To Bounce Back from COVID-19, Make Space for Indonesia’s Urban Poor
Governments should adopt public space policies that support all citizens—including informal workers and the urban poor.
Across the world, urban residents are discovering that public open space is a lifeline for health and livelihood. Seemingly overnight, many cities have reshuffled parks, beaches, streets, and sidewalks, carving out new pedestrian-only spaces for physically distant recreation and business. These nimble responses are signs of hope and resilience.
But which public do these expansions of the public realm truly serve?
For Indonesia’s urban poor, this sudden premium on public open space is nothing new. Streets, sidewalks, and parks have always been an extension of the living space for slum dwellers, who live in less than 8 square-meters per person. Public space is a backyard in which to exercise, have children play, or just nongkrong (hang out).
Similarly, for informal workers such as vendors, motorbike taxis, and waste pickers, the street has always been their place of work. These workers choose their location and merchandise based on customer traffic in hopes of maximizing daily wages. Public space is thus a critical asset for the informal sector.
Yet, Indonesia’s public space policies currently do not support informal workers and the urban poor. At Depok’s new town square, vendors are restricted from selling inside the park because they are thought to cause visitors to litter. More recently, when Jakarta’s Car Free Day was reintroduced “for exercise only” in June 2020 after having been suspended since March, the event’s usual 3,000 street vendors were banned on the basis that they would draw crowds.
Ongoing public health restrictions concerning public open space have also had unintended consequences for vulnerable populations. A World Bank survey found that between February and May 2020, 1 in 4 urban heads of household in the bottom 40% stopped working, and of those who continued working, 50% experienced reduced income. These figures suggest that the large-scale social restrictions implemented since April 2020 may have put severe strain on millions of already fragile lives.
For informal workers such as vendors, motorbike taxis, and waste pickers, the street has always been their place of work.
To ‘build back better,’ local governments should adopt public space policies that support all citizens—including informal workers and the urban poor. We propose three policy recommendations considered through the lenses of economic growth, health, and infrastructure.
Rather than restricting informal workers, governments should create inclusive laws and regulations that harness the size and productivity of the informal sector. A 2019 ASEAN report estimates that 40% of the urban workforce in Indonesia is informally employed. The informal sector also makes a significant contribution to the GDP of cities—ADB found it contributed some 34% to output in Yogyakarta. Effective short-term economic recovery and long-term growth should thus involve this large and productive subset of the population.
In the short-term, governments could adopt innovative public space policies that allow informal workers to sustain livelihoods. In response to India’s national lockdown in March 2020, the city of Ahmedabad enforced curfew while supporting informal livelihoods by partnering with the Self-Employed Women’s Organization, a trade union of two-million informal workers, to deliver fresh produce and milk to areas under curfew.
Called the “Vegetables on Wheels” initiative, the city issues curfew passes to street vendors granting early-morning market access for the purchase of goods. The city then pays rickshaw drivers to take the vendors along designated routes marked with spaces where they can safely stop and sell goods to curfew wards.
In the long-term, reforming laws and regulations around public open space to support the informal economy could serve as a form of unemployment insurance in the post-pandemic era, potentially reducing the government’s cost of providing social protection.
Local governments should also use this momentum toward public open space to push the boundaries of urban design through innovative, tactical interventions. In the short-term, cities could make use of low-touch resources such as tape, chalk, and paint to redesign public open spaces to support informal workers and the urban poor.
In Salatiga, the local government ensured traditional markets could stay open for business while also maintaining health protocols by moving vendors onto a major street, painting designated spaces for each stall, and adjusting business hours. For shade, cities could hang temporary structures such as tarps or fabric. These light yet highly effective interventions could be a lifeline for these vulnerable populations.
In the long-term, these tactical interventions could serve as pilot projects where governments can draw lessons learned for permanent improvements to public open space. Temporary street markets could become permanently scheduled. Shade structures could also be upgraded to street trees, potentially improving urban heat island effect and air quality.
Lastly, governments should provide basic services in public spaces to strengthen health and well-being for all Indonesians. Government data from 2019 show that 21% (31.8 million) of the urban population does not have access to handwashing facilities with soap and clean water. In Jakarta, water supply has yet to meet the 1997 target for clean water. These barriers to hygiene have serious health implications both during and after the pandemic.
In the short-term, local governments could expand portable handwashing stations with soap and clean water in public spaces so that all citizens can follow COVID-19 health protocols. In the long-term, local governments could invest in permanent water supply infrastructure in public spaces so that informal workers can access clean drinking water and maintain hygienic practices for their businesses. ADB’s planned Livable Settlements Investment Project, which is expected to address both physical and non-physical causes of slums in Indonesia, could help cities achieve development targets such as 100% access to clean water.
To be sure, the new premium on public open space and the outdoors is a silver lining of this pandemic. But public spaces are only truly public when they can be accessed by all members of society. For this reason, it is urgent that cities leverage the current momentum to advocate and prioritize inclusive public open space policies. If Indonesia does not embrace its informal workers and urban poor, it forfeits a key opportunity for a strong recovery.