Eco-friendly malls make environmentalism sleek and chic, but they might do more harm than good
Green and white glass bottles on the exterior of Epicentrum Walk give off eco-friendly vibes
Amidst the concrete edifices, congested roads and polluted canals of Jakarta, environmentalism is taking hold. The Bike 2 Work Indonesia Community promotes cycling as a replacement for driving cars or motorbikes. The members of Jakarta Berkebun have launched a pilot project to convert unused land into community gardens. The car-free zones imposed by the city government around the capital every Sunday are aimed at reducing pollution and freeing up streets for cycling, walking, playing sports or just hanging out. But lately, efforts to ‘green’ the Greater Jakarta Metropolitan Area have received support from a highly unexpected quarter: malls.
An outgrowth of economic liberalisation under the Suharto regime, malls increased dramatically in number, size and luxuriousness during the 1990s and have continued to do so since. In fact, the city government passed a moratorium in October 2011 on the issuance of building permits for large malls through 2012 in an attempt to check their rampant proliferation: the reason cited was the lack of tenants in existing malls. According to estimates made by Yayat Supriatna, a city planner interviewed by several newspapers about the moratorium, there are about 170 malls in the Greater Jakarta Metropolitan Area (which includes Jakarta, Bogor, Depok, Tangerang and Bekasi). Of those, 130 are located in Jakarta itself, Yayat says, making Jakarta the city with the most malls in the world. For many members of the middle to upper class especially, the malls have become a central and beloved part of everyday life – ‘God’s second greatest gift to mankind (after rice)’, asserted one Jakarta Globe reporter in October 2011, only partly tongue-in-cheek.
Those concerned about the environment, on the other hand, have always been less than enthused about shopping centres. The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI), Indonesia’s largest environmental NGO, has consistently protested the building of new malls in various cities across Indonesia, including the Blue Oasis City Mall in Bekasi and the soon-to-be-built Baywalk Mall in North Jakarta. In February 2011, two activists from Banten Environmental Care Foundation (Yapelh), another environmental NGO, were taken into police custody for waving a banner from a tower proclaiming ‘Go to Hell Tangerang City Mall’. Jakarta’s shopping centres have been blamed for a number of its environmental problems. News articles throughout 2011 highlighted the malls’ contribution to severe traffic congestion in certain areas. In 2007, Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar held unchecked mall construction partly responsible for the decrease in city water-catchment areas and that year’s catastrophic flooding. City-dwellers who lament the dearth of green open spaces like public parks and sports fields often complain about malls in the same breath, noting that the increase of the latter comes at the expense of the former. ‘[T]o be truly environmentally aware, STOP building malls’, wrote one reader in response to a 2012 Kompas online article on shopping centres
The companies who build and own the malls of Jakarta appear to have taken the message on board. A handful of malls advertising themselves as environmentally friendly have been built in Jakarta and Bogor within the past few years, and two more are scheduled to open in Tangerang in 2012. Epicentrum Walk in South Jakarta not only proclaims on its official website that it is ‘going green by preserving the riverside area’; the building itself has an eco-friendly feel. The glass-roofed main atrium relies on the sun rather than electricity to light its interior, and is open-air, not air-conditioned. Patches of artificial green turf and astoundingly real-looking trees give this area an outdoorsy feel. From an air-conditioned café on the ground floor (all the individual shops and eateries do have climate control), one can even see the riverside area. A 30-second walk across an expansive vehicle laneway at the mall’s main entrance leads to the river itself, flowing through a tree-lined concrete canal. The design of Epicentrum Walk certainly evokes nature. But there are no visible signs of how else the mall is doing its part for the environment.
Epicentrum Walk is part of the Rasuna Epicentrum Superblock – just one of several ‘integrated’ developments owned by Bakrieland, a property company which in turn is owned by the infamous tycoon and politician Aburizal Bakrie. As part of its Bakrieland Goes Green program, launched in February 2008, the company has begun developing properties that, according to their website, implement ‘Green Architecture, Green Operation and Green Attitude’. The program is undoubtedly meant to generate good publicity for Bakrieland, capitalising on the new worldwide penchant for loving the earth. It is also possible that Bakrieland’s new commitment to the environment is meant to atone for the sins of another Bakrie Group company – PT Lapindo Brantas, whose natural-gas drilling operations in Sidoarjo in 2006 triggered a mud volcano eruption that has displaced more than 13,000 families residing in the area (see previous Inside Indonesia articles about the Lapindo disaster by Schiller and Batubara).
