Urban Literacy

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[Translation from Japanese by Ethan Sames International Exchange Center, Akita University of Art]

We are living in what the United Nations Human Settlements Program referred to in their 2006 Annual Report as “the urban millennium”. It estimates that 93% of urban growth over the next century will occur in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. It is also projected that, by 2050, over 6 billion people (or two-thirds of the global human population) will live in cities or towns. On the other hand, while major cities in developed countries continue to grow, albeit slowly, smaller cities are in a process of decline resulting from aging populations, falling birth rates and migration to the major cities, with no end in sight. Whether they are growing or shrinking, urban areas undergoing such major environmental transformations are quickly becoming incapable of functioning as the stable social foundations of our daily lives. We are being asked to abandon our passive attitude of “living” in the city in favor of a more active attitude of “survival”.

All living things, in order to survive, must first place themselves within the context of their surroundings – must “read” the environment of their own sphere of activity – and make use of this information in order to prolong their existence. What tends to be overlooked is the fact that environments are read with the intention of transforming them. In order for living things to continue existing within an environment that best suits their needs, they must be able to perceive slight changes or signs of change and take immediate action in response. This is true whether they choose to build this environment themselves or to seek it out as they move from place to place.

In order to continue existing within the artificial environments of the cities we have constructed, we humans must be able to grasp not only the changes in our environment but the mechanisms of this environment as well. This is because the city is a man-made object which must be continuously adjusted in order to maintain its proper condition – irregularities must be corrected, deficiencies must be compensated, surpluses must be reduced – not abandoned to the changes engendered by exposure to external forces.

Viewed from this perspective, we can see that the human inhabitation of cities involves not only adapting to environmental changes (as all living things must do) but also bringing these changes about. Through the coexistence of these two opposing stances inside each individual resident, the city’s characteristic and stable urban ecosystem is maintained. But when faced with sudden and drastic environmental changes, it is extremely difficult for cities to maintain an appropriate balance between the recipients and the agents of these changes. It is certainly conceivable that the many problems facing today’s cities were born of such circumstances (in the case of expanding cities, these problems include excess supply of housing and commercial properties due to speculation, the buildup of slum areas due to sudden influxes of population, and the weakening of civic solidarity due to socioeconomic stratification and segregation; in the case of shrinking cities, these problems include the deindustrialization of city centers, increases in vacant housing, and reduced interest in the environmental and social well-being of the city). The problem is not the changes themselves, but rather the scale and speed with which they have taken place. How should we confront the challenges posed by the modern city in order to survive in this “urban millennium”?

The clues to surviving in modern cities should be sought in urban living environments which are known to be reliable in terms of their historical sustainability. The Indonesian urban settlements known as kampung have endured both centuries-long Dutch colonial rule and Japanese military occupation while preserving the territory and social structures of the traditional farming villages (desa/kampung pertanian) from which they originated. Now, they perform a vital role in absorbing the influxes of population flooding into Indonesia’s major metropolises.

The environmental and social durability of kampung can be attributed to the active utilization of space by those who live there. This spontaneous and informal “maximization of spatial functionality” occurs in the kampung’s communal “open” spaces, where questions of ownership are left purposely vague. There are naturally formal public spaces within the kampung, such as prayer rooms (mushola), community centers (balai) and alleyways (gang), which are maintained by the community as well. But the most powerful force contributing to the sustainability of the kampung is the aforementioned “open” space, which may at any time be appropriated, occupied and modified by any resident to suit their own conveniences. This space of ambiguous ownership includes not only land and houses, but also house fronts, alleys, the walls of buildings and other boundary spaces that connect the public to the private. In these “open” spaces, residents set up furniture, run shops, dry clothes, raise small animals, cultivate gardens and bathe their children, bringing their domestic lives out into the public sphere. Since residents’ actions are individual and informal, the functions and styles of these utilized spaces can vary widely; but it is precisely such seemingly chaotic scenes that allow us to understand the kampung as a place of stable change, that is, as an urban environment that can successfully integrate both the recipients and agents of environmental changes.

