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Is Jakarta a Global City?

Tulisan Wicaksono Sarosa dan pernah dipublikasikan dalam Majalah Jakarta dan Arsitektur edisi Mei-Juni 1998, hal 22-24

Dok: Nurulitha Andini

The city seems to have been trying hard to change its previous image as a big village to an image of a global city

The past three decades in the life of the city of Jakarta have drastically changed its urban landscape. Glittering skyscrapers, luxurious high-rise apartment buildings, spacious shopping malls and busy thoroughfares have gradually been replacing semi-permanent squatter settlements, crowded traditional markets and mud-puddled streets as the common features of many parts of the city. The city seems to have been trying hard to change its previous image as a big village to an image of a global city.

And before the monetary crisis began to strike, Jakarta – a member of the Mega-Cities network and a sister-city to about a dozen other cities around the globe – to some extent had gotten the feeling of such a global city. Many multinational companies, banks, and other business institutions opened their branches in the city. So did internationally-known franchise restaurants and department stores. And in any corner of this metropolis, we could easily bump into an expatriate.

Even during the current crisis, a lot of the city’s inhabitants watch cautiously the ups and downs of the exchange value of rupiah against the greenback and have become well aware of the increasing interconnection between the local economy and the global one. More amazingly, even some poor people in the most crowded squatter settlement in the city can now talk about “dollar” even though they never directly see or touch the greenback. With all of these and many other phenomena, one question comes up to many people’s mind: “Has Jakarta become a global city?

The answer is likely to be “no”. Or, because this is the image that the city government has been projecting into, the answer is perhaps more appropriately “not yet”. However, before we can be qualified to come to this conclusion, it is important that we understand what a global city is, what impacts this notion may have in the daily life of the city, and why this notion is worthy of discussion here. A more important question, then, comes up: “How can we most effectively make Jakarta a global city?

What is a Global City?

Referring to cities “where quite a disproportionate portion of the world’s most important business is conducted,” Patrick Geddes coined the term “world cities” in 1915 (King 1990, Short 1996). That is long before the term “globalization” becomes the buzzword in daily conversations as it is today. With the world cities or global cities – as Saskia Sassen (1991) terms them – act as the “command and control” centers of the global economies, they also directly or indirectly influence regional as well as many local economies. Consequently, global cities also commonly act as the hubs of air transportation as well as the circulation of transnational capital that is spreading around the world in this era of globalization.

As such, global cities are not necessarily “megacities”, since the latter indicates more about the population (and consequently physical) size of the cities and not the centers of global economic activities as the former do. Mexico City, for example, is qualified to be called a megacity because it has a population of more than 10 million. However, it can hardly be a world city or global city because its economic “sphere of influence” is limited perhaps to the Caribbean region.

Short (1996) indicates only three major global cities – London, New York, and Tokyo – and a few secondary global cities such as Paris, Frankfurt, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Hong Kong and Sydney. Under these two levels of global cities are the regional centers such as Singapore for the Southeast Asia region and Mumbai (Bombay) for the South Asia region.

In addition to these cities, we should consider at least one more city: Washington, D.C. From the vantage point of business activities, this city actually cannot be qualified as a global city. But, the global economic importance of this capital city of the world’s sole superpower and the sites for the World Bank’s and the International Monetary Fund’s headquarters cannot be easily dismissed. All of these are part of what some urban geographers call “the spatial articulation of the emerging world system of production and markets through a global network of cities.

Where Does Jakarta Stand?

While it is easy to admit that Jakarta is not yet a global city, figuring where Jakarta currently stands in the global economic network of cities is not an easy task. As indicated before, even within the Southeast Asia region, Jakarta can hardly claim to be the region’s economic center, a litle more appropriately attributed to the city-state of Singapore.

During the monetary crisis, we can feel that what business people in New York and Singapore think about what is going on in Indonesia can significantly influence the value of rupiah vis-a-vis that of greenback. We furthermore know that this exchange rate then affects the prices of most commodities consumed by the people in this country, hence affect our livelihood. This is a material manifestation of “control” in the meaning of global cities. The global city of New York and the regional center of Singapore, to some extent, control the livelihood of the people of Jakarta.

So, in the global network of cities, Jakarta is still in the periphery (even though it is indeed a very strong center in the national network of cities). This is why the importance of understanding this global network of cities and of putting the city of Jakarta in a better position cannot be ignored. As Ross and Trachte argue (King 1990), such global cities “are the locations of the institutional heights of worldwide resource allocation, concentrating the production of cultural commodities that knit global capitalism into a web of symbolic hierarchy and interdependence.” By understanding the working of global cities, we can more effectively adjust our strategy in this endeavor.

In the constellation of global cities, Jakarta is not competing with Frankfurt nor Sao Paulo. It is instead competing with Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Manila to replace Singapore as the regional center, while Singapore itself has in the last decades been trying to unseat Hong Kong or Sydney as the secondary global city in this hemisphere (with serious challenge may come from Shanghai along with the growing might of China’s economic power). Meanwhile, even though Japan’s economy has been in a struggle to grow in the last few years, Tokyo seems to be unreplaceable as a primary global city in the Eastern time zones.

What to Do and the Consequences for Architects

The question is now what we – urban managers, planners and architects in Jakarta – can do to improve the city’s standing in the global constellation of cities. Two major limitations come to mind:

  • with Indonesia currently experiencing the worse economic crisis among Asian nations, it certainly is more difficult to do anything more than just to fulfill the basic necessities (such as foods, clothes and shelters) of the city’s inhabitants;
  • with the economic gap between Jakarta and other areas in the country still wide, spreading more economic activities among the regions in Indonesia is higher priority list than improving Jakarta’s standing in the world.

Yet, because we certainly do not want to be in the periphery of this constellation all the time, there is nothing wrong to spare some of our energy and time to think about how to go about with this situation. One lesson we learned from the current monetary crisis is those glittering buildings and all physical appearances of a modern city are not enough to make a global city unless they are true image – not the false one – of our societies and, more importantly, the welfare of the people. The city is a mirror of the society. Architects certainly contribute to the creation of the city, both physically and image-wise. Constructing glittering high-rise buildings has little purpose in the creation of the image of the city if we do not do anything significant in improving the social economic conditions of the majority people, hence improving the economic fundamentals of the city and the nations.

Architects should therefore learn more about social architecture first before attempting to create a particular image of a city. Jakarta can only be a global city after the basic needs of its inhabitants are met. Only after we strengthen this foundation then we can create a true image of a city as a global player. There are certainly enough rooms for architects to make a contribution in this endeavor.


King, Anthony D., (1990). Global Cities: Post-Imperialism and the Internationalization of London. London: Routledge

Short, John Rennie, (1996). The Urban Order: An Introduction to Cities, Culture and Power. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publisher.