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Indonesia needs bold vision for new capital, Swedish architect says

Urban planning expert says the new city has to grow organically

Indonesia's sprawling capital of Jakarta, pictured here, has one thing in common with the small Swedish town of Kiruna: Both are sinking.   © Reuters

JAKARTA -- On the face of it, Indonesia's capital Jakarta, a sprawling megacity of 10 million people, and Sweden's Kiruna, a town of only 20,000, couldn't be more different. But they have one thing in common: Both are sinking.

Jakarta's problem stems from too much ground water being extracted, while Kiruna, sitting atop one of the world's largest iron ore deposits, is sinking from mining tunnels. Both have come up with similar solutions, with Indonesia creating a new capital on the island of Borneo, while the Swedish town constructs Kiruna 2.0 on more stable land to the east.

"I would advise [Indonesia]... to have high ambitions and aspirations through the entire spectrum when it comes to sustainability, livability and attractiveness," said Krister Lindstedt, partner and architect at the Swedish architecture firm White Arkitekter, one of the principals building the new Kiruna. "If expectations are too low, you don't attract good people to take part in doing it. You don't attract good investors."

Although Indonesia has yet to unveil plans for the new capital -- only saying it will be a "smart city" -- just 20% of the estimated 466 trillion rupiah ($33 billion) needed to build it will come from government coffers. The rest will be shouldered by the private sector and state-owned companies.

Lindstedt said that listening to stakeholders -- in Kiruna's case, its residents -- is also vital to success. "It's not enough to respond to a disaster like in Kiruna. You can't say we are [just] saving the city from deformation," he said. "We must say what [our new city] does, and how this new city is the tool for future challenges." It is important for city planners to "be attentive and listen to people to make the project relevant."

 Krister Lindstedt, partner and architect at Sweden's White Arkitekter (Photo by Shotaro Tani)

The first phase of Indonesia's move to the new capital in the province of East Kalimantan will start in 2024, with about 200,000 civil servants relocating there. It officially becomes the new capital after the president moves in, probably around the same time.

But the idea of having a capital solely devoted to state administrative duties risks creation of a culturally dead city. "Dead by day and night," says Lindstedt.

Myanmar's capital of Naypyidaw is a case in point. Built amid farmland in 2006 to replace Yangon, it covers an estimated 4,800 sq. kilometers -- six times the size of New York City. But it is widely ridiculed as a ghost city. Government offices reach all corners of the city and officials living there often leave families in Yangon due to the lack of commercial and educational opportunities.

"For the success of a city, a city with character that will bring in people, to work there, be there, bring people from all over Indonesia... you need a certain amount of bottom up perspective," said the architect.

In other words, diversity, culture and economic activity -- the soul of any urban area -- cannot be artificially created by directives from officials, but instead has to grow organically from the roots.

Good urban design can help foster bottom up growth. The aim of the Kiruna project, which includes Norway's Ghilardi + Hellsten Arkitekter, is to "create a sustainable model city with a diverse economy that is less dependent on the global demand for iron ore," according to Lindstedt's firm.

As for Indonesia, the new capital should be "a place you want to go to," the architect said, with people walking, cycling and utilizing smart electric transport while living in mixed residential-commercial neighborhoods interspersed with government offices. "It's not like an area in the middle of the city where all the buildings are filled with government buildings and on the outskirts there is residential."

A model of the new Kiruna in Sweden

The area earmarked for the new capital is a vast forest on government land. Lindstedt said that integrating Indonesia's biodiversity would make the city more attractive. "Wouldn't this be the most bio diverse city in the world?" he said. "[Create] lots of parks like you don't have in Jakarta today."

One advantage emerging economies have in building new cities is that, much like how technologies leapfrog in developing countries, so too can best practices for urban planning.

"What I can see is how fast you have chances to take a leap into the future and not repeat the mistakes of [developed countries]," said Lindstedt. "I do think the 'smart city' concept seems to be very useful here because it generates a lot of ideas on how to do things."

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