Sat, 23 Aug 2003

Parks: finding free space in the city

Christine Foster, Contributor, Denpasar, Bali

Healthy and well-used public parks, unlike cars, computers and competition, are curiously lacking from the Indonesian modern lifestyle. Rather, the ethic of privatization has overshadowed any sense of or consideration for abundant public space. This is unfortunate, as parks are an antidote to the confinement of city life, a remedy to the over-abundance of concrete modernity.

In Indonesia, there are currently two types of parks: those found in remote forested areas (part of the National Park system) and those found in cities. Further back in history is the notion of alun-alun, space provided by kings for people to air their grievances, but it was also a place where the king could act in kind, by publicly punishing wrong-doers.

City parks (where they exist) were almost exclusively created by the New Order regime. These urban "public spaces" are usually graced with a monument and host the occasional state celebration. They are generally panoptic in character: everyone can see everyone else, and there is the feeling that someone else is watching the watchers. These spaces, and the history they represent, are not dedicated to spontaneous recreation and relaxation; they act as reminders of the power and discipline of the state.

Even though the few public spaces in urban Indonesia are increasingly used for sporting activities since the end of the New Order, rarely are people to relax in them, except perhaps on the periphery where a food vendor (and seating) is often found.

Take for example, Renon Field, site of the Bajra Sandhi monument in Denpasar. In the early evenings, the field is full of people jogging, playing soccer or practicing various martial arts. It is a place for vigorous activity, as though there must be an excuse to be there.

Seldom do parents go there with their children, because the space has not been designed to accommodate them. There are few places to sit; any public facilities on offer are dirty, and in the middle of the day, it remains in quiet juxtaposition to the busy streets. A few trees provide shade, but these are vulnerable to wall-building, or worse, landscaping.

It must be kept in mind, however, that using a park for recreation and relaxation is, like democracy, a relatively new concept in this country. Also, like democracy, parks may not appear to be immediately socially or culturally relevant. Before the birth of urban sprawl and "modernity", urban Indonesians lived life at a slower pace. There was no need for a specific place to relax, as warung, crossroads with food stalls or even large trees invited a spontaneous break from daily activities. While this lifestyle might still exist in rural areas, it is quickly disappearing from the urban landscape.

Meanwhile, the frantic pace of development has rendered most cities overcrowded and increasingly "unlivable". Along with the drastic social and economic changes, which have ushered in new ways of expressing Indonesian culture, there is a need to examine new ways of providing a better "quality of life" for urban residents. People who live in over-populated cities deserve a "livable" environment, and part of this lies in the provision of healthy public parks.

The existing alternative for leisure and recreation is not actually "public", rather it is "private". Shopping malls are now a source of "entertainment" evidenced by the crowds found there on any given day. In keeping with the "Asian modern lifestyle", people have learned to define consumption as leisure, or even freedom of choice.

The problem with this is simply that it requires a degree of financial success to enjoy this kind of recreation and relaxation. It creates pressure to compete and ultimately confusion about the meaning of freedom of choice. Those who don't have the money, or the inclination to shop are left with nowhere to go.

Well-used parks are integral to civic pride. The word "civic" derives from the Latin civitas, meaning "of the city". The first documented park was created by Caesar in Rome, who converted his private gardens into a pubic space available for the common people to unwind from the stress of city life.

In later centuries, rulers in other countries followed suit by creating public spaces for the enjoyment of ordinary folks. It was considered a noble gesture of an enlightened leader to ensure that residents of a city had access to public space.

Parks became places for public expression without fear of retribution. People flocked to their parks, and civic pride led to new ideas about democracy, which further stimulated public understanding of freedom and social well-being.

Planning for parks in an already crowded city is possible. In Kuala Lumpur, officials recently established a 20 hectare park in the middle of the city, complete with playgrounds for children. A businessman who owned the land had wanted to build yet another shopping complex. The city officials decided that they would issue the necessary permits contingent upon the businessman using part of the space as a park for residents of the city. The officials acted responsibly by providing recreational space for everyone in Kuala Lumpur to enjoy while simultaneously creating hundreds, if not thousands, of new employment opportunities.

As Indonesia's cities continue to grow to the point of being unlivable, the need to create ample public space is more urgent. The establishment of city park systems throughout the country would remedy the lack of space in the urban environment. The government should be generous in using its own land to provide public space for its citizens.

Businesses should also consider how they can contribute to this aspect of public welfare. Parks serve as a reminder that we are not separate from nature. They provide us with oxygen, shade, a space in which to breathe freely. They ultimately make cities more livable and people-oriented. Well-designed parks will also help instill civic pride in a country that is battling serious self-image problems. Planning for parks should begin today, before it is too late.

- The writer is postgraduate student in sustainable development at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia.