Sustainable Urbanism and Its Challenges to Civil Society.[1]


Sustainable Urbanism and Its Challenges to Civil Society.[1]

By Marco Kusumawijaya[2]

We are entering very interesting decades of the 21st century: The whole humanity is mobilising to survive together the climate change in order to prolong their existence into the next  millenium or so. If  they succeed, they will be able to question many Gods –big or small, singular or plural, ancient or recent—so far conceptualised, between two possible extremes: reinstating them into absolute existence because of the awe that humans will experience of the ecological changes, and totally gettig rid of their divine necessity, because of a new, self-instigated confidence. In all possibilities, being made more humble or arrogant, humanity will have a  profoundly restructured existential understanding of themselves and the universe.

Or, maybe not.

Because, as we are moving ahead apparently in earnest in reducing CO2 (I am glad to learn while being in Japan, that Indonesia is the first developing nation to recently promise a 25 % reduction by 2020, despite my feeling unsure about how we will achieve that…You must forgive us if we failed), we should be reminded all the time, that there are other outstanding problems humanity are facing, with or without climate change, that may or may not necessarily aggravate them. Among those problems, are the areas where my cohort colleagues of this ALFP 2009 are working on: armed conflicts and human security, unfair relationship between owners of capital and labour force, cultural (and artistic) freedom, poverty and injustice in many parts of the world, the under- or un-represented voices of the next generations and other species, the increasingly unaccomodated diversifying communities, including minorities with different needs.  And, climate change is not at all the only ecological problem that we are facing. Relatively independent from Climate Change are, among others, decreasing biodiversity and water scarsity. Despite the fact that they might be worsened by Climate Change, those other ecological problems pre-existed it, and are caused by many other factors which are as much related to our mode of industrialised production and mass consumption, to our system as much as to our behavioural pattern.

Given the recent, increasing “Al Gore-an” fascination with Climate Change, and the consequent mobilisation we are increasingly witnessing, I think we actually have to also refocus our efforts on those other problems, ecological and non-ecological, even when there are still some knots that need to be untied with regards to our mobilisation against Climate Change itself.

Therefore, I share with my colleagues the belief that a humane society means a society that actively, continuously think and take care of the welfare of the whole humanity, not just the majority of it, and that which perceives the problems of  a few unfortunates as collective problems of the whole humankind.  And, consequently we need a society that actively take into their hands the nitty-gritty of works that need to be done to ensure that the world becomes a better place foll all, not just the majority. This is what we mean by “responsible society”:  a society that has the necessary capacity to continuously respond to outstanding and emerging problems, both in direct actions and advocacy to reclaim  state policies and market directions. A responsible society is thus a reinvigorated civil society that coordinate its actions in dialogue in public space, to work on both the nitty gritty necessities and continuous reproduction of values to provide pilicies for the state and directions for the market. Given the inevitable frequent market failures and often inert political stalemates vested with power webs, the third sector, the civil society, should really reclaim the ownership of both the state and the market.

The Urban Questions

At this moment, we can safely conclude that at least humankind are well-equipped to change, bearing in mind a comparison with similar catastrophes in the long past, when humans were completely powerless: the last glacial age some 75,000 years ago and the last Global Warming some 11,000 years ago. [3]

However, it is also impossible to say how well we will definitely change. We may say that we will survive the existential threat of the global warming, because it is simply existential and we might be most probably really moved by that fact. But will we also change to respond also to many other ecological problems?  And will we also refocus on problems we already have at hands before and irrespective of the climate change? And how much lives and properties will eventually be victims even if we survived as a species as a whole this climate change? Those questions relate pretty much with cities. On the positives side, the climate changes opens up the whole array of other problems. Most importantly, it offers us also opportunity to reflect and to respond to many other world problems that, if wisely responded to, could lead us to really a sustainable living, particularly in cities.

In 2007 the world urban population passed the 50%  threshold, due largely to growing cities in the developing parts of Asia, in China, Indian subcontinent, and South Asia. Up to 80 % of urban population in South East Asia live within 100 km from the sea[4], and are all vulnerable to rising sea level. In archipelagic country like Indonesia, that figure might be considerably higher, with both urban and rural population concentrated even closer to, if not literally at, the sea.

The importance of cities is at its being the irreversible locus of human permanent settlements, in its being port of entry to people, goods and new processes. Density of people, goods, infrastructures, information and relationships, and diversifying diversity of symbolic reproduction, are the main characters that make cities unavoidable problems and solutions for human sustainability.

Sustainable urbanism is not only about ecology (climate change and other issues).  It is also about social and cultural sustainability. Hence the following story of  Nakamura san.

Outstanding Problems: Nakamura-san is not a Japanese and Tanaka-san would not do calisthenics.

While my other colleagues went to see Tetsuro Tanaka-san, who got fired 25 years ago because he would not do calisthenics, and has ever since stage a standing protest everyday outside the gate of Oki company, last week I met a man by the name of Nakamura. His bloodline is purely Japanese. Both his mother and father have pure Japanese bloodlines. He speaks impeccable Japanese. But, he is not a Japanese national.

He has been living in Japan since 40 years ago. He has worked and paid tax continuously, and proportionally at least in equal amount to any working Japanese, in the same town of Kawasaki for over 25 years. He is married to a Japanese woman and has a grown-up and a teenage children. But he has no voting right in Japan. He cannot participate in decision making process that would effect his lifelihood in the past 40 years and the future. He is not represented in anyway. He has been continuously feeling no job-security. His wife and children are Japanese citizens. But, he is not a Japanese. His attempt to apply for Japanese citizenship has been given discouraging comments from officials in charge. That stopped him for trying again. Ironically, he has a voting right to ellect public officials in Canada, a country that has had very little thing to do with him for the last 40 years, and likely so for the rest of his life and his family’s.

His first name is Norman. He was born in Canada and moved to Japan when he was 10 years old, and he went to Japanese schools. But he, in his own words, is considered “not Japanese enough”. He experienced many discrimination as many his foreign workers colleagues do. There are about 30,000 foreign workers in Kawasaki, over 2 % of the total population of the township.

In brief, the problem that surrounds Nakamura san is the concept of citizenship based on cultural and racial identity. It is about borders created by culture as still institutionalised paradoxically in our modern concept of nation-state, which is supposed to be rational.

It is only an example of many problems that exist in our imperfect democracy all over the world. Perhaps not because of any fundamental flaw of the democratic principle itself, but because things change and develop, as our diversity increases and we discover more and more the under- or un-represented, the marginalised, the discounted, the oppressed and suppressed. Perhaps, new challenges simply emerge. Among them ecological problems are just parts.

It also indicates the need to change.

It also points to the fact that city is the locus of many of our modern problems. 80 %  of Japanese population, and so the country’s economy, are located in the chain of urban agglomeration of Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe. Similar situation are basically similar all over the world. Cities are the center of intensified production and consumption. Unfortunately, they also suck resources from all over the countryside.

Therefore, if change is to take place, it must take place profoundly in the cities. But what changes?

Zoka ni shitagai, zoka ni kaere to nari!

(Follow nature, and return to nature to be perfectly together with it!)[5]

And climate change is not the only ecological problem the world is having, depending on how one perceives the idea of “problem”. For example: the loss of many species of banana for me is a problem, but maybe not for the producers of only (more or less) three species of banana now available in most supermarkets. Indonesia used to have between 700 and 800 species of banana.

Suppose I am right, so our ecological problem also relates to our whole system of production and consumption, our way of “growth” that have made many species extinct and irreversible damages to land, forest, rivers, lake, and the sea. Our mode of “growth” have depleted the planet, instead of “growing together” with it.

Climate change has of course been made the most spectacular a threat recently, by a due continuous 25-years campaign, and by its clear and present existential menace to humankind. But it has also opened up the whole array of many other problems that was not being paid attention to before. More than that, most importantly, the thoughts and practices to prevent climate change have also made us realise that we can have a different life, which is more healthy, happy, just and with quality.

Through my research in the past 3 years, including during ALFP 2009, I learned and actually met multitidue of practices all over the world that are proving that that different life is possible. Organic farmers in Takahata, Yamagata, has won a 35-years struggle with the recently enforced ordinance called “The Takahata Food and Agriculture Ordinance”. Pioneers at Chubu Recycle Association has made Nagoya managed to recycle 30 % of the city’s waste, and so saved a wetland (imprtant for the migratory birds) from becoming a land-fill project. A new initiative is trying to replan and relink Toyoda City with its forested region. People like Norman Nakamura san, even if he still have to struggle a long way, are starting to get organised. Conceptual thoughts and technical researches are also being carried out and put forward. To mention a few: Interculturalism instead of multiculturalism; Craddle-to-Craddle (Bill McDonough, no waste, “mottanai”), sun-based economy (Yasuyo Yamazaki), farmed fishery, community-based sanitation system (Yuyun Ismawaty, winner of Goldman prize for environment).

The list of good initiatives and practices are endless, if to include those from all over the world. However, those practices face many challenges. Among them:

–       Many of current sustainability practices, despite the fact that they have proved successful, replicate slowly because of the inertia of available political process to support their up-scaling. We need not only more sensitive and knowledgeable politicians (and bureaucrats), but changes in the systems to be more accomodating and swift like Mogami river in effecting changes. We cannot wait for 35 years like the farmers in Takahata. We cannot delay justice for another 25 years for people like Nakamura-san, or many people in different countries that suffer in different ways.

–       The speed we have in discovering more under-represented groups (the oppressed, the discounted, the marginalised, the non-humans) and in increasing diversity in general, is also facing the slow mechanics of democratic system to accommodate more diverse needs and groups.

–       Reconstruction of city-regions and “bio-regions” face their disintegration by political and administrative sub-divisions into fragmented jurisdictions.

–       As the changes required are as deep as value-level, while at the same time quick changes are also required in practical behavioural patterns, there is a challenge for exemplary and efficient leadership, and for systems to support them to be sustainable changes. The challenge is also to build up trust (that all will change together) to anticipate a lot of necessary collaborations.

–       Changes also require both local actions and global collaboration simultaneously. We are seeing more international politics are now so much interdependent with local politics. Therefore global governance and global corporate governance are put under questions. There is surprise, for example, when it is recently discovered that there is a 200 years old clause in the US Law that make it possible to bring American corporations doing malpractice in other countries to American courts. Progressive ideas such as multiple citizenships are being discussed. These are areas where much works are needed to produce working instruments for global civil society networking, noting that there are already organisations, such as CIVICUS, that organises global collaborations among civil society organisations.

–       A contentious issue that still requires deliberation is about how much and what kind of incentives should be created in the system to encourage changes in consumption pattern. There have been some initiatives in organising systematic incentives, such as the “eco-money” in Nagoya. It would be important to have in-depth evaluation and critical review.

–       There is no question about the necessity of civil society to actively engage with the state and the market at both practical and polity levels, but  there are challenges in formulating the right modalities in diffeent contexts and fields. There are lessons to be larned from inter-contextual and inter-sectoral exchange, but civil society activists remain left to themselves to decide the right formulae for their respective issues and contexts.

Civil society both as public space and as collection of active, self-organised individual citizens or groups, will have to work on those challenges. In rapidly densifying and expanding cities, those challenges will prove to be more easy or difficult, depending on how well civil society is re-organising, vis-à-vis the political and economic spaces. More than ever, civil society needs to re-asset that homo homini socius, not homo homini lupus .[6] And there are a lot of technicalities and nitty-gritty in that to keep civil society busy. From where I come from, we have learned that civil society need to reclaim ownership of those works, and not to leave it only to political and economic space.

Aspiration for sustainable urbanism makes politics more complex, but also potentially more focused with a sense of urgency. It re-asserts the very basic of democratic processes: transparancy and accountability in real, almost scientific, sense. With recent progress in science, technology and collaborative institutions, humankind are actually well-equipped to face the challenge successfully. (as compard to the last glacial age 11,000 years ago, for example, when humankind were completely powerless). We can undo global warming while develop new ways of living better. But it will remain a potential if we take it for granted. The challenge needs to be responded actively.

Arts and Civil Society

Finally, I need to re-assert the role of arts (and culture in general) in developing responsive civil society, because I think we need to go beyond the instrumental use of arts to promote “awareness”, beyond arts as mere communication “technique”, or arts as the “cute” (kawaii, borrowing Japanese word) way to understand the urgency and the order of things.

I would argue that for a society in need of change, as urgent as, for example, one towards urban sustainability, it should use arts not just as its reflection and force it into straightforward instrumentality, but sees it instead as its dialectical anti-thesis, a position where arts in history have proved to be most useful in promoting humane progress while at the same time fullfil human’s need for non-pragmatic relationships with others, including the nature. The recent increasing infusion of arts into design (of daily products)[7], for example, show how arts are not only reflecting on, but are offering critical forms as anti-thesis to daily life. In a different way, Min Tanaka and his colleagues are offering mimetic relationships with nature in opened, anti-thesis to current construction of them.[8] They offer open alternatives that are generously left to be questioned and deliberated in public spaces.

Arts, by its quest for authenticity and originality, could help society to change in genuine way with commitment at personal level.

