Grassroots Action Against Polluted Skies: How Jakarta’s Urban Villages Tackle Air Pollution 
Attendees of Clean Air Catalyst’s September 2023 Learning Circle discuss air quality monitoring. Using individual low-cost sensors courtesy of Nafas, participants were invited to observe real-time air quality data in their own homes. Photo: Clean Air Catalyst

On a Sunday afternoon in September 2023, a group of about 30 individuals, including a group of mostly female neighbors from nine kampungs (a common term for “urban villages” or “informal settlements” across multiple languages and nations in Southeast Asia) in the greater Jakarta area, joined community activists, NGO representatives and air pollution experts to participate in a Learning Circle organized by Clean Air Catalyst, a USAID-funded project led by WRI Indonesia. The two-day Learning Circle consisted of lessons about the importance of air quality and monitoring, and a day of field visits to four kampungs.

Jakarta’s air quality was front-page news when pollution levels spiked to some of the highest in the world during the 2023 dry season. For these women, breathing in dirty air is a daily occurrence. 

According to WRI Indonesia’s Social Equity Analyst, Mutiara Kuniasari, despite being a known issue, there is little discussion about how air pollution impacts vulnerable groups differently including women, children, the elderly, people with disabilities and low-income communities. And although air pollution is a highly topical issue due to the poor air quality during dry season, there are no inclusive spaces to hold discussions.

The Learning Circle unveiled the disproportionate health and economic impacts of air pollution, such as an increased risk of respiratory disease in marginalized communities, and their interconnection with broader urban development issues. It also revealed the urgent need for strategies that are not only effective in combating air pollution but also prioritize the well-being of local communities.  

Clean Air Is Integral to Healthy, Safe, Livable Neighborhoods 

Conversations about air quality tend to focus on what is happening in the sky, overlooking the factors that lead to air pollution on the ground.

Gang Lengkong is one kampung that exemplifies how air pollution cannot be divorced from issues like access to safe and affordable housing, land disputes, mobility and employment. Many of the residents of Gang Lengkong who had been living in the area since the 1980s were forcibly evicted when trucking logistics companies moved in to construct parking lots for shipping containers in 2017. Because of the land dispute, residents, who were mostly street vendors, lost access to their livelihoods. Those who remained, like Nurhayati (pictured below), now live with trucks driving through their kampung every half hour, kicking up dust from the unpaved road and depositing debris everywhere.

Nurhayati, a resident of Gang Lengkong and member of JRMK, explains the negative effects of air pollution in the community. Video: Clean Air Catalyst

Nurhayati shared with the other Learning Circle participants how the road dust directly impacts their lives, leading to “coughing, and if we go out for a while our skin is covered in dust.” Pollution also creates limitations on their daily movement: “[that is why] if there is nothing important to take care of, it’s better to stay at home.” Others noted how the dust not only permeates their clothes and skin, but it also enters their homes. This means that the women and mothers of Gang Lengkong — who are responsible for domestic chores — end up cleaning the household constantly throughout the day.  

The participants also learned about the potential health impacts from exposure to exhaust fumes from trucks. Clean Air Catalyst identified heavy-duty vehicles as the biggest contributor of air pollution in the city, despite the relatively small number of these diesel-burning vehicles on the road. Preliminary findings show that heavy-duty trucks contribute nearly 30% of all particulate matter with diameters that are generally 2.5 micrometers and smaller (PM2.5) and nearly 40% of all the black carbon measured in the study. PM2.5 damages lungs and impacts many organs of the body, while black carbon is linked to climate change. 

Due to its location, Gang Lengkong has limited accessibility to public transportation. As a result, residents are forced to depend heavily on motorcycles, which can be extremely dangerous given the frequent travel of large vehicles in the vicinity. During the Learning Circle, Nurhayati and other kampung residents were able to have meaningful discussions on issues like these with participating organizations, including the Rujak Center for Urban Studies, Jaringan Rakyat Miskin Kota (JRMK) and the Urban Poor Consortium. They agreed they would continue fighting for the residents’ right to a livable neighborhood, safe from the threat of eviction and roadside accidents, with ample green space and accessibility to public transportation. 

Unintended Consequences of Low-Emission Zones 

Kampung Susun Kunir, a vertical village situated in Kota Tua, emerged from the forced eviction of Kampung Kunir residents in 2015 to revitalize the riverbank area. Before Kampung Susun Kunir was erected, Kampung Susun used to be a village inhabited by 77 families, but after the eviction many of them moved to Kampung Marunda or Kampung Balokan in northern Jakarta. As of now, only 33 households remain.

Both kampungs have been affected by the introduction of low-emission zones (LEZs) nearby. The LEZs, intended to tackle air pollution, have brought unexpected problems to the community, including more traffic, disturbing the daily lives of residents and depriving children of spaces to play. However, the impact extends beyond inconvenience: vehicles divert through the kampungs to circumvent LEZ restrictions, bringing air pollution directly to the community.  

