Reflections on Resilience Planning in Semarang: Studio/Practicum, one year on

Blog post by Micah Fisher, Learning from Disasters

Today we are reflecting on blogs from almost exactly a year ago. If you go back through the archives on learning from disasters you will notice a series of posts from our work in Semarang from Fall semester 2016. At the Department of Urban and Regional Planning we called this intensive master’s course a practicum, while our counterparts and partners at Diponegoro conduct a similar course, which they call their studio requirement.

Going through our posts from a year ago, we reflected on the thorough approach we undertook to learn about Semarang’s Resilient City plan. As part of this studio/practicum we were asked to help prepare plans to address implementation strategies in the complex subdistrict of Kemijen, a coastal community in the Northern part of Semarang.

A year later, we have returned to learn that the students from Diponegoro had expanded the scope of their studio to also incorporate planning for the neighboring kampong of Tambaklorok. Tambaklorok suffers from similar challenges as Kemijen.

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We recall that in our original mandate for the practicum study in Kemijen we were asked to develop a comprehensive strategy to address barriers for overcoming flooding. In that process we learned that dramatic subsidence issues had completely transformed the community. We pored through the history of the Dutch and railway enterprises there, and how these coastal communities literally began to sink away. Yet the strategic location also meant people depending on employment opportunities in the area, and continued to stay, even in deteriorated living conditions. Furthermore, informal communities began to sprout up all around the area and continue to grow as a dense informal settlement area in a strategic part of the city of Semarang.

Complementing our practicum report on Kemijen from earlier this year, the Diponegoro studio students put together a rich and thorough planning document continuing our work and expanding it to aspects of site planning. Through intensive coordination with the city planning agency and other members of the 100 Resilient City taskforce for Semarang, the studio/practicum helped to raise some key issues in their decision making process.

The students were very generous to spend a full afternoon with us to discuss some of the outcomes of the work we had done there. Indeed it was like a reunion with close friends! We also spent the following morning going to the field to revisit the communities to see first hand how change had taken place in Kemijen and reflect on some of the ways we framed the issues, and perhaps look for evidence on how different initiatives are being implemented.

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Student Reflections

We first wanted to describe some of the student impressions from their studio experience. They immediately brought to the fore the contrast between what the city had planned to do and the “wicked” problem of subsidence that we identified:

I think the subsidence problem is really dangerous. In our studio any of the planning issues we tried to take on, we seemed to always be coming back to the problem of subsidence. We really tried to search for solutions but subsidence really raised the importance of doing something comprehensive. I am still thinking about different ways for addressing the land subsidence until now. 

Back in Hawaii prior to our visit, our interactions with students all noted that it was one of the best learning experiences they had as graduate students. For UH students the topic was important, but more so the intensity of the working experience going to a new country paired with students from another university and working on a tough planning challenge, that was also getting committed attention from influential decisionmakers in the city, was indeed an unforgettable experience for us as educators as well.

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Here are some of the responses from the Diponegoro students:

When we first went there the living conditions were really bad. We didn’t understand why anybody would want to live there. And they don’t want to move. I was very surprised about that. But after we went back again and again we began to understand. We began to see the people and understand their decisions and priorities. Some people were born there, or the location is near their jobs, or they have no other options. But we also found that not all of them are poor. Some of them have more money and have other houses in hilly areas but they still stay there because it is a strategic location.

I think the most important thing is how to convince people who are exposed to these natural disasters to not live there and relocate to other areas. This problem probably comes from institutions where they can’t provide security to give them homes and a better living condition.

Such considerations also provided fodder for discussions around complex decisions about the basis for decision making for planners and decision makers. What are the responsibilities to plan for people living in highly vulnerable situations that do not want to move? How do you come up with criteria for making the strategic decisions that incorporate input from key stakeholders in building such a process? At one point do you make these decisions and how do you stage its implementation? These are ongoing questions that we continue to grapple with throughout our posts in learning from disasters.

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Another key finding from our discussions with Diponegoro students highlighted the utility of the report. We made a big point about how the majority of plans get shelved away and we talked a lot about how to be strategic and responsible in initiating change. Although our report was commissioned by the city resilience taskforce, we were ahppy to hear that our commitment to interact with communities had paid off. One student noted that not only had the city used the findings from the report to improve community services, or according to one student:

In Kemijen, some people asked about our report so that they could use it in the musrenbang [bottom up planning process] to support their programs and get further justification for approval.

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Finally, as master’s students their studies are quickly approaching graduation. We asked about progress on their thesis plans, as well as how the experience might shape their future career plans. One student responded:

For me the experience really made me wonder how to apply these approaches in our work. How do you work with the government and convince them to do the comprehensive approaches to support communities? It is very difficult to do. I myself, am taking leave from my post in a city government nearby. I’m within the system, in the government, but to introduce these type of approaches there’s still a long way to go. It is a lot of pressure for us. Perhaps in the future, I hope, having gone through this, it will give us new possibilities to learn about the study of vulnerability and the application of resilience. Although I do think the problems in Semarang are more complex than other areas.

Visiting Kemijen and Tambaklorok

The Diponegoro students were also gracious to take us around the two communities. Here are a series of photos that highlight some of the complex issues we’ve been discussing.

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