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Revitalizing Jakarta’s Fatahillah Square

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Few cities in the world can compete with the energy and activity on the streets of Jakarta. If you’re new to the megalopolis, the heat, the noise, the smells and the sheer volume of people and traffic can easily overwhelm your senses. But it’s exhilarating to take it in and experience all the amazing and baffling things those streets have to offer.

Nothing seems to capture the heart and soul of Jakarta more than the street vendors and markets. For a city that generally lacks sidewalks, there’s an impressive amount of commerce right on the edge of the streets; with vendors, food carts and repairmen setting up shop anywhere they can find a foot or two of space, even if it means they’re just inches away from oncoming traffic.

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Yet for all the energy and friendliness you encounter, much of the downtown has a rundown and dilapidated feel to it. Urban development in the city hasn’t kept pace with population growth, and the upkeep of the existing infrastructure and buildings has been patchy at best. While the city has much to offer, it’s not necessarily easy to find the gems among the ramshackle old buildings and over-sized shopping malls.

The past four decades have seen numerous revitalization and restoration plans for the historical downtown—known as Kuta Toa—all of which have come and gone without any of the promised renovations or improvements actually being executed. But 2014, might be a game-changing year for Kuta Toa and the nearby Sunda Kelapa Harbour.

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A new revitalization plan was launched in mid-March with the first ever “Fatahillah Festival,” which brought food, art and entertainment to the derelict Fatahillah Square at the heart of Kuta Toa. Staying true to Jakarta’s spirit and identity, the festival was thoughtfully curated to reflect the diversity of the city.

The food was provided by 55 of the city’s best chefs and cooks, representing a range of renowned restaurants and local food vendors, all of whom have perfected traditional Indonesian recipes and flavours. The unused second floor of the old post office in the square was converted into an art gallery featuring local artists whose work paid tribute to Indonesian life and culture. Musicians and entertainers performed all over the square, providing family-friendly entertainment, with the audience joining in with the singing and dancing.

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What was truly remarkable about the festival, though, was that while it brought in cooks, entertainers and attendees who might not otherwise frequent Fatahillah Square, it didn’t shut out the “informal” vendors who ordinarily set up shop in the area. The result was a lively art and food festival alongside local vendors selling anything; from fresh squeezed fruit juice to handmade toys and trinkets to portraits and real tattoos done right on the sidewalk.

Similarly, the new plan aims to revitalize the area without unnecessary gentrification, so that it remains accessible to everyone while also becoming a more enjoyable area that Jakartans and tourists alike are drawn to. Over the next five years, 85 colonial-era buildings will be restored, sidewalks will be installed to make the area more pedestrian-friendly and less hazardous and a traffic master plan will be implemented to alleviate the heavy traffic jams that choke the area.

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Renewed commitments by the government and private sector have brought much-needed investment for some initial rebuilding, as well as providing seed funding for an innovative and realistic financing strategy that might just make this vision a reality and sustain it over the long term.

While the plan is ambitious, especially when one considers how much work needs to be done to restore Kuta Toa, the Fatahillah Festival provided a glimpse of what might be possible in terms of cleaning up the square and bringing people together. With this initial momentum and a solid plan for sustainable revitalization, Jakarta may just be able to transform Kuta Toa from a rundown and neglected area to a vibrant and enjoyable area that truly is the heart of the city.

Images by Kristin Neudorf.

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