Common Space and Public Space in Contemporary Urbanization

(Originally presented at a conference in Singapore convened by William Lim on 25-26 May, 2013, published in William Lim, Public Space in Asia, 2014).

Seemingly, rising aspiration for common space and community life in many cities is facing two counter currents: the receding and underperforming states in producing and reproducing public spaces, and the acceding private corporations to being the major producer of private spaces-public places.[1] By the latter I mean spaces that are privately owned and developed, but open for use by public, either for free or for a fee, for examples: malls, food-courts and theme parks. In some Asian countries the state is peculiarly becoming either more control-freak or incompetent in securing secular public life, or both, plus corrupt; while the capital boasts to serve more and better. How would individuals and communities negotiate changes?

Private space-public place

With increasing capacity, capitals are producing larger and larger spaces for commerce. They are primarily transactional spaces. They are not so much people-to-people, but consumers-to-communities, interaction spaces. There are tactical ingredients added to make them appear more social, among others: customer-services are made pretentiously friendlier and more hot eating outlets are interspersed between cool and cooled floors and shops. The design of their surfaces is much more than the necessary. They are not just an expression of luxury, but are also intended as the luxury itself. It makes one imagine how impossible it is to build such spaces without the desire for and the desired commodities to support them. People are made smaller human beings, but greater consumers by oversized bags and packages, over-lit objects, careful decoration, oftentimes also over-design architecture, fabricated urbanity.[2] Women are especially freer in the malls than in the real public spaces that are dominated by male chauvinism in certain countries. As long as you have money, you are safe and free from harassments, and these spaces are much comfortable than the “real” public spaces.[3]

The rise of private enterprises with their awesome capacity in –among other things, but not limited to– the production of space, is given way by a problem that what individuals can do individually is insufficient, while what they can do collectively is even less, in this critical decades when we do need to collectively change radically into ecological age. Protocols for consensus making and negotiations are far too complex and too slow, within and without the national boundaries, compared to the way of the private corporations.

Here is a look at Jakarta. The city is struggling to comply with the national standards of 30% green open space. Just to add 1 % of it already means 650 ha, which are more than 8 times its current largest public park, the Lapangan Monas. The metropolis’s current amount of green open spaces is estimated to be 9.8 %, dwindling down since the rise of development in 1980’s. Between 2010 and 2012 Jakarta’s green spaces increased by not even 1 %.[4]

On the other side, Suryono Herlambang and hist team at University of Tarumanagara estimated that within the decade between 2000 and 2010 about 4.5 million m2 (450 ha) of gross floor spaces of shopping centers (malls, trade centers, life style malls) are produced in Jakarta alone, excluding the surrounding districts Bogor-Tangerang-Bekasi that are growing with even higher rates in terms of population. The mall is often singled out because it has the alluring potential as public place. It is a consequence of industrialized consumption in rapidly developing countries with rapidly growing middle class in hot humid climate. It provides cool and cooled spaces for expending the new-gained wealth of the rising middle class. It is becoming more and more condensed space of consumption with more mix and remix, while being induced also with industrialized mass entertainment and the media technology. It is not enough just to consume a lot, but also to do so in public, to be visible, as there is a big opportunity for every one for that purpose, due to advances in technology and media industry.

With the receding state in providing and taking care of secular public spaces, another issue has emerged. Some communities have taken advantage of this situation. The alun-alun (city center square) of Bandung, which was formerly public and secular, has been made to become the front yard of its grand mosque, with the mosque’s expansion built onto a quarter of its domain and it periphery completely fenced. Non-religious groups or communities are also on the rise in many parts of the world, advancing in taking over many public spaces that have been somehow abandoned by the state. There are cases in Berlin, Los Angeles, Jakarta, Bandung, Yogyakarta, etc. Artists in their effervescent longing for engagement with everyday life, have been increasingly involved, oftentimes as initiators in organizing communities to take over public spaces, in cities, suburbs as well as semi-rural spaces. A few Examples in Indonesia: Tanto Mendut in the area near Borobudur Temple, Arief Yudi in Jatisuro, Jatiwangi, and Tisna Sanjaya in Bandung. Citizen groups are mushrooming, too. In Yogyakarta, the Reresik Sampah Visual (Cleaning Visual Garbage) and Warga Berdaya (Empowered Citizens) really make it to street. They volunteer in removing banners, posters and other forms of illegal ads from the city’s streets and other public spaces. Others reclaim open spaces for artistic and other activities.

