Look out of the taxi window as you head from the airport toward central Surabaya, and one thing will strike you: the roads are so clean. The road borders are painted in blue-and-white stripes; plants in brightly coloured metal tins sit on top of lane dividers; and public workers can be spotted watering the trees and flowers in the medians. “It is because of Risma,” explains Budi Santoso, a taxi driver and Surabaya native. Beaming, he adds, “She made it clean, and she has put in parks. She’s doing good things.”
Risma is the name by which Surabayans know Tri Rismaharini, the city’s mayor who, since being elected in 2010, has transformed Indonesia’s second-largest city. She is credited with overhauling this metropolis of about three million people – which was previously suffering from choking traffic, flood-prone waterways and rubbish-strewn streets – into one of the country’s most liveable places. Risma’s achievements have been recognised internationally, most recently with the Scroll of Honour award from UN-Habitat, given for work in “improving human settlements and the quality of urban life” this October.
Her concept of city parks is an open space for the expression, activity and creativity of residents
“Risma’s leadership embodies the power of the mother,” Eddy Prastyo muses, perched on his seat at Coffee at Louis, a café located in the creative neighbourhood of Darmo in the city’s southwest. A journalist at the news portal Suara Surabaya, which includes a popular radio station, Prastyo knows the mayor well, having regularly interviewed her for the radio station and online stories. “When something is not right, she will fight to correct it.”
Originally from Jakarta, 41-year-old Prastyo moved here in 1996 to study, stayed on after graduating, and has no intention of leaving, thanks in part to Risma’s successful policies. “She wants everything in balance. The first things she added [when she became mayor] were gardens, trees and parks. Her concept of city parks is an open space for the expression, activity and creativity of residents.”
A 15-minute drive from the café – a trip that used to take twice that time before the mayor implemented improvements to the city’s traffic – brings you to Risma’s office in centrally located City Hall, a grand building with beautiful gardens that are open to the public. Risma trained as an architect before heading up the city’s Landscape and Cleanliness Department (2005-2008) and then the city’s Planning and Development Bureau (2008-2010). She has held the city’s top job ever since and is now in her second term.
“I didn’t want to be mayor,” she admits during a chat in her office, where an entire video wall is covered with live feeds of traffic junctions, government service counters and water pumping stations. “I was recommended to the position [by leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, Megawati Soekarnoputri]. I am not a politician. Even now, I don’t understand politics,” she says, letting out a riotous laugh. With a background rooted in real city issues and not the closed-door deal-making of politics, Risma immediately set about trying to improve Surabaya.
“We had problems with flooding and rubbish,” she shares, her eyes expressive behind thin-framed spectacles. The solutions, which are ongoing, were refreshingly logical. She spearheaded campaigns to clean up the rivers, build pumping stations, widen pavements and install large drainage systems underneath them (making them easier to clean) as well as adding what she terms “urban forests”. The newly planted trees help to reduce flooding by taking up water.
Risma’s plans were bolstered by her hands-on approach: she’s known to personally sweep roads, clear rubbish, plant trees – actions detailed in articles by the national newspaper Kompas and on YouTube. “I try to set an example. If the citizens know their leader cares, then everyone will help. If I am close to them, I will know their problems and I can try to solve them.”
Other improvements under her tenure include building 400 sports facilities across the city, adding hundreds of parks and opening up scores of libraries.
It has not all been plain sailing. Her underground drainage plan met with objections because of the disruptions it caused. “Initially, the citizens were confused with what I was doing,” explains the 57-year old. “But now they understand.”
Agnes Swetta Pandia, East Java Bureau Chief for Kompas, is one resident who has noted those changes. “Surabaya used to be dirty; heaps of rubbish everywhere,” she says. Originally from Sumatra, fifty-something Pandia moved here in 1994.
