Indonesian civil society discusses its urban future

Guest blogger John Taylor reports back from Indonesia's third Urban Social Forum, where citizens came together to imagine the kind of cities they want to live in.

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Guest blog by
21 January 2016

John Taylor is the director of the Indonesian NGO Yayasan Kota Kita

Representatives of Indonesia communities discussed ways to improve urban conditions at the third Urban Social Forum (Photo: Fabrizio Salvatori)

When people usually think of meetings about cities they're likely thinking of a convention of civil engineers, or urban planners, or mayors; but in December 2015 a very different kind of meeting occurred in Surabaya, Indonesia's second largest city.

More than 1,000 community leaders, civil society activists, academics, students, and volunteer groups came together for the third Urban Social Forum.

This annual event draws people from cities all over Indonesia who are seeking ways to improve urban conditions and create a better urban future. This is particularly urgent given Indonesia's rapid rate of urbanisation and huge population, which result in a process that is leaving many excluded and at the margins of the country's economic development.

The Urban Social Forum is a one-day event organised by Kota Kita, an Indonesian NGO that promotes citizen participation and collective action in improving cities, together with other NGOs and activists. Kota Kita initiated the forum in order to encourage citizens to develop a shared urban agenda and collective vision for more sustainable, inclusive and democratic urban development.

This year there were 20 different panels on topics ranging from conserving urban heritage, alternative approaches to solid waste management, participatory budgeting, promoting non-motorised transportation, youth and cities, advocating for human rights in cities, and protecting urban green spaces.

The forum provides an open, inclusive and democratic space for civil society activists to share their experiences and knowledge, to network with other like-minded people, and learn about what is happening in their field.

Growing momentum

The forum's growth has been rapid – the First Urban Social Forum was held in 2013 in the Javanese city of Solo and brought together 120 participants. More than 300 people took part in the second forum in 2014, also in Solo, while more than 1,000 individuals took part in 2015. 

As participation grows, awareness of civil society's role in developing and promoting solutions to the problems in cities has also increased.

Bridging the archipelago

Indonesia is a large archipelago encompassing nearly 17,000 islands, which means there is a large degree of geographic isolation. Civil society organisations often lack opportunities to learn from or connect to other initiatives. 

Many organisations also often work on particular sectoral issues without realising how their work might relate closely to the work of other organisations that are also seeking to improve cities. The forum offers a space where these people, working on different issues and in different places can create a sense of community.

What cities do we want?

The slogan of the Urban Social Forum is 'Another city is possible!' drawing deliberately from the World Social Forum's 'Another world is possible', but focusing specifically on the challenge of urban areas.

This serves not only as a reminder that there are alternatives to worsening urban conditions, such as social inequality, pollution and chaotic growth of urban areas, but also sets out a challenge. Participants must ask themselves: what city do we really want? 

Since it is not easy to imagine alternatives, it's important to use our imaginations, to dream, to share our ideas, to discuss and really think outside the box. To really bring about change, we need to have a vision of what that change is, otherwise we lose direction and sight of our destination.

Doing this becomes easier when surrounded by other enthusiastic, passionate and dedicated people who are working towards the same goals, sharing their experiences and encouraging each other to keep moving forward.

The Urban Social Forum was created to encourage citizens to develop a shared urban agenda and collective vision for more sustainable, inclusive and democratic urban development (Photo: Fabrizio Salvatori)

By bringing together people from all walks of life, of different ages and from different parts of the country, the Urban Social Forum gives people an inclusive and open platform to discuss, share and speak their minds. In this, it mirrors how all cities should be – accepting of any and all people, not discriminating against anyone because of where they are from, their age, gender or if they have a disability.

The Urban Social Forum offers a model for how ideas, policies, and planning should be discussed – where anyone can raise an issue, contribute their opinion or put forward their ideas for change.

Young voices delivering creative solutions

One of the most interesting and encouraging signs of the event's growing appeal was the very large and prominent presence of young activists, students and youth groups, making the Urban Social Forum a really vibrant occasion.

Youth represent an important source of ideas and dynamic energy. They are not only concerned about urban issues, they are also creating and implementing solutions for our cities.

During the forum, youth groups showed how they are developing practical solutions for some of our biggest urban problems. One example is trash, a priority concern for many urban residents and a widespread problem in our neighbourhoods, rivers, parks and streets.

Greeneration, for example, shared information about their Diet Kantong Plastik! and #Waste4Change campaigns, raising awareness about the need to reduce trash, improve waste management, and offer scalable and sustainable ways to recycle trash. These initiatives are already generating impacts in cities across Indonesia.

Growing a network

As participants returned to their cities they did so with the knowledge that there are many people like them who share the same aspirations and interests in bringing about change to improve their cities and communities.

They left with more friends, knowledge and a growing network of resources to draw inspiration and support from. Most importantly they are united in the belief that they can and should do something to make our cities better.

By coming to the forum they jointly affirmed that another city is indeed possible and we can make the change necessary for that city to become a reality.

John Taylor (indojota@gmail.com) is the director of the Indonesian NGO Yayasan Kota Kita (Our City Foundation).

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