a victim, of course — when I was walking in a football field near my school. Some guys approached me to ask for some money. It was in the afternoon and the sky was completely bright. I could neither run, as it was too easy for them to catch me back, nor scream, as no one was around to help. I lost on quantity, so two options left: I gave them money or I went home with some bumps on my face.

More often, open space is a place of destination rather than a place of transit. We go there especially for recreations. However, we don’t go for recreations everyday. Nearby my house, there is a great open space name Taman Hutan Kota Penjaringan. Its size is more than 13 hectares. You might have seen it when you were going to airport via toll-road, just before you turned left to Cengkareng instead of turning right to Pluit. It is truly a huge, lovely park. An unusual heaven. One of few things that I can be proud of my living area. But, no matter how great it is, I just come to the place once or twice a week at maximum, mostly for running during the day. I would not dare to go there in the night alone, as it feels so unsafe. No people with daily activity there. No passerby. No street vendors. No local residents who really stay there and belong to the place. No eyes upon it.

The same thing goes with many other parks, even those which are beautifully designed by urban designers. For instance, Le Corbusier’s Radiant City, a utopia of city, is a space where 95% of its physical setting is open space and only 5% of it is skyscrapers. “The whole city is a Park,” says Le Corbusier. It is a place where you can get those three things you are expecting from parks: sun, space, and greenery. But the plan is later strongly criticized as cold, failed planning because its open space easily becomes an instant wasteland. Such projects might look so inviting in architectural renderings, but in realities they tend to simplify many variables that make such places work.

There are many layering aspects which contribute to great open spaces. They are not just a result of good design. More open spaces, then, might bring complicated consequences. “More Open Space for what? For muggings? For bleak vacuums between buildings? Or for ordinary people to use and enjoy? But people do not use city open space just because it is there and because city planners or designers wish they would,” says Jacobs. To make existing open spaces perform is already a huge homework. To add another ones, is to burden yourself with more homework, as if the existing ones have not killed you yet.

I do not mean that new open spaces should not be generated. Not at all. Open space is an important feature for every city’s sustainability. We need more open spaces primarily to increase the city’s areas of water absorption and its quality of air. But to impose these open spaces as part of our urban life is not only a hard task, but also, in my opinion, a secondary one. What is more crucial is to create a better streets and sidewalks, or what Jacobs defines as the central mechanism of the city. I would not try to explain her arguments in here, yet to put it simply: streets and sidewalks are the place that we experience everyday. They are the part of the city that makes the most of our everyday life.

If we are going to talk about influencing people’s behavior toward public space, they are the unavoidable ones.

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