Jakarta Old Town Renovation Turns it into a Renewed Tourist Attraction

Indonesia, Jakarta, culture, Kota Tua

Kali Besar area in Jakarta Old Town

Jakarta old town decade-long renovation is finally showing results with one of the largest project- the renovation of the river along Kali Besar being again accessible to visitors. The Old Town management needs now to look after the endemic problem of permanent littering and garbage in the pedestrian areas of the old town…

Jakarta old town is the cradle of Indonesia capital as it was the first urban settlement created by the Dutch in the 17th century under the name Batavia. Despite its important historical significance, the Jakarta city administration has long struggled to manage properly what is called today Kota Tua (Old Town) due to a lack of planning as well as funds. Previous planned renovation of the old town mostly failed until 2014 when the previous mayor of Jakarta Joko Widodo- now Indonesia’s President- launched an ambitious plan of renovation Jakarta most historical district.

Works started with the renovation of various buildings within the boundaries of Kota Tua. Progress has been slow due to a difficult relation between the private sector and public institutions and the difficulty to enforce a renovation law. There has been little interest of Jakarta City Hall following the election of Jokowi as President.

Two events however speed up renovation works on the old town. The decision of presenting Kota Tua as a possible UNESCO World Heritage and the hosting of the Asian Games last August.

Old Town renovation almost completed

For the UNESCO listing, Jakarta bid twice under the title “The Age of Trade: Old Town of Jakarta and 4 Outlying Islands”. The government wanted to showcase Kota Tua as the city that saw the largest volume of trade in Asia during the “golden age” of trade in the 17th and 18th centuries while outlying Islands were integrated due to their role during the Dutch East India Company’s (VOC) time. Onrust Island was used as the VOC shipyard in 1613, while the other three islands were used for defense, quarantine and as prisons for opponents.

Kali Besar River has been transformed into a reservoir.

Kali Besar river beautification with the renovation of the buildings were completed in July. Hailed by the city administration as a new tourist site for Jakarta, the area turned into a popular site for visitors during the Asian Games with Jakarta History Museum – located in the the previous Batavia City Hall- announcing record visitors’ numbers.

Inspired by Seoul Cheonggyecheon, the restored river in the heart of South Korea capital, the river banks have been renovated, the waters cleaned from all the garbage while surrounding buildings were restored. Walks and Plazas have been installed on the river but have not been completed yet.

Originally, the area was due to be fully pedestrianized. Finally, parking spaces for cars have been allocated in front of the buildings, separating the buildings from the river and worst hiding the buildings. The river also lost its original function by being turned into a water reservoir.

Failing to secure UNESCO listing

Despite the restoration of the buildings and the cleaning of the river, the UNESCO rejected Jakarta bid. UNESCO’s advisory board and France-based International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), said in its report that Kota Tua lacked “integrity and authenticity” as an old town. Many 20th century architectural developments, described as “unsympathetic intrusions” by ICOMOS, “have irreversibly changed the visual appearance and skyline of Kota Tua.”

Many of the original buildings have been demolished and canals filled up in the past to make way to new streets. This included also the city walls, demolished in 2016, Batavia Castle (dismantled already around 1840) and the Amsterdam Gate, the last remnant of the castle which was destroyed in the 1950s. Kota Tua deeply altered structure took away the historical authenticity of former Batavia.

UNESCO also raised concerns about several future projects, including high-rise developments, the construction of 17 islets through land reclamation in Jakarta Bay, a proposed giant sea wall and the mass rapid transit (MRT) infrastructure (Phase II of the MRT line will link Jalan Sudirman in Jakarta commercial centre to Kampung Bandan, north of the old town).

“Kota Tua is not unique as a harbour city formed by the globalizing trade routes of colonial activities as there are many others, including some which have already been inscribed on the World Heritage List. As a result, ICOMOS considers that the justification provided is not appropriate in relation to the serial property proposed,” the report highlighted. Consequently, the government withdrew immediately its UNESCO proposal for Kota Tua.

Fatahillah Square with the former city hall

Jakarta Cultural Heritage Expert Team (TACB) member Candrian Attahiyat explained recently to the Jakarta Post that a number of projects in Kota Tua had been developed without proper consideration for history or sustainability. There has been no comprehensive master plan to the entire area.

While some areas have been revitalized, they are still large parts of Kota Tua which is in total decay. They are also no proper pavements to link together the different parts of the historical town, which makes it difficult for tourists and locals to go around. It is a true challenge for example to walk from Fatahillah Square – where the former City Hall stands- to Museum Bahari, the former VOC warehouses. The failure of Jakarta’s Kota Tua to be recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site did not come as a surprise.

ICOMOS indeed highlighted the need for Indonesia to pay a “close attention to current investments and revitalization projects for 19th and 20th century architecture in Kota Tua, as these projects need to be guided by heritage conservation concerns in order to preserve, in the long-term, the character of the city”. The revitalization project, which topped US$18 million, indicated that the reconstruction should have been supervised by historians to avoid altering the buildings’ original shape with to much concrete being used for the restoration…

Garbage is the new issue for visitors

Despite all the critics, the renovated Kota Tua is still a huge improvement compared to the previous situation of decay and dirt and turns again this part of town into an area worth visiting for anyone interested with Jakarta history.

More than ever, the area has turned into a popular meeting place, especially for young Indonesians. A colourful crowd is invading the old town, especially during week-ends and in the evening to take selfies but also sing and eat together. A nice way to keep the old town alive but with another major issue: garbage.

It is turning into a huge problem with thousands of people littering streets, parks and the river with food, cans, cigarettes and plastic. Street vendors –already evicted from Fatahillah Square itself- relocated around with people bringing food on the square and consequent trash.

The contrast of Kota Tua is even sharper with the rest of town, especially as streets of Jakarta have been in the past months cleaned up and look –for the first time in many years- mostly tidy and empty of their usual piles of garbage…