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Tsunami + 10 in Places Journal – How does “recovery” begin and when does it end?

December 21, 2014

Earlier this year I wrote a blog post regarding a visit I and fellow MIT researchers Professor Lawrence Vale and Dr. Shomon Shamsuddin made to Banda Aceh, Indonesia, to assess the state of rebuilding ten years after the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.

Our article on this visit, exploring the ways in which housing is a critical part of post-disaster recovery and urban resilience, has been published in Places Journal. Please check it out!

View from an Escape Building in Gampong Lambung in Banda Aceh, with another one in the distance. Photo by Lawrence Vale.

View from an Escape Building in Gampong Lambung in Banda Aceh, with another one in the distance. Photo by Lawrence Vale.

Here’s a selection of some the most powerful 10-years-after news stories, focused on Banda Aceh and beyond:
UNICEF looks back at its humanitarian relief efforts, and new schools and health care facilities
Both the Guardian and the Washington Post offer poignant photographic portraits of present day conditions
A BBC reporter is reacquainted with a young woman he first met as a 11 year old girl in 2004
PBS Newshour describes how the 2004 disaster changed the way we track, model, and warn about tsunamis
UN takes a broader look at disaster preparedness in the region
The Diplomat magazine goes back to Ulee Lheue, in Banda Aceh, “ground zero”
The Independent asks a puzzling question: where did all the rubble go?
The Telegraph offers the classic split screen then-and-now
“Snapshots of a Tragedy,” on AsiaOne
Did the 4-year rebuilding phase in Banda Aceh do enough to rebuild livelihoods, asks The Age
Critique of post-Tsunami government bureaucracy and lack of attention to economic development in Aceh, from AsiaOne

Banda Aceh, 10 Years Post-Tsunami

July 14, 2014

I was in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, last week. Traveling with Larry Vale, professor of urban design and planning at MIT and director of the Resilient Cities Housing Initiative (RCHI), and Shomon Shamsuddin, postdoctoral research fellow at RCHI, we were there to observe the progress of housing development ten years after the 2014 Indian Ocean Tsunami. We visited Banda Aceh at the invitation of Teuku Alvisyahrin, of the Tsunami and Disaster Mitigation Research Center.

Aceh Tsunami Museum

Aceh Tsunami Museum

Banda Aceh, although now relatively well-known because of the disaster and subsequent recovery effort, still lies quite far from either mainstream travel itineraries or much international development and planning conversations. Add to that lingering concerns, perpetuated by the slim amount of news of the area, about continued political challenges and the recent implementation of sharia law. It’s not necessarily somewhere one just happens to end up.

The tsunami in 2004 devastated the region, and wiped out large parts of this city. The waves, more than 20 meters high (65 ft), not only leveled the majority of built structures in the affected areas, it reshaped the land itself. Now, Banda Aceh is widely held as a successful reconstruction effort. Indeed, recovery – at least of the built environment – seems rapid and ongoing. Throughout the area, we saw thousands of new homes – all more or less of a kind, small, single-family, modest houses built by scores of NGOs. Ten years on many of the developments feel lived in, changing, and alive.

Source of beauty and destruction

Source of beauty and destruction

Mangrove rehabilitation efforts

Mangrove rehabilitation efforts

Destroyed house at PLTD ship memorial site

Destroyed house at PLTD ship memorial site

That said, they’re also not all the same. Some neighborhoods have clearly grown more organically, in a more interwoven manner, than others. We visited a “model” village, neat houses surrounding a comparably mammoth evacuation building. The only structure older than ten years was a partially destroyed two-plus storey house (see photo below), evidently left in this state as a memorial. We saw growing, changing neighborhoods, including, notably, areas accented with distinctly elevated houses by the nonprofit group UPLINK that had been filled in, added to, increasingly transformed. There were also developments that looked more monotonous and disconnected, showing less regard for existing community and livelihood networks.