There are disillusions with the capacity of bureaucratic organization of the state to take care of daily lives. And why should it? Emerging responses from communities, engaged artists and organic intellectuals, started to be constructive: taking back matters into their own hands. Apparently this is not only in Indonesia. Probably it is not just a temporary disillusion. It seems that things get better off when communities rise to take them back or retain them in their own hands. This phenomenon might have been emerging more naturally in nations with longer history of pre-existing, pre-colonial communities and traditions. As postcolonial states passed their 50 years of experience trying to emulate the western way of organizing their life around the idea of modern nation-state, their people seem to be prompted to remember what existed before by the perceived imperfection of the contemporary postcolonial nation-states.

The city and the state

To imagine the public, it is necessary to distinguish the urban from the national, the real communities from the imagined communities.

To understand the Asian context, we need to also revisit the relationship between the state and the city. In Europe, the cities make the state. In most of Asia, the state makes cities. In ancient time, say in 14-century Majapahit in Indonesia, the city is the seat of the king, wherefrom the state emanates. The boundary of the state is where the king’s influence stopped. In colonial time, the Dutch colonial government literally made cities like Bandung (West Java), Malang (East Java), Medan (North Sumatera), and many others. There was no independent city(-state) in Southeast Asia until “the age of commerce”[5] when some coastal cities in the region were founded. Neverthelss, a study by Dr. Sulin Lewis[6] does suggest that formation of “urban communities” did prelude formation of postcolonial “national (imagined) communities” in South East Asia in the 1920s-1930s.

A city on its own feet needs to thrive on the existence of its own public and on businesses of its own citizens as its very resources. The state that needs to maintain its unity and its course of modernization project must worry about a possible disarray of emancipating public. Controlling the public—and hence public sphere and public space—is therefore necessary for the new post-colonial states that wish to succeed the soonest possible to align and synchronize everything. In Jakarta, the contestation between the urban community and the national interest is quite obvious in the history of the Lapangan Monas square since colonial time (then it was called Koeningsplein) through the early 20th century until now.[7]

The common and the public, the community and the state

On the state, I want to limit my reference to the form of nation-state that has been evolving since 17th century in Europe, and it is as “imagined community,” a concept coined by Benedict Anderson. He believes that a nation is a community socially constructed, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group. An imagined community is different from an actual community because it is not (and cannot be) based on everyday face-to-face interaction between its members.[8] Nation-state is the product of Enlightenment and Modernisation project, and is therefore entangled with the process of industrialization and the rise of capitalism, too.

On communities[9], I want to emphasize its capacity of taking matters into their own hands, of doing-things-by-themselves relatively without the dependence to the mediation or services from the state, and its capacity to reproduce social-cultural relations. One of the most important properties of community is the commons. I shall define the commons as those collectively belonging to a spatially and temporally specific community, usually limited in size of its membership, for their free use and maintenance on their own. A usual expectation is that every community member can use a common as a resource, but shall not deplete it. Its conditions and serviceability shall remain the same for every one else afterwards. Common space, a property that is fundamental to a community’s existence as a body, is therefore distinct from what we call public space. Public space falls under the authority of the state. The state is present in it to provide maintenance and mediation (in case of, for example, conflicts). When there are conflicts between citizens in the public space, a typical action would be a call to the mediation from the state, oftentimes represented for example by the police.

