Ever felt like a gun was pointed at your head, and the holder said, “If you learned ANYTHING at all from urban planning… let’s see it now!”
The quake & tsunami incidents happened just in time for the beginning of my one-month appointment at UNDP/UN-Habitat, Jakarta. I’m taking that post 1) to help out on a UNDP project, 2) because the current (and the one & only) UN-Habitat representative for Indonesia has to take a month-long leave. Suddenly I find myself under a pile of emails, entangled in phone calls, engaged in and facilitating meetings asking for updates on the disaster & seeking inputs for support.
It’s comforting to know that international agencies are mobilizing aid. I’m proud that the people are giving whatever they can for solidarity (although relief efforts are still in dire need to be better coordinated). But what do you do in a situation & place where money means nothing? “Please don’t send us cash!” cried the victims, “we can’t do anything with it.” What do you do in a situation where aid agencies wants to immediately rebuild cities that have lost considerably more than half of its residents, people which may NOT want to return there anyhow? What do you say in front of well-intentioned architects & government officials who yells, “We have to plan comprehensively: not just build houses, but the sewage system too!” and hadn’t thought at all about local economic/livelihood activities? What do you do when your sense of humanity calls you to go & help out now, but are afraid to pick up & bury week-old corpses?
I guess it’s true when they say the most valuable lesson one can learn from urban planning is that there’s “no simple answer,” and that a single planner is “very” (I won’t say “too”) small to make everything right. It’s valuable not only in the sense that it forces me to seek out, influence, learn from and collaborate with other actors, but also in the sense that it eases me of the psychological & emotional burden I may put on myself. Having said that, I’m now having a blast practicing (or at least trying to practice) what I’ve learned wholeheartedly in the past 2 years.