Sunday, May 23, 2010

Inside Indonesia's strange model town: Lippo Karawaci

Jakarta is a disjointed, sprawling mess like many large cities in developing Asia. In the main business district, skyscrapers back onto fetid rivers of sewage and crumbling kampungs. There are few real enclaves and even the well-to-do have to put up with potholes and pollution.

One of the few places where you can escape the urban planning nightmare is Lippo Karawaci, a model town 30 minutes drive (in good traffic) west of central Jakarta.

Built by the Riady family conglomerate, Lippo Group, it is meant to provide a slice of Singapore-style living within reach of Jakarta, with clean streets, pedestrian crossings and no hawkers or motorbike taxis. 

I went there today for the first time. Walking down the main street, lined with trees and a succession of open-air eateries and cafes, it feels more like a theme park than an Indonesian town.

The architecture is bizarre to say the least, with the Riady's University of Pelita Harapan looking like (and doubling as) a motor racing pit building and the monstrous Amartapura condominium towers dominating the skyline.

The influence of the evangelical Christianity of James Riady, son of the Lippo Group's founder Mochtar, is everywhere. American-style digital signboards distract drivers with religious messages and the Riady-owned Times bookshop in the centre of town, billed as one of the biggest in Indonesia, is full of dire, religious literature.

If this is what passes for urban planning in Indonesia, I think I prefer the chaos and sprawl.

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