Urban forests, city crisis and our nation’s face
There are two opposite directions characterizing urban development in this country. In one direction, the main feature of city development is the increase in number of buildings and shopping centers symbolizing economic improvement. Meanwhile, we are losing interest in creating more green areas. City parks and urban forests are not perceived as essentials. What are forest areas for in the middle of the city? That may be a question for many.
As the expansion of new malls, skyscrapers and other business-oriented constructions promise many more financial benefits, the authority, such as city councils, are easily issuing building permits. New shopping centers in fact create more traffic congestion, as well as conflicts with traditional markets. Those thriving new constructions have also increased the pressure on the land carrying capacity.
The authority, on the contrary, often does not think a space allocation for green areas as an urgent need. Jakarta, for example, just dedicates fewer than 10 percent of its areas for city parks or urban forests. Green areas are actually not only ecologically important, but also spiritually and aesthetically substantials. City parks can become a perfect escape for city dwellers from daily life routine.
Unplanned city development frequently does not take natural processes into account. Lack of green areas mean fewer catchment areas for rainwater. More concrete surfaces or lack of vegetation will create more disruptions to hydrological cycle where water cannot be absorbed by the ground. The result is droughts in the dry season and floods in the wet season.
A thriving city development also means a need for more supply of water. Unfortunately, urban development is not followed by an adequate expansion of water supply infrastructure. Hence, more people try to get access to deep groundwater, which can lead to excessive pumping. Excessive groundwater pumping has resulted in the collapse of the ground, as well as the drying up of rivers, lakes and springs.
As a result, our cities are in crisis. Floods in Jakarta, for example, are becoming worse. Over-extraction of deep ground water has destabilized the soil and the ground sinks. The recent event of road collapse in Jakarta has shown us a real threat underneath the city. The bad news is these problems are not only experienced by Jakarta, but also by many other cities in Indonesia. The UN has predicted that in 2030, more than 60 percent population will be living in urban areas. If we observe the current trend, it is not difficult to project what our cities will look like in the next couple decades. Most of the developments of our cities are not following the planned urban space arrangements. Human concentration in urban areas will complicate city life in future.
Sadly, when humanity becomes more urban, our concern on environmental services degrades. At the same time, human dependence on nature will not decrease. Emil Salim, in many of his publications, always emphasizes the interconnection between social structure and ecological system. A more diverse ecological system will be able to support a variety of social systems. When urban structures just facilitate the development of physical construction, without considering environmental capacity and ecological process, a very severe city crisis is just a matter of time.
Edward Wilson (1984) introduced a concept that he called “biophilia”, a connection between humans and nature and other species on earth. He said that humans have an original bond with nature as a basic aspect of humanity and an element of self-consciousness. Humans have an essential tendency to appreciate life and its process. Nature helps humans explore and affiliate with a life as a part of their mental development.
However, the development of technological society has pulled apart the connection between humans and nature. As said by Ke Chung Kim and Robert Weaver (1994), the development of technological humanity has raised a new belief about human domination and humankind is above nature. As the result, we humans tend to ignore the important of environmental services and the need to fulfill our “biophilia” desire. City development that only prioritizes the growth of financial infrastructure will wash an inner belief that we are an integral part of the ecosystem.
Furthermore, the expansion of massive materialism increases the consumption and manipulation of biological resources. The basic principle is then something is useful if it is financially beneficial. No wonder if then government policies do not support the enhancement of green areas as they may not be financially feasible.
The unwillingness to allocate more areas for urban forests and city parks in essence is a reflection of our blindness to human essential needs, which do not only require a fulfillment of financial needs. This is exactly what happens to our society now where we just appreciate tangible values and ignore intangible values. Ironically, the human inner need for nature is sometimes fulfilled by creating private parks, which are inaccessible to all community members. Consequently, it is even creating more gaps in society.
When a space for reflection, which one of them is a connection with the nature, is amputated, the society will move further away from substantial values of life. Society, which is always exposed to the interest of the transactional economy mindset, at the end will turn into a transactional society. Hence, it is not too exaggerated to say that the lack of concerns on developing and managing urban forests and city parks actually reflects the true face of our nation.
The writer is an ecologist at the University of Bengkulu.