She describes how traffic intersections used to be crowded with beggars, making drivers feel unsafe. (The homeless people have since been re-housed by the government.) “During the rainy season, almost half of Surabaya would be flooded,” she adds. “Now, I don’t want to move. Thanks to Risma, it’s very clean and safe here. I go home at 11pm every night with no problem. I think it’s the most liveable city in Indonesia.”
Pandia writes frequently about Risma and describes some of the innovative changes implemented in the city over the past eight years as extraordinary. For example, electronic procurement has helped to reduce the city budget and a number of city licences can now be processed online, making life a lot easier for entrepreneurs.
Evidence of this support for new businesses is the co-working space Koridor, which opened as a collaboration between the government and a number of companies including Google.
Open 24 hours and free to use, Koridor was set up in the city centre at the end of 2017 and now offers a stylish space for young creatives to work and network. As a further sign of the city’s burgeoning creative scene, private co-working spaces like C2O Library & Collabtive, Satu Atap and Sub Co, have also sprung up in recent years.
The city used to be monotone. Now it is full of colour.
This zeal has helped give the next generation the confidence to launch businesses like Kudos, a hip café in affluent West Surabaya, designed by local architecture firm Ara Studio. Resembling an elevated A-frame cabin with a zigzag tin roof, it attracts Surabayans with its fine coffee and light bites.
Another recent arrival, opened a couple of months ago, is Kultur Collaborative Space, also by Ara Studio. A community hub, creative forum and incubator, it is currently hosting a pilot project where baristas from the city create new products. “It is a café now, but in the next two months it could be something different,” explains Erel Hadimuljono, founder of Ara Studio. “I think Risma’s policies have [convinced] a lot of the young generation that there is hope to make Surabaya more exciting.”
At another new café, Jokopi, a short walk from City Hall, Ayos Purwoaji, a 31-year-old writer and art curator stresses how the mayor has refreshed the face of the city, citing Taman Bungkul (taman is Bahasa for park or garden) as an example of those changes. A decade ago, the park was home to a cemetery and had a foreboding atmosphere. Under Risma, the area was revamped and was the recipient of an Asian Townscape Award in 2013.
The addition of parks has been a recurring theme under Risma. Taman Ekspresi, built on the site of a former petrol station, is filled with whimsical sculptures made by local artists from scrap metal and recycled materials.
Perhaps the most remarkable creation is Taman Harmoni in East Surabaya. The park was built over a landfill, but now features lush flowerbeds, as well as a section where rows of bamboo have been planted to bend over and create a captivating tunnel effect.
The park draws people from around the city, such as twentysomething Bekti Elyana, who is on a stroll with his wife. He says, “Risma made the city greener. There are more people outside, walking. The city used to be monotone. Now it is full of colour.”
Now the question for many citizens is, what next? Risma’s second and final term ends in February 2021 and as Prastyo shares, “People are worried about who will take over. Risma has not prepared for a successor because she concentrates on the work.”
In her remaining two years, she has been quoted in several newspaper reports as wanting the city to have 1,000 museums. She regrets she won’t have time to restart the city’s tram system, but for a woman with unquenchable vision and ambition, there will always remain grand proposals stymied by time, not desire.
But that should not detract for all that she has done. In addition to laying the physical groundwork that has transformed the city, she has reshaped the mindsets of her colleagues and citizens, enabling them to play a key role in ensuring Surabaya continues to flourish.
Mount Bromo – This active volcano is about three hours from the city. Many come to see the sunrise so the two-hour hike is often done in darkness. The reward is stunning views of the volcanic caldera.
Madura – Located across the Madura Strait via the 5.4km Suramadu Bridge, this island is the closest bona-fide beach destination to Surabaya. Highlights include Lombang Beach and Toroan Waterfall.
Ijen – This volcanic crater is filled with a striking emerald-green acid lake – the world’s largest. It’s nearly seven hours from Surabaya by car, so you should plan an overnight stay near the volcano.
Singapore Airlines flies to Surabaya once daily. SilkAir flies to Surabaya once to twice daily. To book a flight, visit singaporeair.com
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This article was originally published in the December 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine