The city of Bandung – Indonesia’s fourth largest with over 2.5 million residents – since 2002 has become one of the most special places for me in the country, and will remain so, thanks to the five years I spent there for college and running a food business with four friends. However, the city was never intended to be such a bustling place with millions of inhabitants like it is today, for the Dutch colonial administration planned it to be a new capital of the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) while the commercial center of the colony remained in Batavia (modern-day Jakarta). Bandung’s cooler climes was one of the main reasons for this move, and it is also a reason why contemporary Jakartans often flock to the former on weekends, even though its narrow streets become jammed with traffic.
This was not the case in my early years living in Bandung for back then, people from Jakarta had to drive through the mountains for at least five hours to get to the capital of West Java province, home of the Sundanese people. But that was until 2005 when a new toll road cut the journey time to just two hours. This, combined with other factors including the latter’s high population growth since Indonesia’s independence in 1945, inadequate public transport, and lack of urban planning by successive mayors, have made Bandung less and less livable as the years passed. One time I got evicted from a rented house that I shared with a few other people to make way for the construction of a cable-stayed flyover not far from my campus. Now, the tower holding up the constantly busy overpass stands right where that house used to sit. I am at turns a witness, a victim, and a beneficiary of the city’s rapid development.
Just a few hundred meters north of the flyover lies the main campus of one of Indonesia’s oldest higher education institutions. First established in 1920 as the Technische Hoogeshcool te Bandoeng, it evolved from a school to meet the need for technical professionals in the Dutch East Indies, to housing the faculties of engineering and science of the then Jakarta-based Universitas Indonesia, and eventually a separate academic entity in 1959 which is known today as the Institut Teknologi Bandung (ITB). In 2013, Ridwan Kamil, an alumnus of ITB’s faculty of architecture, became the mayor of Bandung. Under his five-year tenure he brought about sweeping reforms to the city’s notoriously inefficient bureaucracy. But to most people, he is most known for his effort to bring people back to the parks by reinvigorating the existing ones to make them cooler for the younger generation and friendlier to families and kids. On top of that, he also created new public spaces as a better and healthier alternative to malls.
Teras Cikapundung on the banks of the Cikapundung river that flows to the north of ITB’s campus is an example of what the municipal government has done to provide residents with more recreational venues. Once a derelict corner of Bandung which at one point was almost turned into another commercial center, under the leadership of Emil – a nickname by which the former mayor is affectionately known – this place is now an unexpected haven for people of all ages. The grounds are peppered with art installations, a refreshing change from the incongruous houses and concrete buildings surrounding it. Further down the main road toward the northwest is the beginning of Cihampelas Street, a narrow two-lane thoroughfare popular in the 1990s as the city’s hub of jeans shops. As commercial activity peaked, so did the number of hawkers filling up both sides of the road which contributed to its reputation as one of the most congested parts of Bandung. In 2017 the city government built an elevated pedestrian walkway spanning 450 meters above the constantly busy street as a new place for those hawkers to run their business while at the same time providing locals and visitors alike with a more comfortable way to explore this part of the city on foot.
The Bandung government also actively recruited independent architecture studios to contribute to its plans for urban renewal to bring fresh ideas and incorporate them into people’s daily lives. An unused plot of land in a rundown area known for its scrap metal shops, which for years was where the locals dumped their garbage, is an example of one such project. Thanks to local firm SHAU, the junkyard was turned into a welcoming public space with a layout that encourages people to explore its nooks and crannies. Known as Alun-Alun Cicendo, the relatively small plaza is now a lively place where residents play sports and gather, kids run around, and trendy city dwellers take selfies with the striking ocher-hued pavilion in the background. Not too far from this park is Bima Microlibrary, also designed by SHAU with the purpose of creating a space to encourage people to read more on top of doing other communal activities.
In my previous company I had to go to Bandung every other week to visit the company’s IT office, which is still located in the city despite the headquarters’ move to Jakarta more than a decade ago. Nothing is fun about a standard work trip, but these regular travels to Bandung at least allowed me to briefly escape Jakarta’s hot and humid weather. The IT department occupies a beautiful Dutch colonial building at the heart of the city where the sidewalks had been restored and gentrified during Ridwan Kamil’s tenure as mayor, making a morning or afternoon walk there much more pleasant than before.
However, as his term ended in 2018, followed by his successful bid to be elected as the governor of West Java, Emil now has much bigger responsibilities on his shoulders. Bandung, on the other hand, is now run by his former deputy. On my last work trip to the city, I asked an online taxi driver about how Bandung has been doing since the baton of leadership was passed to the new mayor. “The new mayor doesn’t really need to create new policies, just continue what Emil has started,” he said while lamenting City Hall’s inability to follow in those footsteps. As an outsider, I did notice how some corners of Bandung began to lose their charm, albeit only marginally.
In spite of this, I see myself returning to this city again and again in the future, because despite Bandung’s many incompetent politicians, I have faith in the public’s ability to remain true to their creative and artistic calling which makes this city an exciting place to explore.