Third world countries build walkable “superblocks” without central planning

Jakarta, Indonesia—The central business district of Indonesia’s capital of 11 million presents the same social contrast found in many other megacities in the developing world. Modern skyscrapers house Indonesia’s elite, while squalid informal villages sprawl at the base of such buildings. I wanted to experiment with the latter, more common style, so one morning my translator Julya and I walked a few minutes from my luxury French hotel chain across a dirty canal and into a village.

The standardized First World urban aesthetic of square buildings and planned streets quickly gave way to clustered huts organized along a winding network of alleys. This style of village is common in the Third World, a bastion of organic, market-oriented development that often resists city authorities’ modernization plans, even in central areas. It bears a striking resemblance to a popular concept in the world of Western urban planning: the “superblock.”

In superblocks, wide streets and roads are spaced apart rather than assigned frequently on a grid pattern. The area in between, too small to accommodate cars, is reserved for pedestrians, motorbikes, buildings and courtyards, with alleys connecting it all.

Such blocks were the historical default before cities were designed for cars, and before cars made clearing rights-of-way much easier. The trails would extend along topographically easy routes and be wide enough for the necessary passages.

European villages with their hilly exterior staircases fit the superblock stereotype, but the style has even deeper roots in Asia, with the oldest known example in China. In their contribution to the book Governing cities: Asia’s urban transformationscholars Daixin Dai and George R. Frantz describe those designed in 1036 BC. for the ancient city of Chengzhou. The pattern has persisted through millennia; Beijing of 1400, second urbanNextthey consisted of “blocks of houses on 150-metre hutongs nested in 1,000-metre superblocks”, themselves found in larger structures called “megablocks”.

Superblocks were common in colonial and industrial-era United States, with Philadelphia, for example, turning into a maze of narrow alleys for horse-drawn carriages. Savannah, Georgia, was designed in superblocks – still partially intact today – and there are still examples scattered throughout the Northeast and Midwest.

Modern designers increasingly recognize the advantages of superblocks and want to restore them. Excluding cars from large residential segments of the city reduces traffic deaths, air pollution, and other negative externalities. The idea has been proposed in Los Angeles, where the City Council hopes to build a pilot superblock in the center of the city, and in Seattle, where one is proposed for the Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Urban planners tend to be progressive, and superblock promoters think their vision will be realized through government planning. The modernization of the most successful superblock in the First World was carried out in this way, in Barcelona. There, in the 2010s, the government prohibited car traffic through several arterial roads, allowing pedestrians to circulate freely; authorities hope to create 500 such blocks. In addition to the alleys, several blocks have shops, courtyards and parks.

The effort caused an 82% reduction in car storage in one Barcelona neighborhood. The change has many supporters: The World Health Organization reports that in a converted neighborhood, residents experienced “a perceived improvement in well-being, peace of mind and quality of sleep.” And it was clearly a government project. As David Roberts wrote Vox almost five years ago, Barcelona “has always been an intentional city, carefully conceived and built by central planners.” Not surprisingly, it was urban planners, in turn, who dismantled the city grid and established superblocks.

But in the developing world the opposite is true. In Africa, Asia and Latin America, superblocks remain the de facto model of market-driven development, for much the same reasons as they were in the ancient world. The majority of the population does not own a car and is not financially able to afford more space. They then maximize the space available to them, springing up shantytowns in superblocks on hillsides, on farmland, or even in urban areas that are illegally “encroached upon.” The poorer the area, the more it will lack setback requirements, minimum parking limits and similar regulations – and the more likely it will become the vernacular of the superblock.


We got an idea of ​​the economic reasons why while walking around the village in Jakarta, called Kebon Jahe. This is one of the many urban villages in Central Jakarta, a neighborhood format known to locals as village. Kebon Jahe is literally a superblock, as the entire border is one large block of about a dozen square acres, flanked by major thoroughfares but without significant through roads.

We entered the village wanting to know how this aspect was planned (or not planned). Julya, originally from the Jakarta area, knew we needed to talk to the neighborhood leader first.

After veering down an alley and asking around, we were taken to an even smaller alley and introduced to Budi Aprianto. He is a middle-aged man, one of 15 village leaders, all democratically elected by the block’s approximately 1,500 residents.

