We have one of the best road systems in South-East Asia, not to mention the tallest twin towers in the world. The latest ongoing Klang Valley Mass Rapid Transit system further aims to ease road congestion and improve connectivity.
But as Kuala Lumpur continues to develop, how do we ensure that quality of life and the city’s liveability increase in tandem?
This issue and more were brought up during a discussion entitled, “Urban Development And The Public Realm In Kuala Lumpur” last month led by AECOM Asia-Pacific president Sean Chiao and Dean of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD) Mohsen Mostafavi.
The discussion was held in conjunction with a public forum organised by GSD in collaboration with AECOM, a global infrastructure firm. (AECOM is involved in the River of Life initiative in the Klang Valley, which aims to foster city life along the Klang River by transforming the city’s waterfront into a vibrant area with high economic and commercial value.)
The forum was part of a three-year programme to encourage a more holistic approach to the rapid urbanisation of three South-East Asian cities: Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Manila.
At the forum, participants discussed planning and design alternatives required to transform Kuala Lumpur’s Golden Triangle.
GSD students who were also present at the forum are currently engaged in a study to suggest ideas to enhance the area, with the aim of improving liveability and economic activity there.
The following are excerpts from the discussion.
What are the urbanisation issues you have found in Kuala Lumpur that need to be improved?
Chiao: The urbanisation problems (can be divided into) the 3Cs. First is Congestion and how to deal with it. The second C is Connectivity. This does not necessarily mean building a monorail. Adding new infrastructure does not necessarily mean that we are being better connected. The third C is Culture. Malaysia and KL are so unique and strong in terms of natural resources, diversity, and cultural heritage. How can we use the building of the city to amplify it, rather than have it fade out?
The 3Cs are very important. We’re facing challenges through urbanisation so we have to pay more attention and work with it so it is a benefit rather than an issue.
KL has an ambition to become one of the world’s most liveable cities. Is the city on the right track?
Chiao: I believe so, but as mentioned earlier there are challenges we have to think differently about in order to identify different approaches and solutions.
And we can no longer create silos between the disciplines or professions. When we talk about the public realm, when we go to all these vibrant cities, the one thing we remember is the quality of the public space. It doesn’t matter if it is a park, open space, sidewalk, lighting, street furniture or artwork. All these make the city vibrant, fun and liveable. That is very critical.
Instead of driving and sitting in a car, make people walk or cycle. It is a trend to create a healthier city. When you see a space well designed using the natural environment, the outdoors can be very comfortable and nature-friendly. You have to think of a different approach to make a place much more sustainable.
Mostafavi: I think it is very important to develop new forms of collaboration among politicians, developers and creative designers, so everyone can come together and really think about the future of Kuala Lumpur in a more united way.
In many cities, there isn’t really the intellectual infrastructure for rethinking the procedures of urban development and urbanisation. What we should do is not just make recommendations. We should reconfigure the connection between the citizens, the politicians, the creative thinkers, the developers.
When you talk about moving the city forward, how do you ensure you don’t lose cultural heritage through development? How do you strike the right balance?
Chiao: A lot of historical preservation is critical but it’s not only about preserving, it’s about adaptive reuse. Governments should incentivise this and foster innovative policies and approaches. The government certainly has to drive this and there are many non-profit organisations trying to create an understanding of how important it is to preserve and celebrate cultural heritage. But, ultimately, the government needs to set policies that are creative and innovative.
Mostafavi: I think on the cultural side it is important to mention the importance of public and private partnership because there are many places in the world where there is cultural philanthropy and there are private individuals who are interested in cultural issues.
Generally, though, it is hard to see that there are people who, just out of personal devotion, would contribute a great deal to cultural development. So there needs to a role for government agencies of all sorts – and not just the government.
When you are designing the public realm, the cultural perspective also informs the creation and formation of the public sphere. It’s not creating a public space and putting in art galleries and museums in there, but the kind of public space that you design can also be one that promoted cultural activities.
What elements should be included for ideal living conditions in the city?
Chiao: I think it depends on your age and your cultural or religious background. In an exciting city like Kuala Lumpur, or elsewhere in Malaysia, you’re so culturally diverse. A wonderful city should be able to provide temples and churches, sports facilities, performing arts centres, as well as shopping or parks to offer more choices to people. It would be boring if they could only do certain things.
Mostafavi: It needs to be very diverse in terms of interactions with people. I would say that walkability is an important part of the experience of urban life so that you don’t have to buy a car or drive and park in a mall. We need to be able to walk to places, think about the relationship between indoor and outdoor public spaces. For example, through shading and mists, you can create outdoor spaces that feel like temperate zone environments that would be comfortable for the body, so you don’t always have to be inside a shopping mall.
That’s what we can think about, how we can expand the range of spaces of interaction in the city, that’s when design can be very helpful.
What are the future trends in urbanisation? What elements will be more emphasised?
Mostafavi: I think urbanisation is probably now one of the key issues that the planet faces. At Harvard, we talk about the fact that the planet is being urbanised. Before, we talk a lot about urban-rural, but in some ways, even when you talk about rural areas, they are being urbanised. So urbanisation is a phenomenon that we have to think about.
Globalisation needs to deal with the dilemmas of the global and local, the interpretations of cultural heritage, of the way in which the question of lifestyle will be addressed. These issues will be part of the rethinking of the urban realm and the question of urbanisation. Urbanisation will be bigger, but it will also be addressing this kind of localised cultural situation as a mode of investigating urbanisation.
Chiao: I think in addition to that, we also need to pay attention to the advance in technology. We are talking about smart cities and the technical innovations that not only make things more convenient for people, but also more sustainable and environmentally-friendly. That’s very important.
And we need to ensure that we not only connect locally, but also globally.
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