In the public space, individuals perform as citizens. Citizens are individuals defined in their relationship with the state. As such it is as reductionist as when individuals are defined in their relationship with the market, when they are identified as consumers, or customers when they are supposed to be loyal to certain products or services.

In common space people exist as more complete, if not complex, individuals. They become cultural in concrete ways. More are revealed and expressed. More are visible as manifesting certain common values. Norms are more specific, defined and adhered to by all the members, although sometimes not known to outsiders. In common space conflicts among users, as much as maintenance of the space, will be typically resolved and taken care of by the members of the community face-to-face without a call for any outside help for mediation. There are persons of authority that might be called upon to mediate, but they would be from within the community. Oftentimes, there are also conflicts between different communities that are resolved through negotiations between their representatives. In postcolonial states, from time to time we see how the state has to eventually ask the help of communities’ leaders to resolve conflicts between them. This is not so much a respect to the communities’ leaders (often called as “local” or “informal” leaders) than the impossibility for the state’s agents to interfere, to enter into the communities that are still strong with values and norms that are not readily accessible to them.

Tanto Mendut’s works with Komunitas Lima Gunung in Borobudur sub-district surrounding Borobudur Temple is among recent examples of arts practices that organize communities into cultural, social, economical and even political cohesive groups. In 2003 they successfully rejected the development of a “mall” that would damage the temple. It shows the capacity of community confronting the state, as they get organized into a body through practices of arts. Their reinvented dance performances are now routine among themselves. They are often invited to perform professionally to many places, inside and outside Indonesia. They have become a community of economical, social and political significance.

Arief Yudi and his brother (who is the village head) animated the village of Jatisura in Jatiwangi sub-district near Cirebon city through regular arts festivals, invited residents from inside and outside Indonesia, and regular monthly critical talks on public and community issues. Public and common spaces are continuously re-invented through usage, claims and exchanges within the community members and with outsiders. The spaces become bodies truly inhabited by the community as their soul.

The community is currently preparing themselves to reclaim their future as a common resource through a “Festival of the Future” in August and September 2013, when they will together develop a common vision for 2023, a common understanding of their current reality, and a common course of actions to get to 2023. Certain methodologies are being crafted, borrowing from different available sources such as Theory of Change and Future Studies.[10]

Seeing community as a sphere parallel to – not inside– the sphere of the state might open up more imagination. The fact that they persist within the nation-states gives us an opportunity to rethink the state as not the only possible way to organize living-together in many post-colonial states. However, there is a problem of size and scale. How large can a concrete community be? What could be a shared resource at what scale? How decision making and other issues be governed? How would a community relate to others, and to the nation-state?

There seems to be limitations at both the nation-state and the community, especially when evaluated against the emancipatory utopia that we somehow would still like to remember. Creativity in thoughts and practices is demanded to co-produce innovations and breakthroughs. Some anarchist ideas[11] might need to be revisited with open mind. Arts and cultural practitioners, including architects, need to discuss how we can expand the space for communities, not as a reactionary anti-state frustration, but as ways to build new utopias that might be viable for our common sustainable future.

What is at stake?

What is at stake is the aspiration for emancipation, the very promise and motivation of modernization. The promise has at least been partially broken by both nation-state and community. Nation-states, by treating the people as individuals, want to liberate them from the confinement and oppression of traditional communities. By now we are aware that being individualized itself does not necessarily guarantee emancipation, especially when it is limited to individual relationship to the state as encapsulated in the concept of “citizen”. To be subjected to a state means a release of certain rights to the state that can abuse them in one way or another. There are pathologies of the nation-state as there have been pathologies of modernity and process of modernization.

While many nations are tinkering here and there to make their nation-states more perfect, communities are returning to the scene offering spaces for emancipation, too, but not without problems as well.

In most developed nations the state has taken over most of the community’s functions, but there are symptoms that things are slipping out of hands, such as in the case of derelict public spaces and infrastructures and the fact that more and more people are getting marginalized in many different ways. In developing countries the state is failing to take care of many things, while demand is increasing for the state to do more, without any critical thinking on why that should be the ambition.

