Projects and liveability

Confluence point: Here is where two rivers, River Klang and River Gombak, meet. The River of Life project is part of the plans to improve liveability.

A balance between development and quality of life is important as a city grows

THE last several years, the people of Taman Tun Dr Ismail (TTDI) have been rather unhappy.

First, it was the mass rapid transit and the proposed pedestrian bridge connecting the Bandar Utama MRT station and a certain part of TTDI. The people did not want the link bridge for fear of security issues and indiscriminate parking.

Next came the proposal to develop a high-rise residential project on the 8-acre TTDI market. About a year ago, the proposed development of eight residential blocks on Taman Rimba Kiara in TTDI came up.

The heat has risen a few degrees of late. The proposed development will add 350 units of social housing and 1,766 service apartments to TTDI. This project will sit on what used to be a 12-acre nursery, now a public park and it will also mean the loss of tree-lined roads, factors which have contributed to the liveability of TTDI.

According to a City Hall notice, which has since been removed from the site of the proposed development, the population density will rise from 74 to 979 for every one acre. There will be eight blocks of serviced apartments 42 to 54 storeys high, including eight-storey podiums and five levels of basements. For comparison, the Petronas Twin Towers in KLCC are 88-storey high. These eight blocks will be about half way up and more. There will also be a 29-storey block comprising social housing.The residents are not against the 350 units of social housing for the former rubber tappers and their families, who 30 to 40 years ago made a livelihood from the rubber plantations there. But they are against the proposed serviced apartments.

Ironically, it was the government which had conceived Taman Kiara as Malaysia’s botanical gardens and first national arboretum.

High rise: The notice of a proposed apartment project at Taman Rimba Kiara which has since been removed.
High rise: The notice of a proposed apartment project at Taman Rimba Kiara which has since been removed.

An arboretum is an institution for education and research on trees and plant life. Arboreta serve to educate the public on the relationships of plant life and their use by man in economic and aesthetic spheres. By its very nature, arboreta provide a green diversion within an urban complex. They serve as secondary reserves for fast disappearing indigenous, rare and endangered species.

They also provide resources essential to scientists at home and abroad. A national asset due to its long-term concept, an arboretum provides one of man’s great opportunities to relate to the floral native to one’s country. Small animal life and other denizens form part of this flora and fauna tapestry. Consider Britain’s Kew Gardens and Singapore’s Botanic Gardens. Both have an arboretum which are national treasures.

When the Botanic Gardens and the arboretum was first conceived in Taman Kiara, it brought much happiness to some of Malaysia’s most brilliant botanists and scientists. It spelt a lot of hope because only a country with a vision for economic and scientific research will consider to have one. It benefits future generations more than the generation who conceive it.

So when those plans evaporated like the morning mist, it was a huge blow to the field of plant research. Some of our most brilliant minds left to look after the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Foreign researchers who helped conceive the master plan left.

In some ways, it is this proximity which contributed to TTDI’s liveability index. And the various attempts by past and current administrators at development are beginning to raise hackles.

Here is where the context of development is important. After World War II, governments around the world focused on development and infrastructure. It was time to rebuild.

Today, that pursuit for development and infrastructure continues in this part of the world but already, studies are emerging from different parts of the world that too much development tend to bring tension and unease when it exceeds the tipping point.

Governments and corporate entities have researched into liveability index of cities around the world.

Bhutan, since 1971, has championed spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of its citizens and natural environment as the building blocks of gross national happiness; that wellbeing should take preference over material growth.

Today, New York’s Central Park is for pedestrian and bicycles. Cars are off limits. Properties around Central Park is highly priced because they front the greenery and not because it fronts another building.

Says a building and construction source, tongue-in-cheek: “Before, the definition of success was based on the size of your house, the number of cars you have and how beautiful your wife is. Today, these may not equate happiness.”

Does a high degree of happiness means the society is liveable? In the case of TTDI, it seems to be so.

The liveability index

The United Nations and German conglomerate Siemens have done various studies on liveability, sustainable or competent cities. The terms and measurements may vary but they bear similarities to the Bhutan principles of spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of its citizens and the natural environment.