Kebon Jahe, he explained, was colonized in the 1700s by the Dutch, who built a cemetery there. When the Indonesians regained control of the territory during the revolution of the 1940s, the area was converted into agricultural land and a livestock market. Existing buildings began to rise in the 1970s, to respond to the demands of the population in Central Jakarta. The village did not grow through the efforts of an experienced builder. A collection of families, many of whom had been in the area for generations, had built their own homes.

How, I asked, is it possible to build a sophisticated network of alleys in such a decentralized growth system? After paying a small bribe, he agreed to show me around.

The network, he explained, is as coordinated as it looks, forming a U-shape that allows residents to access the entire village. But there are three categories of right of way.

The first is the relatively wide streets that form the entrance to Kebon Jahe before meeting the alleys. These were built by the government, allow cars to park (haphazardly) and have formal shops, such as the famous Alfamart chain.

The second and main form of right of way are alleys. They are 6 feet to 12 feet wide, meaning they can only handle pedestrians and motorcycles, and house the majority of retail shops, with merchants setting up shop along or even in the alley. The government asphalts them and manages them for safety and clearance, but they follow a market logic. They started as private customs clearances for farmers looking for the easiest transportation route. Development grew with them and only later did the government take over. This is why they zigzag along the curves of the terrain rather than matching the straight lines common in a grid.

The third is the extremely narrow alleys that deviate from the main ones. These are still private. Each acre of Kebon Jahe has hundreds of small houses so scrunched together that it’s hard to make them out. Most homes don’t face the street but, in a pattern atypical of even America’s densest cities, extend deep into the lot, meaning nearly every last square foot of land is covered.

The only parts not covered are the alleys, which allow access from inside to outside for these houses further back. The alleys are also places to hang bird cages, dry laundry and operate small trading stands. They are created through negotiation between homeowners, all of whom benefit from access. But they’re extremely narrow – I had to turn sideways as I walked through them – and that just boils down to economics.

“Jakarta is a very crowded city,” Aprianto explained through my translator. “People use every space they can for themselves.”

Some of the extremely narrow alleys actually started out as wider formal public ones. But when adjacent homeowners want to expand their homes, they build additions in the alley, unintentionally similar to the favela-style invasive growth seen in Brazil. These families leave only enough space in the alleys to be able to go out alone.

Although building in public alleys is illegal, law enforcement is impractical, as Kebon Jahe is a mostly self-governing slum. (Aprianto is an elected leader, but not a government official.) In the rare cases where city inspectors appear, residents just pay them.


Before visiting Kebon Jahe, Julya and I explored a few superblocks in Tangerang, the working-class suburb of Jakarta where she grew up. Many more exist there, which is not surprising, given that it is an industrial city where workers need a place to live. Tangerang’s superblocks are often centered around small mosques (Indonesia is the country with the largest Islamic population in the world) or around dirty canals that nevertheless serve certain economic needs.

The same order can be found throughout the Global South: large factories are built on the outskirts of cities and are quickly surrounded by informal slums, virtually all of which adopt some variation of the superblock layout. Again, this is not because people share the ideals of Western planners. Nor do these superblocks have the same bells and whistles as the Spanish ones. It is simply the most logical arrangement in societies defined by economic and spatial scarcity.

Superblocks are most vulnerable in central areas, thanks to pressure to sweep them away and build them for high-end uses. This is usually not a market process. As our tour of Kebon Jahe drew to a close, we passed the more formal area at the exit of the village, which had a wider alley and larger buildings.

“By next year, all of Kebon Jahe could look like this,” Aprianto said.

The city has already begun to persecute the village’s street vendors and is planning a program to raze the houses of Kebon Jahe and replace them with towers. Residents will receive payments from the government which, while large for them, will not be enough to purchase replacement units in Central Jakarta. Instead, they have to find comparably priced units further away, which means they are effectively displaced through eminent domain. Slum clearance is common throughout the Global South, as it once was in the United States.

It may surprise American professional planners to hear this, but governments don’t usually create superblocks: they destroy them.

This article originally appeared in print under the headline “The ‘superblocks’ of Indonesia’s free market”.

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