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Street Beautification in Chennai, India

Over the past several years the city of Chennai has made efforts to improve the aesthetics of their streets, painting vast murals along all the main roads, highlighting the cultural, traditional, and religious aspects of Tamil Nadu and India. I heard somewhere that this was started to discourage public urination, but I think it has been successful in changing the way people think about public space in several ways: whether it is urinating, or spitting paan, or littering, people seem to have much more respect for the painted walls than other areas. They also make the streets much more pleasant to travel, giving me something to look at while stuck in traffic on the packed city buses I would frequently travel on.


This past Saturday evening I joined the River4Life community for their event in a village two hours outside of Jakarta. After traveling through the dark along winding mountain roads we reached the village, which is literally at the top of a mountain surrounded by hundreds of acres of a tea plantation. The night was so cold, sleeping inside a small Sundanese home with no electricity and only a thin blanket, that I was unable to get much more than one hour of sleep. In the morning however, we awoke to a beautiful sunrise over the top of the mountains, breathing the cool, clean, air that was quite a contrast to the crowded rush of Jakarta.


The event occurred at the river on the outskirts of the village, where twenty to thirty 5th and 6th graders joined us for the activity. River4Life routinely travels to communities to teach them about the environment and how to care for it. They didn’t teach the children about waste, but rather about the rivers. They taught them about the ecosystem and ecology, and how to understand the life cycle of a river’s biota. The children played games, explored, and reflected. They went into the river searching for life, and came back with a variety of worms and snails, tadpoles, frogs, and a baby catfish, checking off the names of each on a checklist they were provided with.

At the end of the day the children each wrote their own personal pledge, vowing to care for the environment and not throw trash in the river. One by one they read them to the camera, making their statements concrete and meaningful. Everyone had fun, the children and the volunteers, everyone participated, and the children were able to draw their own conclusions about the importance of the river. After the event was over, we all sat down to eat lunch together, even calling down the other children of the village who sat watching the event for the top of the hill.

Sungaiku, Sayangku!
My River, My Love!

Car-Free Day Jakarta

Photo courtesy of Rokimas Soeharyo

This past Sunday I meet up with my old college friend from the University of Michigan, Rokimas Soeharyo, to attend Car-Free Day in Jakarta. The event occurs twice a month in which certain roads are closed to motorized traffic, and thousands of people come out to bike, walk, skateboard, and socialize in the streets of the city.

The night before the event I was with a friend of mine as she scrambled to borrow a bike from a friend in order to join her office on their ‘bike to eat’ event, where they biked as a group to a restaurant for breakfast, and then biked from there to another location for lunch.

This is just one of the many ways people have chosen to participate in the event, joining families, friends, and other groups, ranging from serious bike enthusiasts to those that just want to come out and socialize, eat the wide range of street food available, watch magicians perform, or listen to the live reggae band on the stage that has been set up on the street. A local television celebrity challenged a crowd to participate in a game for his show, and a government-run mobile health unit provided people with free health screenings and medication.
(Photo courtesy of Rokimas Soeharyo)

People came from along over Jakarta to participate in the event. The four youth pictured below traveled 1.5 hours on their fixed gear bikes from Bekasi, a town on the eastern border of Jakarta. They have been riding fixed gear bikes for two months because they are trendy and stylish, and make the trip every two weeks to enjoy the energy of being around like-minded people.

Some critics have accused the event of not doing enough, saying that closing a few roads from 6am – 12pm two days a month has little effect on carbon emissions and pollution. However, after being out in the street and feeling the energy of the crowds I can say I am a huge supporter of the event, believing that the impact is not isolated to the two days a month, but carries over into the rest of peoples lives. This event has encouraged countless people to purchase their first bikes and introduced them to the joys of riding. Unfortunately, this is the only opportunity most have to get out and ride their bikes in the heavily congested city.

I think that Car-Free Day is just the start and that Jakarta will see a greater push to create a more equitable city for pedestrians, bike riders, and the environment. The idea has already been picked up other places, with Car-Free Days occurring in Bandung, Semarang, and other Indonesian cities.

