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Improving Bandung one day at a time

Mayor Ridwan Kamil's dream is to make Bandung a little like Kyoto

Publication Date : 20-01-2014


Since he became mayor of Bandung, Indonesia's third-largest city, last September, Ridwan Kamil has devised campaigns to fill every day of the week


It is car-free mornings on a main street every Sunday, free travel for schoolchildren on public buses every Monday, and no-smoking day every Tuesday.

On Wednesdays, residents are encouraged to speak Sundanese to preserve their identity, but Thursdays are for speaking English so they can better communicate with the outside world.

Friday is the day for getting around on a bicycle, while on Saturday, a section of the city centre is closed off to traffic and opened to food vendors for a weekly culinary night.

These are not just plans to fill up or rebrand the calendar, but part of Ridwan's bigger strategy to fix the city's notorious traffic and infrastructure woes, improve the lot of its people after a long period of mismanagement and make it more liveable.

"My dream is to make Bandung a little like Kyoto, modern without losing its sense of identity," he said. "A bit like Singapore, but still Sundanese," he added, referring to the language and culture for some 30 million Indonesians mostly in West Java.

Ridwan, 42, and a trained architect, is part of a new breed of politicians who are transforming the country's cities with a mix of decisive leadership and persuasive prowess, including Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo and Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini.

The second of five children of an international law professor and a pharmacy lecturer, he graduated from the Bandung Institute of Technology and taught there before getting a master's in urban design at the University of California, Berkeley. He then worked in the United States and Asia before returning to set up his own firm, Urbane, in Bandung in 2004.

Ridwan is not a member of any political party. His decision to run for mayor last year was spurred by his realisation that if people put their hopes in career politicians alone, the congested, flood-prone city would remain that way for years.

And when he won, he made it clear that if the city were run by civil servants alone, nothing would change either.

He got all city departments to set up a Twitter account so that the city's 2.6 million residents could give instant feedback on everything from potholes to parking violations.

"They used to tweet to my account; now, I can breathe a little easier," he said at a recent lunch for visiting journalists in his office. He has also formed some 300 teams, each headed by a civil servant, for residents to brainstorm solutions to a litany of problems, from street vendors to public transport.

There have been detractors of his hands-on approach, including controversial lawyer Farhat Abbas, who wrote in a Twitter post: "I suggest the Mayor of Bandung just wear a Superman cape, wear his underpants (on the) outside, so people and the world know we have a strange mayor."

Ridwan said he just wants what is best for Bandung residents. His record speaks for itself: "Wasted spaces" like land beneath flyovers have been turned into city parks, complete with benches and free wireless Internet access. Work to revitalise rivers - these provide an outlet for stress - is under way.

The city has also started installing automated parking meters, a move Ridwan said has cancelled out leakage and ensured more revenue for the city.

City officials have relocated street vendors away from busy roads, amid protests, and also offered the homeless and those caught begging - many of whom hail from outside the city - jobs as sweepers or newspaper deliverymen, with limited success.

Many of the urban problems, Ridwan noted, are created by migrants, adding that wider national solutions need to be found.

In the meantime, he has stepped up work on improving the city's infrastructure, with ground-breaking for two monorail lines scheduled for early next year.

Bandung sees some six million visitors a year, the second highest figure after Bali, and 80 per cent of them are domestic tourists. This is expected to change as more flights link Singapore and Malaysia with the city, renowned for its cool climate, factory outlets and creative buzz.

That is why, Ridwan said, it is important to beef up public transport - including an ongoing bicycle-rental scheme he started before becoming mayor. He, himself, cycles to work regularly.

Extolling the benefits of cycling, he said: "It is therapeutic... But most importantly, ideas flow when I bike." Ideas he expects more Bandung residents to come up with to help fix their city.


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