There are cases in European and American cities, where public spaces have become problematic, as both the community and the state abandoned it. In instances of “public spaces revitalization/re-animation” projects, it is obvious that what happen is actually (re-)instituting of communities to reclaim the spaces, to animate it with their re-enacted relationships and to take care of them with their newly established collective, unmediated resources. For example, in February 2012, in a conference “Radius of Arts”[12] in Berlin, there was a presentation of a public-turned-common space in Neu Kölln, in Berlin. Artists actively engaged surrounding communities to reclaim the space with activities. What was a wasted space before is now alive and vibrant with activities by communities.

Another participant in the conference, Alessandro Petti,[13]told another story. He said that among the most that are destroying Palestinian communities is the fact that the State of Israel is taking over all the common spaces, transforming them into public spaces. Palestinian communities have no more spaces to express themselves. He made a very clear distinction between common and public spaces. We know historical instances when nation-state regimes totally reject the use of public spaces for community and individual expressions. Indonesia had this in the period of 1966-1998, for example. As substitutes, these regimes would often provide synthetic “common spaces” in neighborhoods for centrally programmed activities that are healthy, harmonious and happy.

The promise of the nation-state makes people expect a lot, too, and make it easy to forget their own capacity as community. On March 21, 2012, I posted a blog in Yahoo (see also my personal blog) that shows some timber shacks built between the girders underneath an elevated highway in the elite neighborhood in Jakarta. They are suspended between the highway above and a street crossing perpendicularly on the ground. A family of three –a young couple and their baby—lived in it. The blog incited thousands of comments. Of all comments, only two mention about what “we, people, can do”. Others asked what the state must do.

One might think that this is a “developing country’s problem”. But homeless people are found in European, American, and Japanese cities, too. In contrast, in traditional settlements that still exist in in many parts of the world, there are no homeless people. Building houses is the responsibility of communities. In modern economy the state takes over. Singapore state is a success story. But many other states failed to some degree, while communities, especially in the cities where modernization and capitalist have developed furthest, lost their sense of immediacy to take direct actions. The state that takes over communities’ function may eventually weaken the communities in their capacity to take independent initiatives that are often necessary and more effective.

Social Media provides a new tool to organize urban communities. It seems fit to urban communities, of which some are non-spatial and non-temporal. Experiments are being conducted.[14] It is too early to conclude, except that it has a huge potential as well as unknown risks. Some believe that with social media citizens can by-pass the control by the state. But different levels of censorship in China and Singapore show that social media is not immune. Its freedom must simply be based on a general freedom of expression, not an exception.

Consumption of and in the City

More and more people will have their future in the cities. In the period between 1750 and 1950 only 400 millions people urbanized into existing and new cities in Europe and the US. In the period between 1950 and 2030 it is projected that 3 billions people will be added to existing and new cities in Asia and Africa, mostly in Asia. There will be at least 900 millions people living in slums, if we continue the current trend without doing anything significant to change the course. Cities use 40 % of all material resources consumed by people, and 30 % of energy. This is not just a problem of quantity, but quality. Our dependence on renewables is decreasing since 1750 and decreasing most dramatically within the last 5 decades. It is replaced by increasing dependence on synthetic non-renewables with similar rates. This is not sustainable. The future of the planet also depends on the city. But, our cities are currently trapped in infrastructures that impose unsustainable way of living, in the ways we consume it and consume in it. A critique is important not only on infrastructure and the materiality of the city itself, but also on how we consume it and in it. And this would include the issue of spaces.

We live in a world that, through cities, is never sated and never rests from consuming all things. If any, it demands even more, and for more varieties. While consumption provides us with a way to “enjoy life”—not just a way to “live”, it is not the only way. We are also aware that, as the variety and number of consumption goods that we can enjoy increase, the greater and more pressing are the ethical questions that haunt us. Recently, these questions grew in number and depth due to, among others, an increasing awareness of global warming and depleting finite natural resources.