Top of the evacuation building

Top of the evacuation building

Lambung from evacuation building. Ochre house at right is the only structure pre-dating the tsunami

Lambung from evacuation building. Ochre house at right is the only structure pre-dating the tsunami

From the top of the Tsunami and Disaster Mitigation Research Center, itself an evacuation building

From the top of the Tsunami and Disaster Mitigation Research Center, itself an evacuation building

kids road

Children play on the unpaved roads of a new housing area

The so-called Kampung Jackie Chan, or more officially Kampung Persahabatan Indonesia-Tiongkok (Indonesia-Tiongkok Friendship Village), funded an built by Chinese charities and contractors

The so-called Kampung Jackie Chan, or more officially Kampung Persahabatan Indonesia-Tiongkok (Indonesia-Tiongkok Friendship Village), funded and built by Chinese charities and contractors

And the growing of new community networks continues, quite literally. We heard stories about orphaned children with rights to houses but not yet old enough to live in them.

It was incredibly sobering to witness villages in which less than a fifth of their original residents survived, the survivors talking about those that perished with a directness that certainly belies the trauma that must have followed this massive destruction. At the end of our visit we visited the largest of the mass grave sites, now the final resting place for more than 46,000 people. How does one comprehend such numbers?

Mass grave at Lambaro

Mass grave at Lambaro

old site - new house

Old footprint, new house

Another powerful facet of the story is the ways in which social relationships changed following such a large scale disaster and the subsequent recovery efforts. Banda Aceh turned into a center of intense NGO activity in the years after the tsunami, NGO expense budgets fueling a not-quite-real environment and economy that I imagine a place like Haiti to be in all the time. Residents also talked about the likely permanent shift in culture over the years, with multi-gender, late night cafe hangouts and WiFi hotspots now quite normal.

Acehnese snacks at Solong Cafe

Acehnese snacks at Solong Cafe

Over the coming months the RCHI team will be doing our part to understand better the role of housing in this recovery – what worked well, and what challenges remain. For now, I feel fortunate to have come at this particular time, soon enough to perceive the palpable enormity of the tragedy, far enough along to sense long-term impacts and real change.

Many thanks to Alvis, whose knowledge, hospitality, and planning made this visit invaluable and memorable.

Photo of the Day: Waduk Pluit, Jakarta

July 14, 2014

Waduk Pluit, Jakarta

Waduk Pluit, close to the north coast of Jakarta, is essentially a very large catchment basin, into which canals drain before being pumped out into the Jakarta Bay. Over the last year and a half, it has been under an intensive development effort, with hundreds of informal kampung settlement houses demolished and cleared from one of its banks, the residents largely moved into nearby low-income housing blocks. The cleared area is now a new park, named Taman Kota Waduk Pluit (Pluit City Park) but popularly known as “Taman Jokowi” after the current governor of Jakarta (and likely new president of Indonesia, see previous post.)

Here, heavy machinery sits at the edge, between new park, existing kampungs, the waduk waters.

Elections in Indonesia

July 12, 2014

Jakarta, July 9, 2014

Sentiments on view at Bunderan HI

Sentiments on view at Bunderan HI

Indonesia conducted its presidential elections the day after I arrived in Jakarta this week. In the world’s third largest democracy, with 183 million registered voters and polling stations across 7,000 islands, this is a huge affair. But not just in scale – it has also been billed as the first Indonesian presidential election that could push it past its ties to Suharto’s authoritarian 32-year reign that ended in 1998.

The election offers stark differences: Joko Widodo (popularly known as Jokowi), the current governor of Jakarta, a populist in style and tone and reformer, against ex-general Prabowo Subianto, once Suharto’s son-in-law, who was dismissed from the military for abducting and torturing pro-democracy activists at the end of the Suharto era.

(To me, even with some valid criticism of Jokowi, there hardly seems to be a choice here! Jokowi’s governorship in Jakarta, hardly two years old, has already shifted and opened up the relationship between citizens and government. To do this on a national scale could bring about a real sea change in Southeast Asia – pun completely intended.)