Diet Kantong Plastik

Yesterday I traveled down to Bandung from Jakarta to meet with one of the leading NGOs dealing with waste management and recycling in Indonesia, Greeneration Indonesia.

Here, Mufti Alem, member of Greeneration Indonesia, and designer of the BaGoes bag, explained to me their tri-fold approach to improving  environmental standards, consisting of:

1) Diet Kantong Plastik or ‘Plastic Bag Diet’- as a campaign, encouraging people to change their lifestyle to one that is more environmentally sustainable.

2) BaGoes– as a product, foldable, portable, fashionable, and sustainable shopping bags, which they market and sell through a partnership with Cirle K convenience stores.

3) MasukRT– as a program, community initiated and maintained composting and recycling projects in various neighborhoods around Bandung.

The campaign is centered around getting people to go on a diet from plastic bags, consuming less of the bags that are frequently seen discarded along the streets and clogging up the rivers and streams that flow through this mountainous city.

One way they have sought to achieve this is through the design and development of portable reusable shopping bags. They have branded this product ‘BaGoes’, a play on words consisting of Bag-Goes (everywhere with you), and pronounced ‘Bagus’, a statement used in Bahasa Indonesia to proclaim that something is great. They can be folded up and closed with a zipper, making them easy to always keep on hand. They come in a variety of colors and are stamped with clever slogans or corporate sponsors, and come in sizes from small to extra large.

I have seen many takes on the re-useable shopping bag in the US, and have owned several myself, but it seemed I would never have it on hand when I found myself in the grocery store. BaGoes bags, however, fold up small enough to fit on your keychain, making them easy to carry everywhere. The small size, as pictured below, is large enough to carry “two beers and some snacks”, as Mufti put it.

The revenue generated by the sale of these bags is then used to help finance Greeneration’s public awareness campaigns, as well as their community led composting projects that they promote throughout Bandung.

Flying Kites at MONAS

One of my favorite things to do in Jakarta is sit in the grass and fly kites in the park around MONAS, Indonesia’s national monument.

I woke up early this morning and took the busway down. Watching out the window I saw large groups of young bicyclists riding the fixed gear bikes that are even more popular here than in the US. I saw groups of people in matching T-shirts cleaning litter out of a fountain in a roundabout. It’s a very active Sunday morning and by the time I reach the monument I can tell it will  be a good day. All the gates around the park seem to be perpetually locked so I just squeeze between the bars like everyone else and I am inside.

The park is always full of people, but today literally thousands of people showed up to relax on their Sunday off. There were families with their children, crowds of school children, lovers, as well as communities that traveled from out of town together and sat in the shade beneath banners stating where they come from. People could be seen doing just about anything: playing badminton, flying kites, or riding around on rented tandem bicycles.

There were karate classes throwing kicks and punches, and areas where masseuses had laid out tarps and were giving massages for a small price in the shade. A two piece Gamelan orchestra performed for a crowd with a monkey wearing a doll’s mask and holding a toy rifle. Vendors occuppied every inch of the sidewalk selling bottle water and snacks.

I found a nice place to seat in the grass, bought a packet of fried tofu from a man walking by and watched the children play, smiling. Babies stared at me and I waved, school girls walked by giggling and I blushed, old women cracked jokes about me in Bahasa and I just smiled, agreeing with them. Two kids kicked a ball back and forth, two others pulled a cardboard Bajaj behind them on a string, replicating the loud noise the real ones make and they peal down the streets free of a muffler.

Two guys in their twenties sit down with me and we talk, switching between English and my limited Bahasa. They say that the park is always this crowded on Sunday and agree with me that the citizens of Jakarta strive to live an active life style. I ask him why he came to MONAS today and he says that he just likes to walk around and that he enjoys the atmosphere. It seems like everyone does. There have been several recent policy initiatives in Jakarta to encourage a healthier lifestyle and cleaner environment, such as car-free Sundays, which I hope to write about next week. What I am really curious to know is how much of this activity is due to policy and how much is just due to a personal desire to have a healthier life.