Covid-19 will bring wide implications to urban society, in terms of its “future-proofing” against future pandemic threats. There is an urgent need to rethink spatial planning, especially settlement planning and the mobility aspects of economic, family and social life.
Throughout human civilisation, populations became increasingly concentrated in certain advantaged locations, which led to housing, commerce of goods and services and transportation all evolving around this pattern.
Such “agglomeration” helped in optimising the use of land, water, energy, human capital, and various other resources, invariably leading to high densities not only of housing but also industrial and commercial areas.
As livelihoods and economies became closely intertwined, so too did the physical forms of the urban space - for example the trend toward having homes, jobs, businesses, and living amenities crammed into “optimally utilised” land parcels.
Today these are packaged as lifestyle offerings using catch phrases such as “Live, Learn, Work, Play.” Such blending of land uses is not in itself bad, and I will address it again later in this article. Urban intensification has driven real estate values to artificially high levels, making a vicious cycle that feeds itself by further escalating the push towards ever higher density and less physical separation between people.
Meanwhile, our city centres feature high rise urban slums (such as City One and Selangor Mansion in the Jalan Masjid India area which both became hotspots of Covid-19 infection).
These older apartments are not at all cramped by today’s standards, but they were planned with family units of four in mind - not 30 people sleeping six to eight to a room!
And in the absence of incentives for area regeneration they can only continue to fill this market niche.
That same planning standard (of four to a family unit) still prevails for today’s more compact offerings!
Covid-19 may well disappear in a few years like many a pandemic before it, but it is teaching town planners a valuable lesson. Not through any particular uniqueness as a biological entity, but by the simple fact that disease spreads more easily among populations living in close quarters. Now is the time to get that into reverse gear.
How can we as human society move away from concentrating our urban populations?
Town planners can and should take the initiative to build consensus for a new normal in urban settlement planning.
For any mass movement to occur, we must first sow the seeds of a mindset shift across the stakeholder spectrum, right down to influencing house/property buyers’ perceptions as to what constitutes good homes and value for money.
Decentralised, lower density development would see land values reducing to more reasonable levels in the immediate term - counterbalanced in the longer term by other forces at play, eg cost of new infrastructure across wider geographies, evolving social infrastructure demands, etc. Planners and other professionals involved in development would have to rethink their approach as house buyers’ needs and priorities evolve.
This long term transformation would possibly stretch across the practice lifespans of an entire generation of town planners in the public and private sectors. They must first consciously take a step back to find options for decentralizing away from areas which are already saturated such as Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya, Klang, Shah Alam and Johor Baru. Our town planners must be prepared for some soul-searching, going back to our moral obligations to society.
Disease control aside, decentralisation will also benefit the environment. A case in point: the massive multi-sectoral industrial estate of Pasir Gudang which caused much harm to the environment.
The industrial sector must learn to accept a new paradigm which balances profits against environmental and social responsibility.
Within an industrial decentralisation strategy, clean(er) technologies can only be effectively deployed to synergistic groupings of industries which share common infrastructure needs.
Apart from a few industries of national importance operating as mega complexes, other large industrial centres should be deconstructed or downsized - spreading jobs and economic opportunities across a wider geography and helping to arrest unproductive rural-urban migration and its accompanying social evils.
Our mindsets must progressively shift towards strategic, (small) clustered development. With dramatic advances in technology such as on-line learning and high speed communications, diverse human activities can be located anywhere but orchestrated to function as one.
An industrial company could have its manufacturing base in a remote kampung in Kelantan with a captive well-trained workforce, its logistics hub at the Port of Tanjung Pelepas, its R&D in Cyberjaya, etc. Local populations would then tend to be characterised by the human capital base supporting each area’s advantaged sector/s, together contributing cohesively towards national GDP.
The innovative blending of land uses that I mentioned earlier, instead of following its current misdirected trajectory could instead be tweaked towards creating rightsized clusters of economic excellence.
Similarly, when we talk of the government sector, such questions might arise as should the ministries of agriculture and rural development even need to be based in Putrajaya?
What is it in the business of governance that requires the entire federal government to be located together in one place?
Would the Agriculture Ministry not be more effective being based closer to major agricultural centre/s which are key to our country reclaiming its long-neglected food production capabilities - for example, in the rice-bowl state of Kedah, or in Pahang or Perak?
In decentralised development, hypermarkets and giant shopping malls may also become things of the past.
Smaller neighbourhood shopping centres will find their own equilibrium versus on-line shopping and e-commerce, sectors which did very well during the movement control order (MCO) period.
To achieve lower density and no overcrowding, might this mean no more apartments regardless of high-end or low-end, or is this economically unviable?
For social infrastructure such as sports and multipurpose halls, how big do they really need to be? Should our multicultural society re-examine its traditions for celebratory gatherings?
Assuming that apartments must still be part of the housing landscape, their designs would require the most challenging reimagination. Can we somehow achieve no common corridors and no crowding in lifts?
Optimal positioning of toilets within the internal spaces of a home could be another area to rethink. These are but a few areas of concern.
As lower land prices are mandated through lower densities, planning standards and building bylaws must be reformulated. We have to start believing that small (yet functional and spacious) is beautiful.
Decentralisation and lower intensity development calls for a rethink not only by professionals but also by developers, policy makers and government. They have to weigh profits against the health and well being of our citizens, while looking at the broader questions of where Malaysia is headed as a nation.
Once a strategic direction is clear, our government must demonstrate political will by mandating controlled movement in that direction via legislative, policy and regulatory measures diligently followed through by the professional and administrative corps in the civil service.
These are just my preliminary thoughts.
Over my 30 years in both government and private practice, I have been continually conscious of the need for the town planning profession to evolve with the times and the needs of society.
Covid-19 is to me the biggest single signpost for rethinking our profession’s role in society. The mantra of “decentralisation, not concentration” may well be flawed over-simplification, but it is what comes to my mind as a direction we should examine together by putting the best minds to work.
Datuk P. Gunasilan is a veteran town planner and a fellow of the Malaysian Institute of Planners.