I felt particularly privileged to witness this historic event in person. Walking around two kampungs (here, loosely, semi-formal urban villages) along the notorious Ciliwung River, where I am conducting research on community design in the face of climate change, I saw a number of polling stations handle their duties quietly and efficiently. Voters were eager to display their ink-tipped fingers showing that they had voted.

Voting station, Bukit Duri, Jakarta

Voting station, Bukit Duri, Jakarta

Voting station, Bukit Duri, Jakarta

Ballot box

Voting station, Bukit Duri, Jakarta

Finger inking

The political persuasions in the kampungs were, like the country at large, mixed. A group of young men enthusiastically declared their support for the former military leader Prabowo, saying he was berani (brave) and tangguh (strong). Nearby one could see banners and posters promoting Jokowi as a man of the people, proclaiming that he spent just about 100,000 IDR (approx. US$8.50) on each item of clothing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Flyer proclaiming Jokowi the people's choice for president

Flyer proclaiming Jokowi the people’s choice for president

Later in the day, I was in a taxi (frequent place to find one’s self in in Jakarta) when the announcement came over the radio that Jokowi had won the “quick count” vote tally. My taxi driver expressed surprise and nervousness at the speed of the announcement, saying that he himself preferred Jokowi, but that they needed to do this right.

Jokowi asserts his (presumed) victory

Jokowi asserts his (presumed) victory

Three days later, the results are still not clear. Both candidates have proclaimed victory, citing conflicting count tallies. Most legitimate sources appear to show a Jokowi win. Final results will be announced on July 22.

Jokowi supporters celebrate at Bunderan HI the evening of the election

Jokowi supporters celebrate at Bunderan HI the evening of the election

Police assemble after quietly dispersing celebrating Jokowi supporters at Bunderan HI in Jakarta

Police assemble after quietly dispersing crowds at Bunderan HI in Jakarta

Other views on the election:
Economist, pre-election
New York Times, post-election
Guardian, post-election
“Jokowi meets foreign press as fraud fears loom,” Jakarta Post, July 11, 2014

Van Nelle in Rotterdam

July 12, 2014

Finally got to visit the Van Nelle factory building in Rotterdam, designed by architects Leendert van der Vlugt and Johannes Brinkman and completed in 1931. It’s been somewhat over-sprucely renovated in the last decade, and now houses a rather predictable assortment of new media companies, law firms, and other facets of the higher-end “creative” economy. The architecture itself left me speechless, astounded.

van nelle1

 

van nelle window

van nelle4

van nelle3

van nelle2

Three Views of Bangkok

July 12, 2014

From a recent short visit to Bangkok.

bangkok_embassy mall

bangkok_houses

bangkok_street

Questions on “Smart Cities”

April 29, 2013

kian goh_smart cities urban logo

In the 1960s and 70s, technology companies took flight from the cities and set up in suburban corporate parks, dreaming up the information systems that would enable further decentralization, prompting Melvin Webber to proclaim the “post-city age” in 1968. Now, global cities threaded by optical fiber and lit up by sensors, hotspots, and RFID tags herald the techno-urban revolution. “Smart cities” are lauded as emancipatory, a new “urban age” in which intelligent systems increase quality of life and alleviate ecological damage. But “smart cities” also imply new spaces of control and ownership, new frontiers in the privatization of urban space, a “virtual enclosures.” The ultimate potential, it appears, is the control of urban practice itself. What, then, will become of the “right to urban life,” as exhorted by Henri Lefebvre?

What are the real-world impacts of real-time intelligent urban systems? To what extent do “smart city” projects constitute new “virtual” and physical enclosures of urban public space in the globalized, capitalist city? And, as we increasingly submit to real-time information gathering and our means of decision-making become more and more intertwined with the networks of urban systems, how is urban “public” experience transformed?

Logo: “urban” with the “u” enclosed like an @.

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