In Yogyakarta and Singapore, youth movements have sprouted to address the negative impacts of rapidly changing cityscapes.
Urban dwellers often face rapid changes in their cityscapes. Several changes to urban spaces have been made for developmental purposes, spanning from the building of new infrastructure to the demolition of existing urban landscapes. This so-called “commodification of spaces”, with its extensive spread across most cities, has wreaked severe impacts on urban dwellers’ natural surroundings and lives. Given that the current generation is the main recipient of such effects, civil society, in particular urban youth, has taken the initiative to use creative methods to advocate and prevent further loss of their urban landscapes. Both Yogyakarta and Singapore have experienced ongoing changes in their urban landscape, and each is contextualised within their country’s own development progress. The tangible and intangible losses from these developmental changes have led to unique responses by urban youth.
In Yogyakarta, the increase in hotel development was one of the most prolific urban space commodifications. With “only” 773 hotels in 2019, this number significantly increased to 1,833 hotels in 2021. The increase led to water scarcity issues in several sub-districts, such as Gondokusuman, Mergangsan, Mantrijeron, Jetis and Umbulharjo. Furthermore, the emergence of new hotels has led to the proliferation of vehicles within the city due to tourism, consequently worsening air pollution and traffic congestion issues. The proliferation of hotels also resulted in social gentrification, where new socio-cultural interactions were introduced in the shared urban space. For example, the city now sees an active nightlife scene and the continuous movement of people in and out of hotels late at night. Apart from that, traditional performances conducted to celebrate special occasions were also significantly reduced with the introduction of tourists and urban dwellers. The sense of togetherness and closeness (silaturahmi) in the community had since disappeared with the city’s rapid urban development.
These phenomena have awakened responses from civil society, especially among urban youths. They held discussions, either formal or informal, to promote the importance of sustainable city development and to criticise the current development in Yogyakarta. Others conducted social demonstrations on the main streets. For instance, in 2014, Dodok Putra Bangsa, a local artist, demonstrated a theatrical performance known as the “sand bath” to protest against the development of the new Fave Hotel, as it had caused water shortage issues in the local communities. Dodok’s advocacy put increased scrutiny on hotel developments within Yogyakarta which indirectly highlighted a corruption case within the local government. The former mayor of Yogyakarta, Haryadi Suyuti, was arrested for his involvement in a building permit bribery case which potentially was the cause for the uncontrolled hotel developments during his administration. To “celebrate” his “winning”, Dodok cut off his famously-known long hair in front of the mayor’s office of Yogyakarta, effectively proving his point of an unequal relationship between the state and the local community regarding city development.
Apart from that, others delivered their critiques through wall murals along the streets. Specific phrases were used as messages in their murals, for instance, “Jogja Ora Didol” (Yogyakarta is Not for Sale) and “Jogja Asat” (Yogyakarta is Drying Up). Seen as a creative street art movement, these murals highlighted the environmental situation within their city and the resolve of youths in the fight against the massive construction of hotels. Unfortunately, these murals were viewed as vandalism by the local government and were banned from display. Despite the resistance, urban youth in Yogyakarta were not deterred.
The commodification of urban spaces is part and parcel of any city’s development. That said, there is a need to achieve a fine balance between new developments and the needs of local communities.
In Singapore, city commodification has been an ongoing process for the nation’s development. Fuelled by the need to keep up with the demands of a growing population, Singapore has been consistently converting existing areas into new land-use types. This has led to multiple instances where old but uniquely designed post-war architecture were demolished to give way for new development. A clear example is the demolition of the Old National Library Building for the construction of the Fort Canning Tunnel to ease congestion. Rapid changes in Singapore’s urban landscape were made without much consultation from the public. This led to perceptions that modifications in the cityscape were viewed as regular events. This mentality, however, shifted in recent years when people, especially the younger generation, began to notice the rate at which places of social-cultural meanings were removed in view of development. This was further amplified by the en-bloc sale (or collective sale) of Pearl Bank Apartments and Golden Mile Complex in 2018. These post-war modernist buildings were iconic images of Singapore’s post-independence development and a significant reminder of Singapore’s identity in the 1970s.
The potential demolition of the two icons sparked a wave of social movements in Singapore, a reaction not commonly associated with young Singaporeans. Save Our Modern Icons, an online petition, was set up by a group of architects, academics and heritage specialists to appeal to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) on the need to gazette architecturally significant buildings such as Golden Mile Complex and People’s Park Complex with conservation status. With this status, new owners of these buildings would need to abide by the model of conservation, focusing on re-imaging and rejuvenating these buildings. Apart from that, non-profit organisations such as the Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) submitted a position paper to various ministries in Singapore to advocate for the need to rejuvenate or repurpose older buildings. These small but significant social movements have reaped some benefits, with Golden Mile Complex being gazetted as a conserved building in 2020. Unfortunately, some buildings were not saved from demolition despite efforts made. Pearl Bank Apartments was eventually demolished in 2020 and put up for redevelopment.
The commodification of urban spaces is part and parcel of any city’s development. That said, there is a need to achieve a fine balance between new developments and the needs of local communities. Constant consultation and feedback from the ground are needed to moderate the effects of urban development. The emergence of urban youth taking the initiative to be at the forefront of social movements advocating for new changes is a good sign, especially when this generation had long been presumed to be apathetic toward social issues. Re-strengthening the voices of civil society will ensure the incorporation of public opinions into the city’s future development plans, allowing a more holistic balance between the needs of the nation and the community.
Paulus Bagus Sugiyono is a researcher at the Atma Jaya Institute of Public Policy (AJIPP), University of Atma Jaya, Jakarta.
Neo Hui Yun Rebecca is a research officer in the Indonesia Studies Programme, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.