Design in its narrow sense is the sophistication of goods for daily use. In this sense, it is different from art, which does not concern itself with “use” in the way design should. However, design is always a derivative of arts in its basic competence, sensitivity, and creativity. Design is closely related to consumption (of goods) and, through them, with life style. Life style is a layer of civilization identified with consumption patterns. “Who-one-is” is determined by “what one consumes.”

The industrial production of modern consumer goods requires design to reconcile two things: uniformity to enable mass production, and unique identity. Branding serves as a middle ground. By branding, even identical products within a brand can retain their own unique identity thanks to design styles, price stratification, establishment of various consumer communities with privileges in the forms of membership and other services, and other exclusive attempts to protect the “purity” of the uniqueness of the designed products, such as through copyright regimes and application of certain design “personality”.

In cities, the process of production and consumption takes place in dramatic industrial intensity: goods are always available in great variety and excessive quantity. Choices and amounts are well maintained above the level of daily needs. Something is always in stock. But, just something in stock is not enough. There must be something new all the time. Thus, there must always be new models or new product series that people keep expecting, and are to be introduced as something both new and familiar due to their known branded characteristics. Cities becomes loci of noisy competitions, teeming with abundant quantities and varieties of product personalities.

Hence, it is the case with the production of (public) spaces. Conventional public spaces can no longer cope with the consumptive demand for abundance and variety. Only the private sector can cope with the greed, by transferring the cost to the consumers, by making the spaces to be like all other commodities: segmented, packaged, controlled (if not limited) access.

But spaces are not just something produced. They are also where production takes place. The hustling and bustling of commodification do not just occur in markets, but also expand into all urban spaces and into various private spaces through media and information technology. Urban and private spaces are packed not only with the products themselves, but also with various forms and ways of propaganda about them. These later ones are known as “advertisements,” and they have become products in their own rights, oftentimes placed upon pedestals through various awards and ceremonies. Capitalism has managed to create layers upon layers of products that attempt to become meaningful in increasingly abstract sense as well as ever more tempting.

In Yogyakarta more people are fed-up with littering of public spaces by advertisements. They started “Clean the Visual Garbage”(Reresik Sampah Visual, and @sampahvisual). They really go out and take down banners, posters and other forms of ads in the city’s streets and other public spaces. Their recent spectacular action was called “Serangan Umum 11 maret” which resembles a flash mob. They did actual cleaning of a famous bridge in the city’s center: taking down banners and removing posters, and then white washed the walls all together. However, new invention also quickly demands new place in public space. In Jakarta a 57-stories, 230 meters high office tower has LED screen on all its northern façade, facing the famous Bunderan HI roundabout. Despite the investment, permit has not been granted for it to be lit, for worry that it will dominate one of the most important public spaces in the city.

Contemporary public spaces are always assaulted by state’s control, commercial and sectarian aggressiveness, as well as artistic expressions. To be democratic is also to find a democratic way of managing the public spaces where democracy is expressed.

Hence the issue of “visual garbage” in Yogyakarta is not just about visual chaos, but procedural chaos. Who decides on what to display where in public spaces? Where is the limit of the mandate given to governments to rule them? Do we give blank checks to governments just because we elect them during election, to decide on everything everytime without consulting us anymore? Or shall people really take active role in making decisions and daily management of the spaces, which will make the spaces more “common” than public, especially when they also actually organize activities regularly? Public policy on public spaces should concern more than just visual order of/in them, however important this is as the eventual residue of thoughts, theories and practices in public spaces. Governance of public spaces should see them as commons, as resources belonging to all, to be able to be used by all, but to be depleted or polluted by none. Professor Chua Beng Huat proposed to see public spaces and common spaces as interchangeable in time dimension. The same space that is public at one time can be a common space at another. This could be a basis for a governance structure of the public/common spaces.