Jaenah, a resident from Kampung Balokan, explains how the LEZs have affected her community. Video: Clean Air Catalyst

Kampungs play diverse roles, such as providing affordable housing and fostering informal economic networks, like warungs, or street stalls. In Kampung Balokan, many women – like Jaenah (pictured above) – have established warungs in front of their homes and in alleyways and tend to work in the kampungs, where they prepare and serve food daily to a customer base primarily consisting of their neighbors, while also doing domestic works to take care of the house, their children and other family members. The warungs were strategically positioned but are now affected by an increase in air pollution due to two-wheelers that use the alleyways to avoid LEZs negatively impacting their living and working environment. Apart from the health consequences, prolonged exposure to air pollution may affect the quality of the food, impact sales and create a cyclical challenge where economic pursuits are hampered by environmental conditions.  

Because existing LEZ mandates were developed without including the residents of nearby kampungs, their construction has left these communities vulnerable and exposed to air pollution. The Learning Circle engaged the communities comprising the area’s social fabric to ensure future LEZs and similar interventions are anchored in collaborative approaches, including a bottom-up approach to ensure future developments take the well-being and health of local communities into account. 

Unequal Access to Air Pollution Data and its Impacts in Jakarta 

Kampung residents are aware of the growing issue of air pollution and its detrimental impacts, recognizing sources of air pollution include vehicular combustion and waste in their neighborhood. But they have no way of measuring their personal exposure to air pollution.  

Using individual low-cost sensors courtesy of Nafas, participants were invited to observe real-time air quality data in their own homes. During the last day of the Learning Circle, participants shared stories of how the household sensors revealed different pollution levels throughout the day. Meanwhile in Gang Lengkong, sensors displayed a consistent red color throughout the experiment, alerting participants of high levels of pollution in the neighborhood. Residents expressed little surprise at this; the findings aligned with their existing beliefs, validating their concerns about air pollution in their community and reinforcing the need for informed and targeted efforts to address this ongoing challenge.  

Although many cities now have air quality index providers, and information sharing on social media makes it easier for people to stay informed, many still can’t access information on air pollution. According to Learning Circle participants, televisions are still a major source of information for many households in Jakarta, as corroborated by Nielsen’s Consumer and Media View 2022 which mentions that viewers aged 40-49 and 50+ make up a significant portion of the television audience; not using them to share air pollution data means excluding older generations who still rely on them. A recent study shows that the gender gap in digital literacy among the older population in Indonesia is more pronounced than any other age group, making older women excluded from digital information. Information barriers are even higher for people with disabilities as information sharing depends heavily on the availability of inclusive communication practices.  

Representatives from Himpunan Wanita Disabilitas Indonesia (HWDI) and Difapedia who joined the Learning Circle raised the point of how to communicate air pollution information to people with disabilities. They highlighted the importance of WhatsApp groups among communities of people with disabilities in Jakarta, a platform more widely used for sharing information compared to visual-based social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok.

The gap in information sources means that Jakarta’s most marginalized populations lack the time or means to check air pollution indices. When pollution levels rise, some people know how to protect themselves while others continue their usual routines under the polluted sky.  

This disparity has real-life consequences. As a 2023 study revealed, air pollution in Jakarta is responsible for over 7,000 adverse health outcomes in children, more than 10,000 premature deaths and over 5,000 hospitalizations per year. The economic toll of PM2.5 and ozone–related fatalities and illnesses account for roughly 2% of Jakarta’s provincial GDP. Furthermore, the impact of air pollution is more pronounced depending on social and economic factors, including gender-based disparities in job types and income inequalities; and vulnerability factors, such as physical health, residential environment, data accessibility, healthcare resources and insurance coverage. 

Bringing Everyone on Board: Spreading the Word About Air Pollution 

During the discussions, participants brainstormed ways to raise awareness about air pollution and ensure decision-makers understand their concerns. One standout idea that emerged was the power of intergenerational conversations. Chadirin, a resident of Kampung Balokan, shared some insightful thoughts: 

“We have stories about how air pollution affects us. We worry about our kids, they end up playing by the roadside, exposed to traffic and pollution dangers. But what can we do? The younger generation, our friends, can communicate these concerns to the authorities because they know how to get things done.” 

The idea garnered a positive response from participants like Katarina Mada, who shared her advocacy experiences and stressed the crucial need to ensure these stories reach policymakers and instigate positive change.  

A similar intergenerational collaboration is unfolding in Gang Lengkong where the complex landscape of land conflict against logistic companies has united generations. Old and young work together to collate insights and neighborhood stories with the administrative support of a league of youth activists who document the movement.

The younger generation brought organizing capabilities and raised residents’ awareness of their legal rights, all directed towards collaboration to secure land rights. They are also actively confronting prevalent negative stigmas, like economic deprivation and deficient infrastructure associated with kampungs by generating alternative narratives through an Ethnography Video Workshop; the program looks to highlight the cultural wealth, community resilience and stories of change within kampungs. 

Marsha, a resident of Kampung Susun Kunir remembers his kampung “had many trees, the air was fresh, and there were many birds,” the kind of story the Ethnography Video Workshop shares. Video: Clean Air Catalyst

In Jakarta’s ongoing battle against air pollution, these memories, passed down through generations, weave a nostalgic narrative, binding communities, civil society and decision-makers in a collective push for cleaner air and a healthier future.  

A version of this article originally appeared on

Kurnia Dwi Agustina was Communications & Social Media Specialist for the Air Quality program at WRI Indonesia.

Daniel Ibanez is Digital Communications & Marketing Specialist for the Air Quality program at WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Mutiara Kurniasari is Social Equity Analyst at WRI Indonesia.

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