Polka dots, baby animals, checkers and stripes are trendy patterns picked by Jakarta’s mask wearers that try to add some fun to their daily commute through exhaust fumes that persistently hang in the air. The cute prints belie the gravity of the city’s air pollution, accountable for acute respiratory infection in children and adults alike. Coupled with substandard living conditions including overcrowding, malnutrition and lack of healthcare, it is the urban poor that are affected the most from breathing in the toxic air. While persons of greater socioeconomic status are able to lessen the impact by living and working in a protected environment, the urban poor that include 1.5 million informal sector workers are neglected. Respiratory infection is the cause of 12.5% of Jakarta’s deaths.
The city’s toxic air problem is palpable out on the street. Wisps of grey smoke rise from pockets of abandoned land; things of any monetary value are salvaged and thrown into a pile, while general rubbish is incinerated on site in the midst of houses and schools. Smokers light up in restaurants, malls and hotels despite the government’s recent efforts to enforce and monitor smoking ban in public indoor areas. Domestic and industrial sectors continue to depend on cheap fuel like oil and coal while tailpipe emissions contribute further to Jakarta’s pollution mix: suspended particulates, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide. Indonesia’s vehicles have grown in number from 19 million in 2000 to 81 million in 2010. This number is projected to reach 106 million by 2025 – about 75% of them will be motorcycles. Ade, a taxi driver in his 60’s, claims running a restaurant would be easier. “I work for 18 hours a day. I have five children – two are married thankfully – it is tough to support a big family. In slow moving traffic, I don’t take home much. Taxi rental is very expensive,” he gazes at the crawling cars and motorcycles ahead. He has no choice but to draw in and recirculate their exhaust fumes throughout his 18-hour work day; otherwise the indoor air gets too stuffy with carbon dioxide. Home to 12 million people during the day, Jakarta’s congestion is destroying livelihood and killing lives. Meanwhile Indonesia is exhausting its oil reserves, and will run out by the mid-2020s.
While the detrimental effects of air pollution on health and economy have been studied for decades, its influence on public life has been overlooked:
– Jakarta is a city for motor vehicles. Walking/cycling is not only unsafe due to the lack of separate paths, it is also unsafe and unpleasant because of the toxic air. In turn, the air encourages people to drive and get to their destination as quickly as possible: a vicious cycle;
– Streets are dirty, noisy and unsafe. There is no open space for people to congregate, interact, exchange ideas and learn about others. A good city should be a platform for collective economic advancement;
– Public spaces in developing cities are an opportunity to create jobs for informal workers. They should be attractive and accessible by all citizens. The few outdoor public spaces in Jakarta are seldom used due to air pollution, and even then, only enjoyed by those of higher socioeconomic status;
– Existing landmarks like Fatahillah Square are underutilized and do not offer an invitation for people to stay;
– Air conditioned malls have replaced markets and vendors endanger their lives on reduced street corners;
– Public parks and sports facilities are rare and city dwellers are removed from nature. Outdoor activities are not fun in toxic air; and
– People desire to live in gated, mixed-use high rises with less noise and pollution, and consequently public life on the ground level dies out. Social integration becomes a more distant future.
Not only is clean air a basic human right, it is the essence of public life. For 45% of the total Indonesian population projected to live in urban slums by 2015, their livelihood and life depend on it. Jakarta has a long way to go, but its bus rapid transit system (TransJakarta) and a new more detailed zoning map may be a good start.
 OCHA/IRIN & UN Habitat. (2007). Tomorrow’s Crises Today: The Humanitarian Impact of Urbanization. Progress Press Co. Ltd. Malta.
 Ministry of Environment. (2011). Urban Air Quality Evaluation in Indonesia Blue Sky Program Volume 1.
 Glaeser, Edward. (2012). Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Penguin Books
(c) 2014 Julia Suh
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