Meanwhile, social media are already in the scene. They are already used as online common spaces, oftentimes linked to physical public spaces in several democratic movements. Malaysian Spring movement is a good latest example. Relatively, the social media are not yet overwhelmed by state control or commercial aggression. But who knows the future, as contestation between the state and the capital has always crept into more and more spaces.

The issue is not just about how citizens can form or mold urban spaces into public or common spaces, but also how the contemporary the spaces will mold their bodies.

How does this city, as a design, relate to other consumer products in connecting with each individual living in it? How are cities or city-spaces actually consumed? How does a city make easy the consumption of goods and services, industrial or otherwise? Can a person identify her- or himself with this gigantic object named city at the levels of use, meaning, and personality? Is it not true that some cities are already deliberately branded, through various touristic marketing and thematic economic town planning attempts such as those seen in “creative cities”?

The term lifestyle seems to emerge from the domination of designed goods and services. And, they have become ever more dominant, as if poised to take the whole cultures over, at least especially their material layers, although not limited to them, as medical services, insurance, entertainment (as a manifestation of a “play” culture) are also becoming building blocks in the formation of identities, symbols, and new structures of meanings.

How do we position ourselves in the midst of these design products, and within urban spaces that are also designed in increasingly industrial ways?

Faced with the temptation of these designed products, urban bodies swing continuously between two extremes. The first is a trance-like condition where individuals are carried adrift, identifying themselves with these products, valuing themselves, or at the very least allowing other people to value them based on their relationship to these products, thus allowing themselves to be possessed by these products. They then seem to forget either time or space, unable to know when to stop, does not feel the need to stop or exit this crippling current. This is an extreme that places city-dwellers as mere consumers, no longer a critical citizens. The other extreme is a meditative condition, where one only watches and perceives, but completely maintains a distance, detaching her-or himself, seeing things come and go, as though watching a river flowing by—a metaphor widely used in Buddhism. Maybe, in the end, most people find themselves occupying a point between these two extremes, or oscillating between one extreme and another, confused, pulled apart by these two ends.

How can one perform in public and common spaces in such a condition? Should everyone play a heroic role in saving people? Or must he or she play the role of a wise clown, disturbing both the trance and the meditation? Can art practices still inspire either at the deepest critical layer or just to continuously renew and sophisticate designs so that lifestyle may prevail, subduing boredom, or maybe extend boredom to unknown heights?

What will and can every one show and express in public and common spaces? How much can one be him/herself? How much can he/she tolerate others? Thinking about public and common spaces is reflecting upon oneself, upon what one would like others do or not upon her/himself. What are we selling and preaching what in public and common spaces?

Here it is important to note the rise of religious expressions in common spaces and public spaces. The rise of religion is not just because of the rise of fundamentalism, but also intensification of modernization and all confusion that it causes. Added to this is psychology of the youth given the speedy melting of everything in their surroundings that prompt even more intense search for role models and something to hold on. Research such as by Aryo Danusiri[15] is revealing that admiration by young people that flock around certain charismatic ustadz is not really different from those that that flock around rock stars. Other research is looking at how these groupings can be effective network in social and economic survival of young people in a country with high unemployment and dropouts. Spillovers of religious activities are changing (sometimes permanently, sometimes temporary) the quantity and quality of public and common spaces in some cities in Indonesia.

The rise of religion is also parallel with what I call “the consumption of inspiration”. This is also contested and performed tirelessly in public spaces, and sometimes intruding into common spaces belonging to other communities. Holy religious texts are quoted in fragments, taken in parts, and packaged in such a way that they may be easily consumed as “inspiration”. This is also an era filled with a penchant for talk shows that is increasingly climbing to industrialized intensity. Cutting-edge capitalism has made itself increasingly dependent upon continuous ideas, innovations, and discoveries to win in competition, all the more leading to the “industrialization of inspiration”.