From the spatial practices followed by the residents of the kampung, two conclusions can be drawn which have important implications for the sustainability of modern cities.

First, individual utilization of space is temporary and minor in scale. The do-it-yourself methods practiced in the kampung, based on local knowledge and art, are quite the opposite of the large-scale urban development master plans that currently prevail in many other parts of the globe. While such master plans are devised for the achievement of a singular goal via the fastest and shortest possible route, the use of space in kampung is determined both by individual agents’ differing desires and beliefs and through improvised interactions and collaborations with neighbors and members of the communities to which the agents belong. And these activities, aided by the small-scale and temporary nature of the agents’ individual goals, persist as endless and simultaneous creations and re-creations of spaces which can adapt to follow any wide-scale changes in the living environment caused by external social forces. Even amidst the radical transformations characteristic of capitalist economies, this “kampung-style” urban development is able to avoid falling victim to obsolescence or immobility in terms of its value or functionality.

The second point regarding the sustainability of urban environments concerns the ability of kampung residents to gauge their environment, and the responsive relationship between man and environment that fosters this ability. Without these two factors, “kampung-style” urban development would not be possible. A special kind of know-how exists in the kampung, an understanding of one’s surroundings formed through an integration of individual knowledge and historical, inherited communal knowledge, a far cry from the rationalism and scientism underpinning modern Western pedagogy. This is not done for the purpose of gauging the value of a given space; rather, this “reading” of the environment aims to perceive the invisible laws that dictate the behaviors of the residents of that space, so that the agent may then consider the implications and consequences of occupying that space through both individual and communal points of view.

As with kampung spatial practices, these readings are not implemented systematically; mastery of the necessary techniques cannot be achieved through the framework and systems of modern institutionalized public education. Instead of measuring or quantifying a space, kampung residents look past the image of that space and listen for the latent narratives to be found there. Through this process, the utilizing agent gains a sense of respect for the community which sustains the kampung environment, as well as a sense of belonging to that community. After all, the object is more than just the physical space in question. As mentioned earlier, kampung were originally rural farming communities. In such communities, local customs, familial relationships and religion serve to strengthen social bonds, nurturing a collective consciousness in which space, time and opportunity are shared through mutual assistance, participation in ceremonial events, and other cooperative activities. This concept of sharing, reached by collective consensus, prevails in the modern kampung as well; though residents are permitted to occupy and utilize certain defined spaces for their individual use, the permitted spaces themselves are again “read” by the utilizing agents. Such “readings” thus take as their subject the kampung “environment” in its broadest sense, one which includes social as well as spatial considerations.

At the beginning of this essay, I touched on the current decline of cities in developed countries. During the frenzied growth of the 20th Century, city spaces were measured, assigned values, and bestowed with the functions and images of financial success. As a result, urban space has discouraged spontaneous civic participation, and citizens have likewise neglected to actively utilize urban space. The residents of these 20th Century cities are no longer “readers” of their urban spaces, but consumers and users who simply inhabit those spaces. In contrast, while appearing to follow precisely the same path of expansion than their counterparts in the developed world charged down during the last century, most cities in today’s developing countries still contain huge, kampung-style urban settlements. We must proceed down a different route from that taken by the developed nations of the modern world, and acquire an alternative model of the city which can sustain the responsive relationship between man and environment, allowing us to adapt to the various changes brought on by the external forces of globalism. It has been left to us, we who are living in this “urban millennium”, to envisage and put into practice the necessary techniques to do so. The question is: just who are “we”?

Kenta Kishi
Profesor dari Akita University of Art dan Co-direktur dari Operations for Habitat Studies. Direktur dari LWL (Lab for the wonderlanscape) sejak 2003 dan CDN (Crisis Design Network) sejak 2007. Pada tahun 2010, melakukan sebuah proyek studi urban di Surabaya sebagai API (Asian Public Intellectuals) dari Nippon Foundation. Mendapatkan gelar BA di arsitektur dari Tokyo University of Arts dan M.Arch dari Cranbrook Academy of Art di Michigan, USA. Ia juga mengajar sebuah studio desain di Tokyo Zokei University.