IT HAS been a long eventful Merdeka weekend, what with all the events happening — the Merdeka concert in Bukit Jalil Stadium, National Day parade at Dataran Merdeka and even the Bersih 4 rally.
Many also took advantage of the three-day weekend by taking a short trip, as could be seen from the traffic on the highways.
For residents of the PPR Kota Damansara public housing project, it was just another weekend, a brief respite from the worries of the past week and a lull before the challenges of the next.
For the children, it was another day of loitering in the familiar squalid surroundings of staircases reeking of urine and rat-infested drains.
However, there was a pleasant Merdeka surprise this time.
Two days before the weekend, the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) Landscape Department had sent more than 300 hibiscus plants to brighten up the new Harmony Garden at the flats.
On Saturday, the open space had already been transformed into a beautiful garden and hosted its first garden party.
Residents of all races shared the joy of the event, while children were thrilled to have a safe and clean garden to hang out in.
MBPJ councillor for the area, Shatiri Mansor was present and joined the residents for a nasi lemak breakfast after symbolically planting a hibiscus.
Prior to this, the open space was waterlogged and in need of beautification.
Friends of Kota Damansara had put up hedge fence poles last year and started planting some hedge plants around it with the objective of widening the “Zon Bersih”, but the plants grew slowly.
The fresh contribution of plants instantly completed the garden, which has become something the residents can take pride in.
Already, some of them have volunteered to water the plants and others have promised to tend to it.
Community gardens have a way of drawing in residents and presenting them with an opportunity to cooperate to enrich the neighborhood.
Public housing projects are infamous for rubbish “bombs” thrown from the upper floors, splashing all over the ground floor. This practice has boosted the rat population and rat-related diseases have seen a rise in many of these urban slums.
Of late, it has also become common for glass bottles to be thrown down. The contractor working on the Harmony Garden in PPR Kota Damansara narrowly missed being hit by one.
It is also common to see rubbish floating down regularly throughout the day and the cleaners are overwhelmed with the accumulated rubbish every morning.
While it is true that many residents staying in public housing schemes lack civic-consciousness, there are also some who are willing to work for the betterment of their community and society as a whole.
The herbal garden set up at the Kota Damansara community forest 10 minutes away from the PPR flats has been regularly maintained by the community there.
Last Friday, the community, alongside more than 100 volunteers from Deloitte, spent time cleaning up the forest, deepening the stream and clearing up the lake.
In the coming MBPJ Budget exercise, it would be good for the local authority to empower local communities to do more for themselves by providing good facilities and setting aside an allocation for capacity-building.
It has been voiced out often at public budget dialogues that the council are too focused on Infrastructure Budgeting but has not allocated anything towards building the People Structure.
Instead of blaming vandalism, Selangor’s local authorities must go beyond the rhetoric of Local Agenda 21 and engage in projects that are sustainable with the cooperation of the community that benefits from these facilities.
They must also start to benchmark themselves against the standards set by Singapore’s public housing project, or even closer to home – Kuala Lumpur City Hall’s work in transforming “black areas” such as the San Peng public housing project.
We are encouraged by MBPJ’s first steps in setting up community gardens.
I hope more of such gardens will flourish all over Petaling Jaya and the tri-sectoral partnership, as envisaged by Local Agenda 21, can become a reality.
This year sees the end of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, and in 2016, the Sustainable Development Goals kicks in.
Like Agenda 21, which saw Petaling Jaya as a pilot site, MBPJ can take the lead again but this time, it must not work alone but in partnership with the people.
The focus must be on capacity building and the creation of a people-structure framework to look after the infrastructure building and maintenance.
Jeffrey FK Phang is an assistant professor at Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman and serves as a cluster research head for “Sustainable Township” in the Centre for Sustainable Development and Corporate Social Responsibility.