Extreme wealth inequality in South Jakarta's Pondok Indah neighborhood.

Jakarta, the sprawling capital city of Indonesia, serves as the heart of the nation, pulsating with economic and cultural vitality. Yet, like many rapidly urbanizing areas worldwide, it faces severe inequality. This disparity manifests in economic gaps, environmental challenges, and architectural dichotomies, reflecting Jakarta's socio-economic stratification and its historic and contemporary context.

Danau Sunter Barat, or Sunter West Lake, is one of the prominent lakes in North Jakarta. It plays a crucial role in the local water system, acting as a water reservoir for flood control and irrigation purposes. The lakes are part of Jakarta's strategy to manage its recurring floods, a significant issue faced by the city due to its geography and urban planning challenges.

A rapacious need to develop housing, both for the haves and the have nots, has removed all but a small portion of the traditional rice paddy ecosystems that once dominated northern Jakarta. If you search you can still find them, in very reduced numbers, such as at the bottom of this photo. 

Economically, Jakarta is a city of paradoxes. On one hand, it boasts an impressive GDP, accounting for about 17% of Indonesia's total economy. Jakarta serves as the epicenter of the country's commerce, hosting multinational corporations, banking institutions, and booming tech startups. However, amidst the glittering skyscrapers and the hustle of enterprise lies abject poverty. The World Bank reports that 3.57% of Jakarta's populace live under the national poverty line as of 2021. This disparity is starkly visible in neighborhoods such as Penjaringan and Kamal Muara, where makeshift homes crowd against polluted canals, a far cry from the affluent regions like Menteng, where lush gardens surround luxury homes.

Shopping malls like Seasons City in North Jakarta stand out like citadels, their gleaming facades and expansive interiors standing in sharp contrast to the densely packed, informally built settlements or "kampungs" that are also a defining feature of Jakarta's cityscape.

Extreme inequality near Menteng, one of Jakarta's wealthiest neighborhoods.

Environmental challenges further compound this inequality. The city is sinking at an alarming rate due to excessive groundwater extraction, an issue disproportionately affecting poorer areas close to the ocean, like North Jakarta. Communities like Muara Baru have seen land sink by up to 2.5 meters over the past decade, frequently resulting in flooding, destroying homes, and disrupting lives.
Jakarta's environmental issues extend beyond land subsidence. The city also suffers from poor air quality due to vehicular and industrial emissions, often exceeding WHO standards for particulate matter. The Ciliwung and other rivers, vital lifelines of the city, are heavily polluted with household and industrial waste, exacerbating health and sanitation issues.
Given these challenges, the Indonesian government has made the dramatic decision to relocate the capital to East Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, a new city called "Nusantara". This move, however, has sparked concerns about potential environmental damage to Borneo's rich ecosystems, demonstrating the complexities of finding sustainable solutions for Jakarta's environmental woes. The transition also raises questions about the fate of Jakarta and its residents, necessitating comprehensive mitigation measures to safeguard the sinking city's future.

Reclaimed land on Jakarta's northern coast refers to the creation of artificial land by adding large amounts of soil and sand to the existing shoreline, a practice also known as land reclamation. This project was initiated to address Jakarta's pressing land and housing shortages, as well as the threat of rising sea levels due to climate change and land subsidence.

Informal areas in the shadow of apartment blocks on Jakarta's northern coast.

The Ciliwung River plays a significant role in Jakarta's hydrological cycle, serving as an essential water source for residential and agricultural use. However, the river has faced numerous challenges due to rapid urbanization, poor waste management, and environmental degradation. Over the years, the Ciliwung has become heavily polluted with domestic and industrial waste, turning it into one of the most polluted rivers in the world.

The architecture of Jakarta tells a similarly uneven tale. In Sudirman Central Business District (SCBD), iconic skyscrapers like the Jakarta Tower represent the city's rapid economic growth and modernization. Conversely, in areas like Ciliwung, shanty homes built from makeshift materials on stilts showcase the extreme poverty and informality of the city's housing for the less fortunate. Here, residents live without basic amenities, such as sanitation facilities or regular electricity, often in precarious positions prone to the city's notorious floods.
To understand this inequality, one must consider the context of the country. Indonesia's history of colonial rule, political instability, and a series of economic crises have all contributed to the disparity witnessed today. These historical factors, coupled with rapid urbanization and a lack of comprehensive urban planning, have resulted in the social and economic marginalization of large sections of the population.

Where development begins: East Jakarta.

The city's wealthy residents have access to trees, even on the rooftops, providing cover from the relentless heat and smog of the city. There is precious little green space in the poor areas of town, save for the occasional cemetery.

Kampungs next to modern skyscrapers in East Jakarta.

Jakarta, despite its booming economic growth, is a city divided by inequality. The disparities are palpable in its economic state, environmental challenges, and architecture. However, there are several steps the city could take to reduce inequality. Infrastructure development, with a focus on affordable housing and transportation, is crucial to address the architectural disparities. Improving environmental sustainability, through actions like regulating groundwater extraction and implementing greener urban policies, can help mitigate environmental challenges. 

A man wades through a tributary of the Ciliwung River collecting plastic, in the shadow of high-rise buildings including the Four Seasons Hotel.

Greater Jakarta has a population of over 30 million, making it one of the largest urban centers in the entire world. Addressing the challenges of urban sprawl, environmental strain, and inequality is a key concern for this hugely complex, congested and rich city. 

Managing sea level rise is going to be one of the key challenges in the next century, especially as so many of the city's poorest residents live next to the ocean. The city is estimated to be sinking at a rate of 4.9cm per year. The Great Garuda, a proposed seawall and reclamation project, is the most ambitious of the initiatives designed to mitigate these issues. This project plans to create 17 artificial islands enclosing the giant lagoon with Jakarta at its center, with the shape resembling the mythical Garuda bird when viewed from above.

The mangrove forests in Jakarta, specifically in the northern coastal areas, serve as crucial protective barriers against coastal erosion, storm surges, and even mitigate the impact of rising sea levels. They are vital for maintaining local biodiversity, acting as breeding grounds and habitats for a variety of marine and bird species. However, these ecosystems have suffered severe degradation in recent decades, leading to multiple environmental issues, including exacerbated flooding. Intense development along the coast has all but erased the natural flood controls of the environment, and been replaced by canals, barriers and artificial lakes.

Informal settlements on the coastline of Northern Jakarta.

Slums proliferate in a never-used easement terminating in a giant road near Jakarta's central business district.

The newly opened Jakarta International Stadium opened in 2022 featuring the largest retractable roof design in Asia and second-largest in the world (after AT&T stadium in Arlington, Texas). The construction was delayed for years due to the land being used by informal settlers and their buildings, many of whom still exist next to it. 

Jakarta Golf Club is one of the city's oldest golf clubs, occupying a significant amount of land, a scarce resource in a city like Jakarta that is grappling with housing shortages. The stark contrast between the sprawling, lush golf course and the surrounding crowded residential areas epitomizes the spatial inequality in Jakarta. The club, which caters largely to affluent individuals, exists in stark contrast to nearby kampungs or low-income housing areas where living conditions are often cramped and lack basic amenities.

Luxury apartment blocks next to kampungs in East Jakarta. 

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