Surabaya: preserving the past, conserving the future

by Feng Zengkun

The city of Surabaya in Indonesia has thrived over the past decade by putting its heritage and culture at the centre of its urban development plans. Ubiquitous informal settlements have been turned into vibrant homes and economic engines, longstanding villages into tourist attractions, and disreputable neighbourhoods into artistic estates. Its creative urban planning shows other cities how they too can preserve their past while improving their liveability, sustainability and economy.

Dukuh Setro
Kampung Dukuh Setro, one of the preserved neighbourhoods of Surabaya © City of Surabaya

Life in the city of Surabaya, Indonesia, has been on an upswing for many of its citizens. In 2017, the international Gallup World Poll found that the city is one of the happiest in the world, and a large majority of its residents are satisfied with the schools, healthcare, water services, public transportation and safety in their neighbourhoods.

The city’s ascent, backed by other statistics, is all the more remarkable for having been achieved in less than a decade, and without it becoming yet another metropolis filled with cookie-cutter skyscrapers and indistinguishable neighbourhoods. In fact, its government, led by Mayor Tri Rismaharini, has harnessed the city’s culture, heritage and history as key assets in its bold urban development plans.

The government has modernised the city’s ubiquitous kampungs, which are informal, low-income housing areas, instead of demolishing them and displacing their households. It has turned dilapidated historical areas into tourist attractions to boost the economy, and partnered citizens and businesses to change neglected and vice-ridden neighbourhoods into vibrant estates that also serve as cultural showcases.

With this inclusive and preservation-minded approach to development, the government has delivered both economic growth and a better life for residents, earning it accolades such as a Special Mention in the 2018 Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize honour roll. Mayor Rismaharini has said that she learned from the experiences of fast-growing cities in Asia and Europe that alienated their citizens. Here is what other cities can learn from Surabaya’s positive example.

“Developing a city not only involves physical development, it is also about empowering people and making them feel at home.”
Capitalising on culture
With kampungs taking up about 60 percent of Surabaya’s land, replacing them would have been costly, time-consuming, and potentially ruinous to their low-income residents. Instead, Mayor Rismaharini’s government built on the Kampung Improvement Programme carried out in the 1970s to 1990s that provided the settlements with better footpaths, roads, drainage, and water infrastructure. It added new lighting and erected more amenities, including libraries to encourage education, and football fields and playgrounds for recreation.

More critically, the government spearheaded two new projects, called Pahlawan Ekonomi (Economy Hero) and Kampung Unggulan (Prominent Kampung), to help the kampungs’ housewives earn an income. “The husbands were working but the families were still poor. We wanted to empower the housewives to counter Surabaya’s poverty problem,” Mayor Rismaharini told Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority in a recent interview.

Under the Economy Hero programme, the housewives receive free professional training to improve the food and handicrafts that they are already making, with an eye to selling the products. The government also helps them to apply for capital, learn how to package the products attractively, sell the items at souvenir centres, malls, supermarkets and government offices, and manage cash flows.

Since the government started the programme in 2010, the number of small and medium enterprises founded by these housewives has grown from 89 to about 9,500. “Those that do well recruit their neighbours to grow even bigger. Some of them are earning up to 1.6 billion rupiahs (approximately US$107,400) a month now,” said Mayor Rismaharini.

The Prominent Kampung project, on the other hand, aims to get selected kampungs to focus on producing one excellent item or service each, to build up a brand and competitive advantage in the marketplace. So far, the government has recruited 10 kampungs to produce traditional bags, embroidery, cookies, crackers, shoes, handicrafts, tempeh, tempeh chips, pavement stones and sewing services respectively.

By tapping on the kampungs’ potential, the government achieved several complementary goals: improving the lives of the city’s poorest residents, adding a potent driver to the economy and highlighting the city’s cultural products. “Developing a city not only involves physical development,” Mayor Rismaharini said about the initiatives in 2017. “It is also about empowering people and making them feel at home.”

One of economic heroines
One of economic heroines under the Pahlawan Ekonomi (Economy Hero) project © City of Surabaya

Harnessing heritage
The canny use of the city’s traditional activities extends beyond the kampungs. The government transformed the north-eastern Kenjeran coastal area, which used to be home to slum fishing villages. It repainted the fishermen’s homes in bright colours, cleaned the coastline, carried out drainage projects, built two major roads and constructed a bridge to turn it into a picturesque and easily accessible tourist destination with fishing opportunities as a highlight.

