Surabaya Kampungs and The Narrative of Future Asian Cities

Re-writing the Future Narrative of Asian Cities

Bintang Putra | 30 Jun 2017 | Alter-Shelter, Article

Picture: Concrete Forest, Tokyo


In the past 10 years, Surabaya citizens have been witnessing a large number of new urban developments undergoing in their city. The emergence of countless apartment towers, hotels, malls and department stores in this relatively short period indicates that Surabaya is experiencing a rapid economic growth. From the urban design perspective, it is noticeable that Surabaya’s development is directed towards the narrative and imaginations set by pre-existing metropoles in the advanced nations. Land use, building architecture and facades, city skylines, are constructed to mimic the urban vistas and even copied famous landmarks of foreign cities. But is aesthetics the only thing we can learn from them?


First, we need to see where the money comes from. Such growth in Indonesian capital cities is one of the byproduct of the staggering 144% increase of Indonesian External Debt during the previous 10 years. These borrowed fund, which originally came from foreign central banks and international funding agents, penetrates into Indonesian economy through the services of private commercial banks. From there, the funds are lent out to the public, if the terms and conditions are eligible. Due to the banking policies, those who are granted the loans are mostly coming from the business community, so the larger their businesses and collaterals are, the easier for them to borrow the capital. This regulation means that access to capital is exclusive to those who has assets and pre-existing businesses. In other words, the direction of new urban developments is mainly in the interest of financiers and the business community.

Instead of making way towards inclusive capital utilization and development, the capital owners are investing their money to private oriented projects such as commercial spaces, apartments, hotels, and real estates. But the speculative act of investing money into property market have inflated the market value. New money in the market caused the house demands to increase, but they are not real demands from people who really needed shelters, instead the houses are bought for investment purposes which will be resold or lent to in a higher price. Unaware of the illusory nature of the demand, realtors are still optimistic, house prices still go up and becoming even more expensive for real consumers. Therefore, contrary to popular belief, housing price inflation is not (primarily) caused by the population growth nor lack of space in the city, but it is more of an aftermath of excessive debt, market frenzy, and profit seeking realtors, all of which are under the enchantment of neo-classical economic paradigm that promises infinite growth. And this is the point where urban developments can potentially harm the conditions of human habitation.

The boom and bust roller-coaster economics has been proven time to time by existing metropoles all over the world, such as in Japan in the 1980-90s, South Korea since the early 2000s, US in 1997-2006, China in 2005-2013, and many more. From the list above, two of these bubbles were burst and has triggered some of the most severe economic crises in history, they are the lost decade in Japan, and US’ subprime mortgage crisis. Whereas the victims are from the middle to low income population, that makes up the majority of the urban community.


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Picture: The mega project next door, Surabaya

Heterotopian Cities

During each of their economic boom, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Seoul, new Chinese Cities, and other Asian metropoles were shaped and molded to bear the image of modern lifestyles. But their thrive to modernity were not free of socio-spatial and psychological consequences that we can take lessons from.

In the currently blooming Asian cities like Hong Kong and Seoul, young middle class families and individuals are facing a common obstacle that is the ever increasing house prices. Even with mortgage, buying property in the city center areas are out of the picture. They can only rent (or Jeonse scheme in case of Seoul) apartment units, but that too, would still consume a relatively large amount of their monthly income. With difficulty to maintain savings, this expenses have hindered them of shelter assurance, which would be disastrous once they resign or get fired. -Which is why young workers tend to stay at their jobs regardless of any stress and discomfort from their working environment. Densely populated city such as Hong Kong, imposes an extra hurdle for the citizens. Not only they have to pay more, they also need to shrink living spaces to its limits, from which they have coined out the term “coffin houses” and “cage units” due to its extremely small size.

After the Asset Price Bubble collapsed in 1990s, Japanese cities experienced a massive slowdown in urban development which resulted in joblessness and subsequently, homelessness. Despite the slowing down of economics, house prices do not necessarily get cheaper. Even now, amid the gorgeous facades of downtown Tokyo, it is still very easy to find groups of homeless people seeking shelters in public spaces or Manga Cafes (internet cafe). 

However, the more prominent problem these cities has in common is actually less visible. City workers nowadays are having a busier schedule and spending more time in the office for less compensation compared to the previous generation. Combined with the inescapable corporate culture of over work, these compounded pressures has caused chronic depression, individualism, relationship or family issues, even hopelessness amidst the urban community. These social crises became the main contributor that has kept South Korea and Japan at the top of the suicide rate between nations. And it came to no surprise that 88% of Seoul youth (under 35) prefers to go abroad.

Homelessness and squalid shelters above are not located far away from the shiny towers, neon signs, and advertising boards of multi-national corporations, they are intertwined in between them. However, busy working schedules during the weekdays, and the frantic entertainment seeking during the weekends, have prevented urbanists from noticing critical details in their surrounding. Furthermore, the exclusive nature of modern citizens’ social life, and over-specialization in their professions, hamper their ability to grasp the big picture of where the development is headed, and what has been sacrificed for.


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Picture: Homeless people next to an urban housing advertisement, Tokyo

Urban Deconstruction

Compared to existing metropoles, Surabaya has a unique socio-spatial safety net embedded in its urban fabric, it is widely known as Kampung. [Physically, kampung is a densely populated urban settlement, or can be understood as the Indonesian equivalent of Favelas in Brazil.] Off course, urban settlements have existed in most cities along the course of history. But in case of Jakarta or other Asian metropoles, many of the informal settlements were either turned into slum, becoming illegal, and eventually demolished or preserved for tourism purposes. In Seoul Jjokbangchon is heavily marginalized and hidden from city sights. In Hong Kong, most of the traditional houses have been turned into vertical structures, but much of the community structure were lost during the transformation. On the other hand, Shitamachi in Tokyo, or Kota Tua in Jakarta is preserved by government initiative.

In Surabaya, many of the kampungs are still evolving organically together with modernization. Each kampungs has their own ways in adapting to the growth of occupants and accommodating newcomers. Since the colonization era, they have been one of the primary absorber of urban migrations, they have contributed in providing affordable homes for workers in the city center. In times of urban crises, kampungs have provided alternative living spaces for people who has lost their jobs post 1997’s monetary crisis.

However, despite the resilience, kampung areas in Surabaya is generally shrinking at a steady pace. City regulations may have helped keeping developers from taking over kampung area directly, but capital owners are still able to acquire them indirectly through economic advantage. Firstly, being unaware of the constant value drop of the Rupiah currency, many people still tempted to sell their kampung homes at face value (large sum of money), and use the money to move to the suburbs, which will trigger gentrification. Secondly, kampung house owners would prefer to lent out their spaces to migrant workers. If not done carefully, this will trigger the loss of community structure, urban citizens may eventually becoming rootless and unfamiliar with the environment until the point where they become completely unaware of kampung values.

In the midst of these urban phenomenons, Surabaya government, developers, and intellectuals need to re-consider the long term safety and consequences of the current unidirectional masterplan. It is our obligation to explore alternative ways in progressing towards Surabaya’s future through inclusive studies, discussions, and creative activities.


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Picture: Vertical kampung, Surabaya