HAVING well-planned parks in strategic locations is not only beneficial to residents but also brings economic benefits and helps unite the community.
World Urban Parks chairman Gil Penalosa shared his observations with StarMetro in an interview after visiting various parks and playgrounds in Kuala Lumpur.
Penalosa was in town for the International Social Security Conference (ISSC) organised by the Employees Provident Fund (EPF) with State Street in Kuala Lumpur recently.
“Parks are very important, it is an essential element in community living. There are many benefits.
"It is good for the environment as trees provide clean air.
“It is good for public health, both physical and mental health.
“And it is also good for economic development because people want to live in places with parks,” he said.
A community is not just where people live together, Penalosa said.
“The small neighbourhood park and playgrounds are very important.
“This is where you build community and develop a sense of belonging, meet the parents of your children’s friends and develop solidarity.
“If something happens, neighbours who know each other will help out but if they do not know each other, they might not offer a lending hand.
“In Putrajaya, I saw that it is very segregated, this neighbourhood may be for low-income earners and another targeted for high-income workers.
“As for the bigger parks, there will be children from low, medium, high income workers and everyone is mixing and this is very important to build a community and reduce segregation.
“Thus parks help integrate instead of segregate the community,” he added.
According to Penalosa, a good health system should be not just curative but should also be preventive.
“And the beauty of it is that parks and playgrounds are free.
“Twenty years ago, only 4% of Malaysians were obese, today it is 20%, which means one out of five Malaysians are obese.
“And this is costing the government billions of ringgit having to bear the cost of treating patients with heart attacks, respiratory problems and other illness.”
He said some mental health experts recommend doing physical activities in the parks to treat mild depression.
“In green neighbourhoods, the level of depression is lower.
“People can walk along the sidewalks, but it is better if it is in a park.”
Penalosa said there should be playgrounds and parks to satisfy different needs of the community.
“For children, playgrounds are where they develop muscle strength, cognitive thinking, concentration and learn language.
“Older adults often have mobility and isolation problems, at parks they can develop a sense of community,” he said.
Room for improvement
“I am very surprised to see that in most Kuala Lumpur neighbourhoods, the playgrounds are in very bad condition.
“Firstly, I think there are not enough playgrounds.
“And the few that exist are in bad shape.
“They also do not invest in good equipment.
“It is important to invest in good quality equipment to ensure your maintenance cost is low.
“I think that many public places that are reserved for parks and playgrounds are turned into parking spaces for cars. It should be a top priority to build parks and playgrounds.”
The worst playgrounds are those located at the low-cost housing neighbourhoods, he said.
“Their homes are already small.
“They do not really live there, they just sleep there.
“It is not just about having a nice park at KLCC or where the wealthy people are located; it is more important to have parks and playgrounds for the poor,” he said.
Penalosa said that in Malaysia the construction of parks and playgrounds was often an afterthought.
“We need a city-wide system that has a good distribution.
“Parks or playgrounds should be within walking distance, less than 500m from their homes,” he added.
Developers in Malaysia have to leave a portion of the land for playgrounds or recreation.
The city planners should choose the best location for recreation spots and parks, not make do with leftover and unwanted areas.
Asked to compare Kuala Lumpur with other regional cities, Penalosa said: “Singapore has better parks than Kuala Lumpur.”
“It is important that Kuala Lumpur compares itself with the best cities.
“Of course, there are cities faring worse but you do not want to be the one-eyed man in the land of the blind,” he said, adding that city planners need to listen to the community on recreational needs,
“Don’t just have one town hall meeting but go directly to the residents; listen to the young and old, to those who work or live in the area.
“Be respectful with the community.
“When you engage the community before, during and after (the construction of the park or playground), they will become friends of the park, it gives them a sense of ownership and they will not allow anyone to vandalise the place.
“But if the community is not part of the process, they do not feel an attachment to it,” he said.
Penalosa said parks need a management committee similar to those managing a community centre.
“Management is not just cutting the grass or clearing the rubbish; treat it as an outdoor community centre.
“It is not just about building it but what to do with it and how to maintain it.
“Focus not just on the hardware but software too.”
“Town planners should understand that it is not just about investing millions on building parks and playgrounds but also about investing thousands to make them usable for the local community.
“Engage with students so let them have outdoor classes in the park, engage with old folks to do activities in the park; maybe hold a movie night, tai chi class and so forth,” said Penalosa.
The current craze Pokemon GO is great, Penalosa said.
“I think if we are able to get people who are usually not at the parks to visit them because of the game, it is a good thing.
“Some may not return but some may.
“People may go to the park just to catch Pokemons but there might be something that catches their eye like a swing or a nice spot under the shade, hence there should be more things to do at all parks and recreational spots,” he said.