What stands in the way of sustainable development?
The discourse of sustainable development has been interpreted in various ways since it was introduced in the early 1990s. Since then, the government has generally seen it as a way to promote the importance of environmental agenda in development. However, it is clear that policy makers and the general public have understood the term 'sustainable development' differently. If you look at Jakarta, for example, in pursuing what it understands as sustainable development, government projects have neglected other important socio-economic dimensions of development. This affects those who have limited access to resource and knowledge most. So, broadly speaking, it is this discord between policy makers and the general public on defining sustainable development that poses a big challenge.
Should there be a distinction between growth and development, in order to achieve sustainability?
I think there should be. In case of Jakarta, for example, the city has been growing very rapidly for twenty years and mostly driven by the logic of the market supporting mainly economic growth. Almost 50% of green areas have been transformed into built-up areas for industry, residential, and commercial use, to accommodate urbanisation in the city.
This is what it was like until the discourse of 'sustainable Jakarta' was first introduced in the Jakarta City Plan 2010. In it, the government tried to put forward several agendas on environmental issues, such as flood-risk management project, being the provision of green and blue areas. In a way, there has been a rigorous attempt to reclaim areas where there are slum dwellers who live without land security. They are mostly the urban poor who have limited access to formal housing, and they haven't been able to formalise their plots of land in the green areas that belong to the state. Meanwhile, relocating these people into social housing takes away their livelihoods, the social support that comes from their community and the networks that have evolved over many years. So, when we talk about development, the socio-economic dimension has to be taken into account.
Does sustainable development have any bearing on socioeconomic inequalities?
It does. The case of Jakarta's green and blue area provision shows that the sustainable development agenda has created socio-economic inequalities, as a result of the 'sustainable development' discourse having been interpreted with an exclusionary element to it. The future of the city is built around the Jakarta City Plan 2010, and projects such as those reclaiming green areas for flood-risk management. The relocation of people, particularly the urban poor, and the production of green space to meet 'urban green space coverage' targets have been rationalised under the 'sustainability' narrative.
This justification has raised questions of equality in the relocation and displacement process, as well as post-resettlement rehabilitation and adaptation. This has always been an issue in Jakarta, where the notion of inequality itself is also politically constructed under the logic of land markets and subjectification - essentially, that there is not enough land for the urban poor in the most beneficial, and attractive parts of the city. When capital accumulation is the ruling logic in land markets, and while the government has limited provision of land for social housing, the only option for the urban poor who live in the city center is to relocate to far-off districts with no opportunities to establish a livelihood. Then, they are subjected as beneficiaries of newly built social housing that is better than their flooded neighborhood in ‘kampung’, yet actually they are isolated from their network and relation to the city. So, we have this challenge: how to re-imagine the discourse of sustainability, and change the way we develop and build our environments to take these socioeconomic inequalities into consideration.
What should every policy maker have at the front of their mind when working on sustainable development?
What has been missing from policy is the translation of ‘sustainability’ on specific localities and the re-imagining of the city-making process. This means reconfiguring our urban networks, and specifically the way different parts of the city relate to one another. The term 'sustainability' has to be grounded by the quintessential vision of the city, where development understands everyone within the urban environment as equal beings. I think this task lies in the role of planners and architects, to understand the socio-spatial dimension of the city as being plural, where on part is different from another, yet still intertwined through both tangible and intangible networks. They need to engage in creating spaces for equality in the city-making process, especially with local people, the citizens who experience the city in everyday life, before and after the ‘sustainable’ was born and translated into programs and actions. In the case of Jakarta, where democracy was introduced in the early 2000s, we have a long way to go, and therefore have to carefully balance the means with the ends when it comes to this development process.
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