Can common space be safer than public space? Do we really need that safety or just play along with the temptations and all the risks brought by the state and the capital? Nevertheless, common space is actually not primarily about safety. It is about manageable size, about real communities whose members really know each other, albeit in different depths, assuming that that make them interact more genuinely and authentically. Common spaces can therefore be more productive and meaningful for practices of living-together and being creative in navigating the intricate urban life and the difficult transition path towards ecological age.


Towards sustainability the city need to change in at least three ways.

Firstly, there is a need to change towards practice of efficiency and re-use. But this alone is not enough.Because even if consumption per capita decreased drastically, the total consumption will still be very high as the number of people will increase; and, faced with that, there is the reality of depleting finite natural resources. Reducing is not enough. There should be substitution. And that needs big innovations and creativity. Cities and their communities are responsible for the biggest part of these necessary practices.Experts are working on the structural issues such as reformatting or retrofitting of urban infrastructure, or substituting old infrastructures totally with new, more ecological infrastructures. A recent publication by the UNEP is City-Level Decoupling, Urban resource flows and the governance of infrastructure transitions (2013). This report, although focuses on changes in urban infrastructures, also mentions the importance of the role of intermediaries for changes at behavioral level. I see common spaces—where it is possible to mediate individuals and the collective—play such role.

Collective actions require common values. Arts can work at this level: identifying them, investigating them, creatively deconstructing and reconstructing them when necessary. Arts are also instrumental to see emerging phenomena early, and to share them with the public at value level.

The following quotes are thoughts summarized from discussion among arts and cultural practitioners from Asia and Europe in Copenhagen, in December 2009 in conjunction of the COP15. They are published in Arts, Culture and Sustainability: Visions for the Future, edited by Mary Anne de Vlieg.

“…There are artists who have turned to issues around sustainability and climate change because they are passionate about them and feel the need to take a stand. Others engage with these topics because they are the current challenges to our humanity, and thus form the essential material with which artists reflect contemporary life…

…although art and culture is not a saviour for all global ills, strong proof is emerging which shows that the methods used in the arts sector can promote deeper awareness, reflection, creative problem solving and sense of civic engagement in our publics. For too long now, art has become associated with elites when in fact it is among the most basic human activities. Engagement with art – whether as amateur, professional, participant or spectator – is about becoming more human.”[16]

“…sustainability of cities is appealing not only because of its urgency, but also because it offers an opportunity to think of, and search for, new ways to live wholly sustainably by also taking care of other problems pre-existing in cities. This opportunity challenges societies to be humane again, to take care of other ecological and non-ecological problems that have been outstanding in cities, such as poverty, social justice, and migrant workers”[17]

“…the arts and cultural sector can work with the people and start, bottom up, from the community. The cultural sector is a natural change agent, instigator and provocateur in paradigm shifts and mind-set changes.”[18]

If it is seen in the long term and imagination is radically open, we are actually talking about a future yet to be envisioned and defined. Our new knowledge about the world has been offered as a new opportunity for arts and cultures to redefine themselves and the world, or even to invent and create a new one. Taking the ecology and metropolises as our cases, we have a new mission redefined for the arts and cultures. It is now up to us to take up the opportunity and the challenge or not. When art and cultural practitioners decided to take it up, their freedom and autonomy must be a priority. To carry out that mission, there is a need for a structure that allows flexible, adaptable, multiple structures to emerge, grow, interact and multiple, to produce maximum innovations to change existing patterns and create new ones that are sustainable. We need to let diversity diversify with quality and intensity. The only way to make it possible is to let freedom and autonomy of the arts to expand as much as they can. Only when the arts and the artists are free they can be truly useful to societies in search of new visions and construction. More than ever, we need them to realize their full potential, at their full capacity. And for that, we need them to be free as much as they can and want. The rise of artistic engagements into public and common spaces is transformational.

The metropolis of the 21st century and beyond, consists of many cities, many communities.

