ACCESS to public spaces has been severely curtailed during the Covid-19 pandemic, throwing into sharp relief the importance of such places for one’s mental and physical health.
With movement control orders previously restricting visits to parks, fields and open recreational areas, people fatigued from being cooped up in their homes began creating their own relaxation spaces.
These spaces were conceptualised at shared community sites in residential areas as well as in apartment complexes.
Creating shared spaces
In several of Selangor’s tightly-packed low-cost flats, for example, a project to create communal spaces for residents --- who are oftentimes confined to their small living units --- is ongoing.
The Selangor Aid for Strata Communal Space (Sascom) initiative is spearheaded by the state government in collaboration with Selangor Housing and Property Board (LPHS), several public institutions of higher learning (IPTA), commissioner of buildings as well as joint management bodies (JMB) and management corporations (MC).
The project involves creating a specific space within the high-rise residential complex for residents’ use such as hosting small family gatherings, study and reading corners or simply as a corner to relax in.
Eight low-cost flats in different areas in Selangor have been chosen to be a part of the pilot project: Pangsapuri PKNS PJS 2 (Petaling Jaya); Pangsapuri Taman Industri Lembah Jaya, Pangsapuri 940 Pandan Indah and Pangsapuri Sri Impian Ukay Perdana (Ampang); Pangsapuri Selayang Mulia (Selayang); Pangsapuri Kos Rendah Bukit Hatamas in Cheras (Hulu Langat); Pangsapuri Kos Rendah Fasa 3CD (Shah Alam); and Pangsapuri Belimbing Cempaka (Seri Kembangan).
At Pangsapuri Taman Industri Lembah Jaya, what was previously a spot used for dry rubbish disposal and used furniture is now a bright and welcoming space for residents.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia senior research fellow at the Institute of the Malay World and Civilisation (Atma) Assoc Prof Dr Nor Zalina Harun said this space could be utilised as a community platform to encourage social interaction among residents.
Her team is overseeing the initiative at two of the flats.
She said planning standards and guidelines for housing should offer a more conducive environment, one that emphasised the community’s well-being.
“A few years ago I started a research project on the happiness index of people living in low-cost strata housing,” said Nor Zalina.
“At the preliminary research stage, I found that not only were these residents deprived in terms of the size of the units but there was also inadequate open spaces.
“There were many cases where there was zero communal space in these strata properties.”
Nor Zalina’s research covered low-cost strata properties in Ampang, Kajang and Petaling Jaya, all in Selangor.
“There is a need to relook at how we develop communal spaces and public infrastructure,” she said.
“For the long-term sustainability of these types of projects, it is vital that the community is brought into the picture from the start.
“This will instil a sense of belonging and appreciation, where a bottom-up rather than top-down approach would work better,” she said, adding that so far all of the residents groups were fully on board with the project.
Nor Zalina said that considering the current pandemic, outdoor spaces in the housing areas were indispensable for residents to de-stress and indulge in outdoor activities.
“These types of initiatives serve as our social investment because we are helping to create a comfortable living environment.”
State housing, urban well-being and entrepreneur development committee chairman Rodziah Ismail said these flats were chosen as none had adequate communal spaces for the residents.
“We felt that this was the right time to introduce this concept because the Covid-19 pandemic had forced people to remain in their small apartment units.
“These old flats also reflect the design of that period, which did not place emphasis on communal spaces.
“Now, residents will have a safe space outside their units that will help to lessen the stresses of living in close quarters,” she said during the launch of the initiative.
Rodziah said each communal space would reflect the needs of the particular apartment block’s residents.
“They will also be in charge of maintaining the space and, hopefully, it will not be misused.”
She urged other local councils and communities to look at low-cost strata properties in their jurisdictions where similar concepts could be introduced.
For now, Selangor government has allocated RM15,000 for each of the eight identified locations and the work is carried out by an IPTA with help from residents.
Pangsapuri Taman Industri Lembah Jaya management corporation chairman Budiman Taib said residents were looking forward to utilising their communal space.
“Many of the residents are former villagers who were relocated here in 2005 and have known each other since the 1990s.
“But with a lack of space here to interact, we lost touch.
“Now, however, we have a comfortable space and for now, we will monitor the usage so that it does not become overcrowded,” he said, adding that there were about 2,000 residents at the flats.
A secret garden
In Taman Kelab Ukay, Ampang, a group of residents created their own community garden a year into the Covid-19 pandemic.
Zahrin Ishak said they had discovered a unique spot within their neighbourhood that had previously been obscured by secondary vegetation.
“We have been living here for more than 20 years and it was only early this year that we realised there was a 2ha green space, and even a small man-made lake.
“We were told that the land was in the process of being handed over to the state government by the developer.”
While waiting for the handover process, the residents received verbal approval from the developer to turn the space into a community garden.
“They also submitted a request to Ampang Jaya Municipal Council (MPAJ) to utilise the space.
The residents set up the Taman Kelab Ukay Community Garden Association in an effort to better manage the project.
Zahrin, who serves as the association’s secretary general, said residents cleared the space of undergrowth and started a vegetable patch.
They also populated the lake with fish in just a few short months.
To date, they have planted 200 pineapple plants, 70 chilli plants and various herbs and vegetables.
A few residents have also donated about 2,000 young tilapia and patin fish.
“With people stuck indoors for a lengthy amount of time because of Covid-19, the garden has become a place for interaction while enabling everyone to still practise all SOP.
“We are all a little happier since we started this garden,” Zahrin added.
Residents got together to do the cleaning up; even 69-year-old Lawrence Lim enthusiastically waded into the lake to clear away massive amounts of rubbish.
“It took several days, but it felt good to see it all cleared,” said Lim.
The garden was also a chance for Ruzaini Abdul Manap, 57, to channel her passion for gardening.
“We do not have much space within our homes. Here, we can be involved with something bigger.”
Meanwhile, MPAJ press relations officer Norhayati Ahmad said they had received the residents’ request to set up the garden but approval was delayed as Selangor had earlier been under NRP Phase 1.
“MPAJ, however, has no objections against the request and will be contacting the association.
“The usual SOP for setting up a community garden is to submit a request to the council, which will be followed by a site visit and working paper.
“If the request is approved, then activities can start and it will officially be a community garden registered under MPAJ,” she elaborated.
She said some of the considerations that would be looked into included suitability of the site, which should be an open space or vacant land that could be cultivated as an edible garden.
Those located on children’s playgrounds, recreational parks and road reserves are deemed unsuitable.
Norhayati added that sites located on individual or private land would need the owner’s approval prior to submission of the application.
As of Sept 7, there were 45 registered and active community gardens within MPAJ’s jurisdiction.