Rio to Brasilia, Seoul to Sejong, Old Cairo to New Cairo, Yangon to Naypyidaw, and now Jakarta to Nusantara.
For decades, countries have responded to fiscal, environmental and land use pressures on their urban capitals by relocating them altogether – a move that experts say has historically proven costly, resource intensive and, in some cases, unsuccessful.
“Failure of a capital city depends on what metrics you’re using: Is it green, is it affordable, is it socially inclusive?” Sarah Moser, professor of cultural and urban geography and head of the McGill University New Cities Lab, a research team oriented around the study of new master-planned urban development, says.
“All capital cities tell a story, whether there’s a master plan from scratch or not,” Dr. Moser says. “They’re a reflection of who a country is, who’s in charge.”
This is playing out in real time in Indonesia: With overdevelopment resulting in heavy air pollution and land subsidence to the point that the current capital is quite literally sinking, the government opted in 2019 to relocate to Nusantara, on the East Kalimantan province, in the island of Borneo.
Indonesia’s woes offer a cautionary tale to other cities grappling with the expense of climate change: Damages from extreme weather events could cost cities billions without any climate mitigation or adaptation strategies, such as building sea walls or structures designed to lessen the impact of floods, hurricanes and tsunamis.
But relocating is also costly: The move to Nusantara is expected to run roughly US$33-billion and was planned as an effort to redistribute wealth out of Jakarta, which sits on an island home to nearly 60 per cent of the country’s population. An estimated 1.5-million civil servants could be made to move to new residences and state buildings when the capital relocates.
And Dr. Moser is among a number of urban planning experts who is skeptical of who these moves serve: Uprooting a country’s economic and cultural centre, historically, comes with costs for both people and the environments of the localities being developed. Some critics say the funding put into building a new city could be better spent on existing social services, such as education; others fear it will predicate huge land-use changes in a remote area, and threaten fragile orangutan ecosystems. Some are concerned about what it will mean to radically change the economic geography of the country.
Dorina Pojani, senior lecturer in urban planning at the University of Queensland and author of the 2021 book Trophy Cities doesn’t mince words about capital city relocations like this one: “New capitals created since 1900 have been, for the most part, great planning disasters: dreary, overpowering, underserviced, wasteful and unaffordable,” she said, describing their design, by her analysis, as often reflective of patriarchal power structures.
“It’s a shame, because so much money has been poured into these new cities, and that’s been continuously the critique,” Dr. Pojani says. “We have poor health care in these countries, sanitation, so many other problems. Do you really need to spend all this money rather than just fix the problems of existing cities?”
Take the example of Putrajaya, the new federal administrative capital of Malaysia, built on a former oil palm and rubber plantation. Dr. Moser describes Putrajaya as “emblematic of the trends of former colonies to reject the colonial capital and replace it with a city that symbolizes the state’s national ideology and aspirations.”
Kuala Lumpur, the previous administrative capital, is a city with a multitude of architectural and civil influences from the layers of British, Chinese, Indian and Malay influences. Putrajaya’s architectural influences, Dr. Moser points out, draw on those of architectural influences of “an imagined Middle East,” excluding the vibrancy of a metropolis that was built over time.
Building a new city from scratch cost the Malaysian government $8.1-billion but has failed to attract residents and tourists in volumes comparable with its predecessor. The city was built to accommodate 330,000, but today, a little more than 100,000 people live there, a sliver of the 1.75-million that remain in Kuala Lumpur, which prevails as the country’s economic heartbeat.
Jakarta’s challenges are legendary, but the solution may not necessarily be found by moving the seat of government to a fragile tropical rain forest environment, currently home to vanishing wildlife. Though government officials say they fear that Jakarta will soon be uninhabitable, critics say potential for environmental disaster – not to mention corruption in the doling out of contracts – in relocating it is enormous.
Turning the tide on subsidence – when the land surface sinks and the sea rises, in this case – is not easy. The city has attempted to limit groundwater intake to prevent land collapse, but there is no alternative water supply. Building sea barriers or increasing reliance on mangroves – trees that grow in tropical swamps – as a natural barrier might be an option for the shorelines of Egypt, New York and Zhengzhou, that are also grappling with sea level rise, but with more than 90 per cent of the mangroves surrounding Jakarta destroyed, the government prefers to decamp. Managing climate change around Jakarta could also run the country a hefty tab; a six-mile long sea wall proposed around New York, for example, is slated to cost US$119-billion, many times the projected cost of building Nusantara.
But after a visit to Nusantara, Technical University of Munich professor Walter Timo De Vries says he’s concerned.
“It’s still tropical forest and villages,” he says. “We want to warn the Indonesian government about what can happen, in terms of spatial occupation, land development, drinking water and energy requirements.”
Referencing a similar shift – Brazil’s initiative to move the capital from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia – Dr. De Vries sees history repeating itself.
“You see the justification – that a move will solve the problems of pollution and overpopulation – but it doesn’t actually solve that problem,” he said. “Rio is still increasing in size and environmental pollution, and at the same time nobody feels connected to Brasilia. A location in the centre of the country is symbolic, but why would you put a capital in the Amazon unless you wanted to destroy it?”
Does it make sense to move the Indonesian capital, then?
“Well, it’s a wise decision from the perspective of creating a new identity,” Dr. De Vries says. “But the problems in Jakarta will remain. That city is not going to vanish, and I don’t think the population is going to decrease; there’s nothing to suggest that’s going to happen.”
All told, relocating a capital is costly, both in financial resources applied and natural resources destroyed. That investment is risky, especially if a new city fails to attract the one thing it needs to thrive: residents. If governments are truly focused on building successful, equitable and attractive capitals, everyone needs a say in their design, Dr. Pojani suggests.
“We need to enter a new era of co-design, starting from the basics,” she says. “Involving communities from the very early stages, and asking them ‘What kind of society do you want to live in, what kind of city do you want to live in?’ ”