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This research is focussed on the representation of the complex forms of settlement that are emerging in the wet-rice agricultural landscapes around the city of Jakarta. It documents the limitations of official macro-scaled planning maps in recording these areas, and diagnoses alternative styles of representation that various private sector and community actors have developed. This research hypothesizes that such representations are forming nascent 'cultures of legibility', and it examines their capacity to inform the formal urban and regional planning processes without being subsumed by their instrumental logics.

The settlement forms emerging around Jakarta (and other Southeast Asian mega-cities such as Bangkok and Manila) have been dubbed desa-kota landscapes ('rural-city' in Indonesian). They are characterized by a unique combination of land uses and infrastructures / rice agriculture, traditional villages, gated suburbs, cottage industries, malls, golf courses, industrial complexes, freeways. Desa-kota landscapes are visually, morphologically, and functionally more complex and fluid than even the most dispersed of western cities. Despite the ecological, social and economic difficulties such zones experience, they sustain (through various legal, illegal, and quasi-legal means) relatively successful communities.

The complexity and fluidity of desa-kota landscapes means that they present particular difficulties for the conventional modes of representation as deployed by the state agencies responsible for planning and managing their futures. These agencies rely heavily on the quantitative, orthographic and instrumental logics of traditional cartography and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). These forms of mapping, while suited to recording hard urban infrastructures, such as suburban housing, industrial complexes, and freeways, tend not to register the more ephemeral, landscape or vernacular elements of desa-kota zones. As a consequence, existing planning maps of desa-kota zones always contain substantial areas of 'illegibility' in which certain areas are left unmapped.

In many respects such desa-kota zones have, to date, benefited from their illegibility to the visual regime of state planning. This said, the longer-term viability of these zones requires them to become legible to, and so claim a stake in, formal planning processes. The illegibility of desa-kota zones at official levels is not replicated in local populist levels. Here, desa-kota landscapes have spawned a wide range of variable representational forms, ranging from private sector street directories and real-estate maps, to NGO and community green maps, to information graphics in mass circulation newspapers and magazines. The diverse aims, mediums and methods of such localized representations mean that they cannot be subsumed into a general cartography or singular logic of legibility. But they do offer patches of local legibility that constitute nascent ways of imagining the urban landscape, and that may give rise to distinctive 'cultures of legibility'.


The objectives of this research proposal are to:

  1. Investigate recent debates on 'urban legibility' in the context of urban landscapes and the late capitalist city
  2. Elaborate these debates in relation to specific urban landscapes emerging in Southeast Asia, as exemplified by the desa-kota zones in the extended metropolitan region of Jakarta
  3. Document the limitations of official macro-scaled planning maps, specifically GIS spatial planning tools, and diagnose nascent 'cultures of legibility' in these zones
  4. Examine the capacities of these alternate cultures of legibility to inform and extend the representational conventions and media used in urban planning and design generally
  5. Exploit the potentials of interactive, web-based geographic information technologies to pursue these research objectives and disseminate its findings.

Urban designer Kevin Lynch first invoked the term 'legibility' in his analysis of North American cityscapes in the post-war period. 'We must learn', he argued, 'to see the hidden forms in the vast sprawl of our cities', and this meant attending to the "legibility" of the cityscape' (Lynch 1960, 12). This imperative underpinned what he famously called 'cognitive mapping', the process of representing a city so as to mentally grasp its form and adequately orient oneself within it. Lynch invented an important notational system that enabled him to diagnose and assess the variable legibilities of a given city.

Subsequent scholarship extended the concepts of urban legibility and cognitive mapping into consideration of late-capitalist urban form. These new urban configurations, (motorized by global flows of capital, goods, information and people) extended into the landscape and, in a virtual sense, beyond into wider national and trans-national spaces. They threw up new, often territory-scaled and radically heterogeneous patterns of settlement that were difficult to comprehend in conventional urbanistic terms. The sub-disciplines of information, urban and way finding design responded by investigating new and practical aids to legibility within these emergent urban landscapes. Fredric Jameson, and other theorists of postmodern cultural politics, echoed this more applied work by calling for new kinds of cognitive mapping that would reassert our capacities to 'read' the late capitalist city. Jameson's call self-consciously drew on Lynch's terminology, but he also argued that such a project would require some kind of inventive 'breakthrough' to radically new and as yet unimaginable notational systems and forms of representation.

This research proposal takes this line of thinking on urban legibility, both its practical and theoretical dimensions, to the peri-urban or desa-kota (literally, 'rural-city') zones of Southeast Asian megacities / exemplified in this project by the extended metropolitan regions of Jakarta. Desa-kota zones result from the inter-penetration of wet-rice agricultural landscapes and urban, quasi-urban, suburban and rural settlement patterns (see Summary). As such, they pose particular challenges to the conventional GIS-based (Geographic Information Systems) cartography used by state planning authorities. The inhabitants of desa-kota zones, by contrast, have exploited new information technologies (mobile phones, PDAs, community internet booths, GPSs) and diverse, hybrid media (newspapers, magazines, street directories, and informal oral and mapping practices) to evolve innovative styles of urban representation that constitute their local nascent 'cultures of legibility'. Such cultures do not deliver a fully or evenly legible city, but a patchy city in which information is variably distributed and owned. In contexts such as this the call to diagnose the 'hidden forms' of the cityscape (Lynch) and to search for representational 'breakthroughs' (Jameson) has a new imperative.

Research Methods

The preliminary work for this research (2003-04) was organized methodologically by a ‘test strip’ or transect taken through a desa-kota zone in Jakarta measuring 1 kilometre wide by 10 kilometres long (equivalent to a 1 x 20 grid on Jakarta’s planning maps). By ‘cutting’ through the urban landscape, this approach deliberately avoided a systematic view of the city that is focussed on the distribution of malls, business parks, industry and housing as nodes within a ‘system’ of freeways and greenbelts, so enabling detailed investigation of finer-grained landscape and settlement conditions. This investigative work was carried out on cartographic data (planning maps, informal maps, and street directories) and empirical data (primarily video footage). The empirical material was gathered via a series of travel itineraries set and followed (walking and on various forms of public and private transport) throughout the designated strip. A range of classic methodological literatures on walking and peripatetic research – Benjamin, Debord, Richard Long – informed this technique.

Jakarta and Desa-Kota Urbanism

Jakarta's harbour on the north coast of Java, facing the placid Java Sea, has always given that city a cosmopolitan character. As an important entrepôt for the trade of spices from the Eastern islands in the Indonesian archipelago in the early modern period, Jakarta was itself a melting pot populated by Chinese, Arabs, Javanese, Bugis, Sundanese, Eurasians and of course colonial Portuguese and Dutch. Its entrepôt function meant that Jakarta had to be open to the flows of goods and people that circulated through the archipelago and beyond. In this sense, Jakarta was constituted historically through a particular kind of mercantile openness. But it is Jakarta's rapid urbanization from the last decades of the twentieth-century that brings it to our attention now. As one of the world's largest and fastest growing mega-cities and, through the sheer incomprehensible complexity that comes with that scale and rapid growth, Jakarta poses a profound challenge to long-established foundations of urban theory and understandings of what a city might be.

In her discussion of non-western urbanisms, Jennifer Robinson (2006) argues that the emergent forms of agency, invention and constructive energy in such cities need to be recognized. This view goes against the grain of the normative view of developing cities as sites of crisis. The rapid urbanization of the cities of the South since the 1970s have seen them routinely figured in terms of social, ecological, political, infrastructural and economic crisis. This view, concomitantly, has seen such cities become naturalized sites for aid, advice, technology transfer, medicine from the agencies in the West. Robinson shows this view to be a tired and debilitating caricature in which the non-West is the naturalized site of disorder and crisis while agency and constructive powers are the exclusive prerogative of the West. Robinson suggests, by contrast, that within the very malaise, entropy, disorder and chaos of these sprawling urban forms are found remarkable sites and systems of invention, verve, creativity and agency. Without shifting our conceptual horizons, these are urban practices that will simply go unrecognized or remain imprisoned in a radical otherness. (In many respects architectural theorists have also been attacking this orthodoxy. Rem Koolhaas' work on Lagos is one such example. In both cases, in quite different ways, the cities of the South are posed as sites of agency rather than merely passive receivers of external aid, advice, models, technology etc.)

The rapid expansion of Jakarta beyond municipal and even provincial jurisdictional boundaries since the 1980s has seen the city acquire a new name locally: 'Jabotabek', which is an acronym derived from the pre-existing municipalities of Jakarta, Bogor, Tangerang and Bekasi. This local re-naming was then adjusted to 'Jabodetabek', in order to include the area of Depok. And, more recently still, as Jakarta's urban and quasi-urban development absorb the hill towns of Puncak and Cinanjur to the Southeast, it has adjusted its name to 'Jabodetabekpunjur'. Saskia Sassen (2001) has observed that extended metropolitan regions are usually nameless entities, but in the case of Jakarta there has been a proliferation of attempts to keep language and city in line with each other. Our focus spans the urban and peri-urban zones that comprise this ever-expanding metropolitan region. In Jakarta, as in many cities of the Global South, the peri-urban areas combine urban and rural activities. These are the desa-kota (literally 'rural-city') zones, a term that nowadays is applied to such conditions in cities worldwide. In Jakarta's desa-kota there is an inter-penetration of wet-rice agriculture traditional villages, gated suburbs, cottage industries, malls, golf courses, industrial complexes, freeways, tower blocks. These extended urban landscapes are visually, morphologically, and functionally more complex and fluid than even the most dispersed of western cities.

This extended Jakarta is reflected in changes to the geographical spread of population. Over the years of expansion, the areas of highest population density in Jakarta have drifted outward from the urban core. More conventional urban patterns of population distribution, have transformed over a 30-year period during which time areas with high population concentrations have moved outwards from the city centre.

The governance and planning of Jakarta's extended metropolitan region is highly complex and fragmented. This is in part a result of the recently implemented laws on decentralization following the fall of Suharto's New Order regime. These laws were designed to distribute authority, increase local and regional autonomy and shift responsibilities to local government. They have also generated new complexities in the planning of Jakarta. Given that Jakarta now reaches over a number of municipal and provincial jurisdictions, this complexity is heightened further. It is possible to say that in Jakarta the logic and authority of the plan (as a vision for how a place might be) has been radically challenged. Jakarta is not an unplanned city, it does have its master plan. But locally this plan is thought of less as an outline and guide for future development, and more as a retrospective formalisation of development that has already taken place. This reversed logic generates a curious sense of temporality and flux, or distributed authority and authorisation in the city. As urban commentator Marco Kusumawijaya notes, Jakarta is seemingly 'incomplete', 'without any blueprint' (Kusumawijaya 2005). The temporality of urban planning in Jakarta is not futures thinking, but future anterior. The plan speaks not of what will be, but what 'will have been' (Cairns 2007).