Dolly, an infamous red-light district in the city that was one of the largest in Southeast Asia, was shut down and transformed into a creative village with a batik centre and a space for artists and teenagers to draw murals. The government bought the buildings that used to be brothels, turned them into shops, organised skilled-based training courses for the sex workers and encouraged them to find new jobs in the district or other neighbourhoods.

In an award-winning project, the government also renovated the city’s Bungkul Park, which had become decrepit, by sprucing it up and adding skateboard and jogging tracks, a plaza for live performances, a fountain, a children’s playground, a food court and other amenities. The refurbished park drew visitors from both the city and beyond, especially after it was named Asia’s best city park in the United Nations’ 2013 Asian Townscape Awards.

By refreshing these and other neglected areas and using them to showcase the city’s traditional arts and activities where appropriate, the government greatly increased their liveability and tourism value. It has also given a boost to local wares, and thus the city’s economy, in other, smaller ways. Over the years, it has built 45 centres for street vendors to sell their dishes, and traditional markets in 77 locations.

“Surabaya is not the capital of Indonesia, and we have to independently search for resources to realise the city’s projects. By inviting the community and other stakeholders such as private companies and even the media to work with us, we can have a limited budget but produce maximum results.”
The power of partnerships
Still, ask Mayor Rismaharini and she will be the first to say that the success of many of these and other initiatives was possible only because of her administration’s collaborations with citizens, the private sector and even foreign experts and governments.

The city of Kitakyushu in Japan, for example, provided Surabaya with technical assistance on how to better manage waste in the kampungs, including through composting. It also helped the government to build a waste treatment and recycling facility. With these and other efforts, Surabaya has reduced its volume of waste by an extraordinary 70 percent.

The Surabaya government has also pursued public-private partnerships to build a range of buildings in the city. These include the Bratang Market, Darmo Trade Centre, Tunjungan Centre, which serves as a government office building, and other landmarks. More recently, it is relying on such partnerships to help finance ambitious transport infrastructure projects, including a $4.5 trillion-rupiah (approximately US$302 million) tram network slated to begin construction at the end of 2018.

While the government has built many new parks and expanded the city’s open green spaces to more than 20 percent of its land area, it expects citizens to do their part and help keep these and other public spaces clean. Mayor Rismaharini herself often leads the way during city-wide clean-up efforts held on the city’s festival days.

“In the past, people littered everywhere, and this clogged up many of our drainage systems and led to floods,” she noted. The cleanliness drive, along with drainage improvement works, has reduced the city’s flood-prone areas from 50 percent of the land area in 2010 to 3 percent.

Going forward, the government expects more collaborations, particularly in the digital space. It has rolled out 203 kiosks across the city to allow people to easily access government services online, and cut its annual expenditure on stationery and paper from 29 billion rupiahs (approximately US$1.9 million) to just 9 billion rupiahs (approximately US$604,500) by going digital. It wants to partner digital start-ups to further reduce its operational costs, improve its services and solve social problems.

Mayor Rismaharini said: “Surabaya is not the capital of Indonesia, and we have to independently search for resources to realise the city’s projects. By inviting the community and other stakeholders such as private companies and even the media to work with us, we can have a limited budget but produce maximum results.” O

This article was first published in October 2018. All images contained within this page are used with license and shall not be copied, modified, or reproduced.


Tri Rismaharini 

Tri Rismaharini  
Tri Rismaharini, born in 1961, was elected Mayor of Surabaya in 2010. She belongs to Indonesia’s main opposition Democratic Party – Struggle (PDI-P), whose leader Megawati Sukarnoputri was the country’s president from 2001 to 2004. Prior to becoming Surabaya’s first citizen, Ms Risma, who has a degree in architecture, led the city’s parks department. In that role, she was active in rejuvenating the city’s parks and turning many derelict plots into green spaces. Once described by a Dutch writer as a ‘dirty city full of pretensions and greed’, Surabaya is now known as a ‘million-park’ city.