Five factors – productivity, infrastructure, environmental sustainability, equity and social inclusion, and quality of life - dominate the UN Habitat study. Siemens Green Cities Index encompasses environmental governance, air quality, waste and land use, water, energy, buildings and transport.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2016 Global Liveability Ranking offers five broad categories – stability, healthcare, culture and environment, education and infrastructure.

Melbourne in Australia retained its crown as the world’s most liveable city but liveability has deteriorated in 29 of the 140 cities surveyed, largely due to heightened fears over terrorism. Social unrest, tension in other cities compounded the decline.

The Kuala Lumpur Structure Plan 2020 makes Kuala Lumpur the nucleus of development representative of the country. As a capital, Kuala Lumpur is the forerunner of the country’s economic progress. Already, the drop in the average income per person in Malaysia by as much as 15% to US$8,821 in 2016 from US$10,345 in 2013, according to the Economic Planning Unit in March, has raised questions whether Malaysia will achieve the high income nation status by 2020, according to The Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas).

According to press reports, Ideas research director Ali Salman said in a statement that the figures are “rather alarming”. The government has yet to give a full explanation on how they will address the issue.

“I think this is partly because when the figures were reported in the ringgit, it showed positive growth in average income at RM32,596 in 2013 to RM37,930 in 2016. But in US dollar, which is what countries generally use as a benchmark, the story is vastly different. At an average yearly income of US$8,821, Malaysia today is severely off track from our Vision 2020 goal of achieving a gross national income (GNI) of US$15,000,” he was reported as saying.

The competence of Kuala Lumpur contributes towards this GNI.

Our building blocks

Under the sweltering humidity of the noon sun, the vicinity of Masjid Jamek swelled with humanity. A couple of women in colourful sarees chattered away, having sauntered up from what used to be called the Little India of Kuala Lumpur. Its official street name is Lebuh Ampang. Local and foreign banks have found a spot here.

At the small clock tower square, or Medan Pasar Lebuh Pudu, foreigners such as Myanmars, Bangladeshis and Nepalese gather, some trying to make a living, others waiting for the hours to pass. There are as many cars as there are pedestrians, as many office workers as there are foreign migrants trying to make a living.

A foreign trader asked: “Mahu beli? (Want to buy?).” Two bags of towels or bed sheets rest at his feet. It is a mish-mash of humanity and commerce.

Urban migration, illegal and legal migrant workers have made their way to Malaysia.

Says an industrial source: “As the city population grows, the cost of maintaining the city and making it liveable will rise.”

The birth of Kuala Lumpur started at Masjid Jamek, Malaysia’s oldest mosque at the confluence of rivers Gombak and Klang. Because we are proud of this city and its early beginnings, the authorities have put in place the River of Life project.

“It costs a lot to clean our rivers and maintain our public places and parks. Traders and small enterprises throw rubbish into the rivers, thinking the waters will carry them away but they do not.”

Whether they are locals or foreigners, they must be taught to take possession of this great city as their own. In many instances, it begins with the local community.

The people of TTDI, a residential suburb of Kuala Lumpur, seem to be doing just that. They are vocal. “Engagement and education is a two-way street. This helps to build a society which contributes to its liveability. A complaint as an opportunity to learn,” the source says.

There have been many protests against development encroaching on green space over the years – Bukit Gasing, Old Klang Road, Bangsar, more recently Taman Sri Segambut and now Taman Rimba Kiara, TTDI.

Although residents have a statutory right to object, as enshrined in Rule 5 of Planning Development Rules 1994, a by-law under the Federal Territory Planning Act 1982, only registered land owners located 200m from the boundary of the proposed development may object, wrote a resident.

Clearly, this provision did not consider the size, scale and scope of the development plans, he wrote. The proposed development of more than 2,000 units and which raises the population density by more than 1,000% in mature TTDI will not just impact those 200m from the proposed project but the entire neighbourhood and the next. This fact is often conveniently ignored.

Says Malaysian Institute of Architects deputy president Sarly Adre Sarkum: “We support development but developments must be done sustainably. Architects are an integral part in the planning process and we are concerned when a public park is being turned into a very high density development.”

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