Indonesia has yet to start building its new capital, Nusantara, but a slick website shows what the country has in mind. A video shows people strolling on boardwalks through lush greenery, housing perched on the shores of an idyllic lake, stunningly modernistic buildings, elevated mass transit lines, and bicycles on tree-lined boulevards. Dominating the city is a cluster of monumental buildings, including a presidential palace in the shape of the mythical birdlike Garuda, Indonesia’s national emblem.
The new capital, whose construction on Borneo’s east coast was approved by Indonesia’s parliament on 18 January, will replace overcrowded and increasingly flood-prone Jakarta, on Java. Planners are envisioning an environmental utopia for Nusantara, which means “archipelago.” All residents will be within a 10-minute walk of green recreational spaces. Every high rise will utilize 100% eco-friendly construction and be energy efficient. Of trips taken within the city, 80% will be by public transport or on foot or bicycle. Nusantara presents an opportunity “to build a model city that is respectful of the environment,” says Sibarani Sofian, an urban designer with Urban+, the firm that won the competition for a basic design for the city’s governmental core. But others see shadows in this utopian vision.
“The big question, of course, is how and if they’ll achieve these ambitions,” says Kian Goh, who studies urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Planning scholars are by and large skeptical of plans for smart or sustainable cities ‘from scratch,’” she says. And spillover effects across Borneo, including deforestation, “are likely to be far greater than the direct impacts within the city boundaries, unless carefully managed,” says ecologist Alex Lechner of Monash University, Indonesia.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo proposed the new capital in April 2019 and later that year picked the site in East Kalimantan province. He wanted to move the capital closer to the nation’s geographic center and spur economic growth in the archipelago’s east, while easing Jakarta’s burden. Sprawling over nearly 6300 square kilometers (km2), the Jakarta metropolitan area is Southeast Asia’s most populous conurbation, home to more than 31 million people. Haphazard growth has led to notorious traffic jams and pollution.
The old capital is also sinking. Many residents rely on wells that are pumping underground aquifers dry, leading to ground subsidence of more than 10 centimeters annually along the northern rim of the city, on the shores of Jakarta Bay—even as sea levels rise because of climate warming. The area, home to poor and working classes, floods annually. A 2020 flood killed more than 60 and displaced more than 60,000. Without heroic efforts to limit the sinking, 25% of the capital area will be submerged by 2050, says Edvin Aldrian, a climatologist at Indonesia’s National Research and Innovation Agency.
Moving the seat of government and its estimated 4.8 million workers won’t lighten Jakarta’s burdens much, Aldrian says. “Jakarta will still be the economic center of Indonesia … and still have to take on its social issues and environmental issues,” Goh says.
Meanwhile, the $32 billion new capital, whose construction can now get underway, will have an environmental impact on Borneo. Nusantara, to be built in stages through 2045, will cover 2560 km2, about twice the area of New York City. (The government will occupy a 66-km2 core.) Like the United States, Brazil, and other countries that built new capitals from scratch, Indonesia hopes to create a city that is modern, rationally planned, and—in Indonesia’s case—green, with net-zero emissions. But critics are skeptical, because Indonesia’s renewable energy sector currently provides just 11.5% of national energy. Environmental groups worry that as a stopgap Nusantara could rely on power from Kalimantan’s numerous coal-fired power plants. And although well-designed public transport might keep cars off its roads, there will likely be extensive air travel between the new capital and Jakarta, about 1300 kilometers away.
The impact on Borneo’s ecology could be substantial. An island the size of California, Borneo features coastal mangroves, forests, swamps, and mountains, hosting numerous endemic and rare species. Nusantara itself will be built on a previously cleared site and rely on existing highways, power lines, and other infrastructure. The city also lies inland, allowing for shoreline mangrove restoration. River valleys will be protected, creating what Lechner calls “green fingers” reaching through the city.
But the worry is that Nusantara will trigger sprawl beyond the city limits and development across Borneo. Spurring economic growth is, after all, one of the goals. By studying the increase in nighttime lights associated with 12 previously relocated capitals, including Brasília and Naypyidaw, Myanmar, Lechner and his colleagues found that they burgeoned initially, then grew more slowly. “Our assessment suggests that it is likely that [Nusantara’s] direct footprint could grow rapidly, expanding over 10 kilometers from its core in less than two decades and over 30 kilometers before mid-century,” the team reported in 2020 in the journal Land.
The impacts are likely to go farther afield. The roads connecting Brasília to Brazil’s coastal population centers “facilitated the destruction of the Amazon rainforest,” Lechner says, opening undisturbed territory to wildlife poaching, illegal logging, and land clearing. There are fewer cities to connect to on Borneo, home to only 18 million people, but “clearly the new city will attract economic activity, including new roads, which are known to cause deforestation,” says David Gaveau, a landscape ecologist who heads TheTreeMap, a company that studies tropical deforestation.
Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, has already lost about 30% of its original forest cover to land clearing and fires since 1973, Gaveau says, leaving the Bornean orangutan and the proboscis monkey endangered and many other species threatened. A highway under construction called the Trans-Kalimantan Northern link “cuts right through remote pristine forests in the heart of Borneo,” he says. Encouragingly, more effective law enforcement and a moratorium on new plantations helped drive 2020 deforestation to its lowest level in 17 years, Gaveau says, but new roads to and from Nusantara could reverse the trend.
The Indonesian government has not said much about Nusantara’s environmental burden. Gaveau and others hope it will offset the city’s impact with a similarly ambitious effort to turn the tide elsewhere in Kalimantan. “The solution lies in restoring all those degraded lands back to their original state: forest,” Gaveau says.