As part of the same program, Bakrieland has also built a sprawling 1000 hectare residential eco-city near the mountains of Bogor called the Bogor Nirwana Residence. Construction of some facilities is still underway, but all are or will be built following the principles of ‘green’ design. One of the Residence’s facilities is the Jungle Mall – a two-storey, single-corridor, open-air shopping complex. This mall boasts a design similar to that of its Bakrieland cousin, Epicentrum Walk. A high glass roof lets natural light in and the corridor is open air, though the shops and restaurants on either side are air-conditioned. There is one difference: there are real trees growing out of square gaps in the marble floor. Or so the ever-smiling marketing agent assures me. ‘There’s no air-conditioning’, I observe. In response to this apparently pejorative remark, the agent leaps to its defence: ‘Fresh air, ma’am. And sunlight. It’s good for the health. And in the mountains, it never gets too hot.’
Central Park Mall in West Jakarta does a much more thorough job of both appearing and behaving conscious about environmental conservation. Inspired by Central Park in New York City, the mall has publicised the steps it has taken to comply with Indonesia’s green building certification standards, using low-energy light-bulbs, devoting a significant portion of its land to green space, and using recycled water for cooling machinery and watering the grass. The mall’s physical features encourage environmental awareness among its patrons: a bicycle stand is provided in front for cyclist clientele; clearly labelled recycle bins are located throughout the mall; English words for various components of the natural environment, ‘water’, ‘air’, ‘flower’, on wooden boards surrounding unsightly construction projects. More signage can be found in Tribeca Park, the complex’s crowning glory, which is a pleasant and well-groomed garden with wide terraced grassy steps and ponds with turtles and koi fish. Here, nature speaks…in neatly printed English-language signage: ‘please love me, don’t step on me : )’ one sign says, signed by ‘Mr & Mrs. Grass’; ‘Koi & the Gank [sic]’ respectfully tell patrons, ‘We only eat gourmet food, please ask the concierge if you want to feed us.’ Central Park Mall appears to be making a visible effort to instil environmental awareness, but the signs in English suggest that the mall’s promotion of environmentalism is a means of gaining a certain cosmopolitan cultural caché for itself and its patrons. Educated middle-to-upper class customers who have knowledge of English can feel that they are part of a global community of environmentally enlightened individuals. Even the mall’s name – a tribute to New York’s famous urban green space – happily evokes the sophistication of New York. The mall’s park may be off limits to the general public, unlike its namesake, but patrons can nonetheless draw connections between themselves and the New Yorkers who frequent the real Central Park.
Whether green malls are better for the natural environment or effective at instilling environmental awareness is questionable. Any large building that consistently uses so much energy in its maintenance will take some toll on the natural environment. Studies have indicated that air-conditioning for malls in the tropics uses vast amounts of energy, and the shops and restaurants of the malls spoken of here all do offer air-conditioning, even when the malls’ common spaces do not. The consumerism that these malls encourage is still at odds with the principles of environmental conservation. And although their incorporation of open green space contributes to the total amount of open green space that, by law, must now make up at least 30 per cent of every city’s total area, these particular spaces cannot be enjoyed by the lower classes, who are shut out from the malls.
Worse still, these malls may prevent their patrons from developing a more sacrificial form of environmental awareness – one that may require them to make changes to their consumerist lifestyles. Shoppers at an ostensibly eco-friendly mall may assume they are automatically eco-friendly too: they can love nature and continue to engage in consumption without thinking of the consequences. Nature itself becomes a product to be consumed: it provides a pleasant atmosphere in which to relax and have fun. Where environmentalism should involve a concern for the effects of deforestation, mining and over-fishing, in the context of the ‘green’ mall, environmentalism becomes equated with the ability to enjoy and appreciate picturesque lawns and artificial trees. ‘“Eco” means that you can enjoy clean, fresh air and nature’, the marketing agent at the Bogor Nirwana Residence informed me. Environmentalism just became a lot more comfortable, but will this variety be harmful in the long run?
Tiffany Tsao (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a lecturer at the University of Newcastle and an honorary associate in Indonesian Studies at the University of Sydney She keeps a blog on her research and creative writing adventures at http://tiffanytsao.com.