To support my call above, I should follow a description of relationship between arts ad civil society by Dr. Ignas Kleden, the first Indonesian fellow of this ALFP programe, whom Jakarta Arts Council had requested to write a paper on this issue: [9]

An artistic response is personal and rests on two distincts conditions: authenticity of message and originality of medium. Authentic message is not the same with “true” message. True message is measured by its approximation to reality. An authentic message is measured by its approximation to its author’s own belief as a result of intense personal struggle. The uniqueness of an artwork is that both its message and its form of medium radiate directly from the individual personality of the artist. As such it approximates the ideal, intensified uniqueness of individul human and his/her capacity in conveying certain aspects of life in his/her unique way.

The impossibility to separate esthetics and ethics has made some artists such as Min Tanaka chose a particular way of life in accordance with his artistic principles. They do this not to be eccentric, but to “live their arts”, so to speak. In a reverse process, Tetsuro Tanaka feels the urge to do arts with singing and guitar not only to express his principles and convey his messages, but more fundamentally to establish an integration between ethical and artistic statement. To stage a protest every day for over 25 years, one also needs an ethical displine not unlike artistic displine. Good artists do as much research as any Ph.D researcher, while at the same time do struggle in processing very intensely personal authenticity and originality.

At the same time, in our changing societies there are always values to be reproduced. There are always gaps between values and their realisation through our modern institutions. These gaps are what we see all the time as the basis to perceive more works to be done. Arts and artists do develop strong sensitivity towards values and gaps not because they are morally better or more committed to transparancy and good governance, but because in their profession to produce successful creative works, artists must satisfy the conditions of authenticity and originality.

Artists can therefore be very sensitive towards all kinds of messages, including those messages and statements in public, even political spaces. Artists find it hard to tolerate hypocricy because authenticity demands that values are internalised totally and completely to become personal, while originality cannot compromise with imitation, duplication, reproduction and pretense. These are demands at personal level.

I would argue that civil society should take advantage of arts in the above capacity, and reproduce that capacity into public space.

Further following Dr. Ignas Kleden, arts are fundamentally the product of private space. In a democratic society, arts as such are invaluable for civil society, which is fundamentally a public space. With public space, if without its tension with well-defended and nurtured private space, a society will become totalitarian.[10] History of public space shows that values offered in public space have their origins in private space of individuals or particular communities, before they transcend those private spaces to enter the public space. Public space depends on private spaces for feedings into its content.  Arts are among the necessary spaces and tools to process those feedings. In doing that, arts fullfil human needs that in capitalistic system are not accomodated because they are not “instrumentally rational”: mimetical communication with nature, with bodies, aspiration to live in solidarity with others, and a will to experience non-pragmatic communications with others.


[1] Presented in ALFP 2009 Public Symposium, Iwasaki Koyata Memorial Hall, International House of Japan, November 6, 2009.

[2] Urbanist, fellow at Asian Leaders Fellowship Programme (ALFP) 2009, Japan Foundation and the International House of Japan.

[3] Indonesia is related to the both events. The first took place because a gigantic mountain in Sumatera erupted, and created the now high-land Toba lake, which is really a caldera, 100 km long and 30 km wide. The eruption is so huge that it sent dust that darkened the earth for many years, causing it to cool off into glacial age. Only recently scientists can tell the story as they found volcanic dust all over the world that are traced back to their source in Sumatera. It killed most of humans, leaving only about 10,000 of them, including only 1,000 pairs that became the ancestors of us all. The second one is really the last global warming that took place about 11,000 years ago, causing icebergs to melt and sea water to rise, separating the higher lands in South East Asia one from others, that became the more than 17,000 islands of current Indonesia Archipelago.

[4] Emil Salim (Lead Economist) et.al., The Economics of Climate Change in South East Asia: A Regional Review, April 2009, Asian Development Bank, Manila.

[5] Matsuo Basho’s teaching on composing poem, as described by Doho (1657-1730), in Toshiharu Oseko, Basho’s Haiku, 1990.

[6] Humans are friends to each other, not wolves to each other.

[7] I am refering for example of the current exhibitions of industrial products designed by Naoto Fukasawa at The 21_21 Design Sight and by others at Tokyo Midtown DESIGN TOUCH

[8] ALFP fellows had the opportunity to see his works in his own place on October 16-17, 2009, during the Dance Hakushu Festival.

[9] Ignas Kleden, SENI DAN CIVIL SOCIETY (Dengan Referensi Khusus Kepada Penyair Rendra), (Arts and Civil Society, with Special Reference to the Poet Rendra) to be presented at the Jakarta Arts Council, November 10, 2009

[10] Id.

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