The seeds of the future are indeed polycentric cities, intense in each center, and supported by intense network and maximum possibility for mobility. Public and common spaces will have to be decentralized, making them all more common than public in consequence. Program to support the arts could therefore be generated based on bottom-up, decentralized process. Each cycle will be both a mapping that will enrich the future evaluation and policy as well as a sensitive response to the real need of each area. Each branch of the arts might have different problems, too. Each area might have different problems in the arts. Decentralizing supports means also “locating” arts and artists to their communities as organic audience without necessarily “localizing” them, by making available information and mobility networks. The hope is that arts will be part of community life, without being narrowly communal, and community will become stronger as the basis o civil society.

The more important issue is to have more possibilities for the differences to be creative. For that they need to mingle, to cross breed. Metropolises should not be left to be just multi-cultural, but should thrive to be inter-cultural, where many cultures are facilitated to mingle, to interact to each other, to spark and create new fusions. Urban (public and common) spaces should be able to be a “public infrastructure” that, by virtue of its inclusiveness, would encourage urban integration without centralizing. They need to be linked to each other. Arts spaces, venues or institutions, as well as community centers, can be such infrastructure, too.


[1] In Hong Kong, the term “POPS” (= Privately-Owned Public Spaces) is used. (Presentation of Mr….on May 25 in Singapore).
[2] Inside Plaza Indonesia mall in Jakarta there is a supposedly Parisian street-side café with street-side coffee tables and chairs.
[3] Quoted from Ayu Utami, Jakarta-based writer/novelist, in personal conversation, 2013.
[4] quoted on April 14, 2013, at 10:22 am.
[5] After Anthony Reid’s Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450-1680.
[6] Yet to be published. This reference is based on personal conversation.
[7] Marco Kusumawijaya, Thamrin-Sudirman Avenue, A Case of Modernisation Process in a Developing Metropolis, unpublished Master’s thesis, K.U. Leuven, Leuven (Belgium), 1990.[8];
“Imagined communities” is a concept coined by Benedict Anderson. He believes that a nation is a community socially constructed, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group. An imagined community is different from an actual community because it is not (and cannot be) based on everyday face-to-face interaction between its members. The media also create imagined communities, through targeting a mass audience or generalizing and addressing citizens as the public….[T]he concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm. …Finally, a nation is an imagined community because “regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.”[1]…Anderson argued that the first European nation-states were thus formed around their “national print-languages.”
In human communities, intent, belief, resources, preferences, needs, risks, and a number of other conditions may be present and common, affecting the identity of the participants and their degree of cohesiveness….Since the advent of the Internet, the concept of community has less geographical limitation, as people can now gather virtually in an online community and share common interests regardless of physical location. Prior to the internet, virtual communities (like social or academic organizations) were far more limited by the constraints of available communication and transportation technologies.
[10] The village leadership, Jatiwangi Arts Factory, Rujak Center for Urban Studies, and many artists and architects are collaborating to make this happen in August-September 2013.
[11] See for example (in Bahasa Indonesia):
[13]Alessandro Petti is an architect, urbanist and researcher based in Palestine. He is Chair of the Urban Studies Program at Al-Quds Bard Univer- sity in Abu Dis. He is the Director of the „Decolonizing Architecture Art Residence (DAAR)“, a collective of intellectuals and artists that is seeking to develop practical and architectural propositions on the potential re-use of Israeli settlements and military bases in the West Bank after the end of Israeli occupation.
[14] For example: Rujak Center for Urban Studies’, and @jalankaki.
[15] Quoted from personal conversation. The research is for a Ph.D dissertation.
[16] Mary Ann DeVlieg, Advisor to think tanks on arts and creativity; Founder Arts Rights Justice; Secretary General, International Network for Contemporary Performing Arts
[17] Marco Kusumawijaya, urbanist; Founder/Director, Rujak Center for Urban Studies, Indonesia
[18] Ada Wong, Hong Kong


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