Ah, Jakarta, Indonesia's sinking, over-crowded, perpetually congested capital. Is there any other city in Southeast Asia that's more fucked than here? Imagine a city the size of Chicago, but with an additional 7 million people packed in. Imagine a place that routinely floods, one where the rivers are so polluted with toxic runoff that the main forms of life along the coast are only algae and muscles so full of lead that you can't eat them. Imagine a place where residents spend most of their weekdays sitting in traffic, and most of their weekends wandering around malls.
Pretty grim, right? Well, don't worry, the Indonesian capital isn't actually all that bad. Sure, all of those things I just wrote are true, but there's plenty of other stuff that happens here that also makes it one of the most-vibrant cities in the region. I, for one, am pretty happy here, but I can see why there might be others who aren't. So, for people like me, there's Jakarta. But for the haters, the people who can't wait to get out of this place, there's another city, a city free of the capital's ills called Meikarta—it just needs to be built first.
Meikarta promises to be the city of the future, and its advertising campaign goes to great lengths to paint Jakarta as a total hellhole. The first television spot saturates every shot of the capital in such a moody color palette of blues and grays that I half expected it to be the trailer for a new Batman movie.
In the commercial, Jakarta is a rain-soaked, graffiti-covered, crime-ridden shitscape full of run-down buildings and trash-filled rivers. It's the past, and the future, according to the ad, is only a short drive away. Just watch the video below and witness the tonal shift once the family emerges from that tunnel into some kind of techy metropolis of the near-future where the skies are clean and every window is a touchscreen.
The company behind Meikarta, the massive property conglomerate, the Lippo Group, even tried to hop on the Black Panther popularity train with a (probably unlicensed) Meikarta billboard featuring an image of Wakanda. The billboard implied that Meikarta was basically Wakanda, with the phrase "I want to move to Wakanda," printed above the new city's official marketing slogan, "The Future is Here Today."
These ads are all so over-the-top that it didn't take long for the parodies and memes to pour in. But maybe they're also on to something here. This isn't the first time a property developer built a brand new city on the outskirts of the capital, out where land is cheaper and you can turn some farmland into a shiny new satellite city in a few years' time. There's BSD City, a place that compares itself to Paris and says it's home to "an unparalleled quality of life." There's Alam Sutera, a "dynamic icon of urban development," and there's even Lippo Village Karawaci, an attempt to recreate an American-style suburb a short distance from the capital that was built by the same people now behind Meikarta.
Why are we so obsessed with building new cities instead of fixing the problems in the ones we already have? I hopped in a car and headed two-and-a-half hours out of the city to try to figure this out.
It didn't take me long to realize that the closest I could get to Meikarta was its marketing office, a showroom near the Cibatu exit off the toll road. Meikarta advertises itself as an "integrated city," halfway between Jakarta and Bandung, West Java. It's pushing the whole "city of the future" angle hard, but what it's really about is homeownership. Apartments in one of Meikarta's new residential towers are surprisingly affordable, especially when you compare them to similar spaces in a city that, today, actually exists. It's basically selling the Indonesian dream, an attainable path to homeownership, but for cheap.
One new homeowner told me he got an apartment with a mortgage that's going to cost him Rp 1.4 million ($100 USD) per-month for the next 15 years. And the downpayment was only Rp 5.4 million, less than the rent on a lot of one-bedroom apartments in Jakarta. Andrew Ryan doesn't plan to live in Meikarta though. He wants to rent it out as a potential revenue stream.
"I can rent it to other people to pay the mortgage," Andrew told me.
If you can believe the marketing hype, Andrew is only one of the people who plopped down the cash for a new unit. “Hundreds of thousands of units sold!” scrolled on the digital sign that hung from the ceiling of the marketing office when I walked in.
“Is it true?” I asked, pointing to the sign.
“Yes!" Rudi, one of the sales agents, told me. "You should buy a unit immediately."
While Lippo Village Karawaci was supposed to be some kind of So-Cal suburb for Southeast Asia, Meikarta is taking a more global approach to cribbing its influences. Rudi's explanation makes Meikarta sounds like those fake European cities that cropped up in China a few years ago, except way more mixed up. Rudi ticked off a list of influences so diverse that it made me wonder what the hell this place is going to look like when it's finally finished.
"The Central Park will look just like the one in New York," Rudi explained. "And in the Japanese-themed unit, you're going to feel like you're living in Japan. For the European unit, the interiors will use all European-style furniture."
But the draw of an affordable place to live is enough for some future residents to overlook the controversies surrounding Meikarta. The project was, apparently, missing a lot of necessary permits when it broke ground, causing a heated debate over whether or not it was even legal.
But construction continued on regardless, and some buyers, perhaps persuaded by the promise of buying into a new high-rise city with its own international airport only a few hours from Jakarta and Bandung, snatched up their future homes, permits or not.
"My family are all property agents, and we see a lot of good prospects in Meikarta," said Angga Dwi Cahyo, another early buyer. "Meikarta is real and it's promising. The investors aren't just Lippo. Auto companies like Mitsubishi, Toyota, and Daihatsu have invested as well."
But not everyone is so convinced. Remember when I said that this has all be done before? Yeah, well none of those satellite cities turned out to be self-sustaining cities of the future either. They're more like suburban company towns, places where nearly everything, from the local coffee shop and movie theater, to the hospitals, schools, and cemetery, are all owned by the same company that built the town. In a town like Lippo Village Karawaci, it's possible to be spend your entire life under the Lippo umbrella, being born in their hospital, educated in their schools, married in their church, employed in their companies, and then buried in their cemetery-slash-country club San Diego Hills.
And while these property companies figured out how to keep people in a town where nearly every purchase is counted in the company's annual revenue report, they still haven't figured out how to exist without Jakarta. Every one of these planned communities is trapped in Jakarta's orbit, held in place by the economic gravity of the wealthiest, most-developed city in the country.
“Meikarta is trying to be an integrated city, but it actually still needs Jakarta,” said Nirwono Yoga, an urban planning expert. “In the end, it's going to be like BSD, where people who live there still work in Jakarta.”
But what about all the new offices from Fortune 500 companies opening up in Meikarta?
"The head offices of those companies are still in Jakarta," Nirwono told me. "If there's a meeting, they will be held in Jakarta."
Therein lies the rub. Jakarta may not be perfect, but it still, somehow, works. We can keep building as many new cities as we want, but until one of them grows big enough to exist without its umbilical cord to the capital, these new cities are really just apartments that are even farther from the office and all our friends than your current place. Meikarta bills itself as a city free of Jakarta's ills, but could you imagine having to leave it and spend even more time in those same ills just to get back-and-forth to your job in the CBD every day?
It didn't take long for the capital's other woes to rear their heads in Meikarta either. A few weeks ago, a video of flooding in Meikarta went viral. Lippo Group's spokesman said that the floods were just a one-time incident, but not everyone's convinced.
“All this development can’t be inside Meikarta only,” Nirwono told me. “The surrounding area, and the economic sector are all related. Maybe it will have a good drainage system within its borders, but if the surrounding area doesn’t, then it still creates a problem.”
Maybe it's too early to tell if all of Meikarta's promises turn out to be true. But, then again, this is also a project that uses a bird's-eye view of Manhattan to describe what it will look like—and there's no way someone's building another New York, in Bekasi of all places. Plenty of people might be convinced, but I plan on staying right where I am. A kost in regular old Jakarta—my Jakarta—is good enough for me.