A century of organising physical space in Malaysia


Evolving urban centres: Malaysia is marking its centennial in formal town planning this year, an important milestone considering our high urbanisation rate at 77.2% – one of the highest in Asia – with room to hit 88% by 2050. ­— Filepic 2013/The Star

The systematic planning of land use and development is an important enterprise given its wide-ranging implications for mental well-being and climate change, among others.

THE organisation of physical space is way too important to be left to chance or impulsiveness on the part of city planners.

The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic against a backdrop of the ongoing climate crisis means that urban planners need to be even more attuned to the demands of the times even as they try to predict the future.

Earlier this week, the executive director of the United Nations Human Settlement Programme (UN-Habitat), Datuk Seri Maimunah Mohd Sharif, said that Covid-19 has practically reversed decades of global progress on poverty, healthcare and education.

“Even prior to Covid-19, the world was already not on track to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals targeted for 2030. The impact of Covid-19 is indeed a wake-up call,” she said in her speech at the virtual soft launch of City Expo Malaysia 2021 (CEM 2021) on Wednesday.

Maimunah: The impact of Covid-19 is a wake-up call for urban planners, who urgently need to address myriad issues ranging from severe poverty to mental health issues to city resilience.Maimunah: The impact of Covid-19 is a wake-up call for urban planners, who urgently need to address myriad issues ranging from severe poverty to mental health issues to city resilience.

Coorganised by the Malaysian Institute of Planners (MIP) and Nextdor, CEM 2021 is an event created to mark 100 years of town planning in Malaysia.

On quality housing, she said the problem does not necessarily lie in high-density living or developments in urban areas.

“With proper planning, it is fine to have lot of housing units within a given area. The problem is overcrowding (within each housing unit). For example, it is not OK to have 20 people crammed inside a house.”

Maimunah was the mayor of Penang Island from 2017 to 2018 before she took on the UN job.

To be hosted in Nov 8-12 on a fully virtual platform (cityexpomalaysia.com), CEM 2021 is designed to drive the debate around urban developments by inviting various stakeholders to share their ideas and solutions to combat the challenges brought about by urbanisation.

“The esteemed profession of planning helps us to chart a course for our cities in the delicate balance between functional efficiency and social equity.

“In this regard, few entities have done more to continuously advance collective knowledge, shared experience, and cooperation in Malaysia than MIP,” said Maimunah, who also delivered a talk titled World In Pandemic Crisis: UN-Habitat’s Strategies in Handling It moderated by the president of the Malaysian Institute of Planners, Datin Noraida Saludin.

Noraida: There will be increasingly more pushback against the prevalent ‘top down’ approach in city-making, as more stakeholders will demand for their voices to be heard.Noraida: There will be increasingly more pushback against the prevalent ‘top down’ approach in city-making, as more stakeholders will demand for their voices to be heard.

At the event, Maimunah called on city planners to help the people make sense of their times, yet not let go of “imaginative exploration” as they attempt to explore what the near future will be like.

“As planners and, more broadly, a planning community, we strive to help others make sense of their socio- political environments by offering better, clearer and stronger conceptions of what lies ahead.

“In turn, our predictive work and recommendations give rise to new and more progressive city policy and legislation. Meanwhile, with each regulation and planning framework passed, our work as planners fuels the persevering quest of cities to achieve an elevated state and better quality of life for all through the generations,” she said.

“Today, Malaysia is one of the most urbanised countries in Asia, experiencing significant cumulative growth in the last two decades that has transformed the country from 34% urban in 1980 with estimates of growing to 80% by 2030.

“Recognised challenges associated with this rapid urbanisation include the urban-rural divide, increased urban sprawl and lack of affordable and adequate housing and green and open spaces, poor urban mobility and connectivity, traffic congestion and other social ills,” she said.

According to social purpose organisation to improve urban living, Think City (a subsidiary of Khazanah Nasional), Malaysia has one of the highest urbanisation rates in Asia.

“By the first three decades since independence in 1957, Malaysia had already transformed from a rural population to an urban-majority society. Today, more than 75% of Malaysians live in the country’s towns and cities.

Benson: There is a need to bridge the gap between emerging challenges and public policy making, more so when the government has significantly recalibrated its spatial policies.Benson: There is a need to bridge the gap between emerging challenges and public policy making, more so when the government has significantly recalibrated its spatial policies.

“However, with the rapid pace of urban transformation, new challenges affecting the well-being of citizens continue to surface,” said Dr Leo van Grunsven from the Utrecht University of the Netherlands, and Dr Matt Benson, programme director at Think City, in one of Think City’s Urban Policy Series of publications.

The authors argue that public policy tends to lag behind current and emerging challenges.

“There is a need therefore to bridge the gap between the emerging challenges faced by citizens and public policy making,” they said, adding that over the last decade (during the 10th and 11th Malaysia Plan periods), the Malaysian government has significantly recalibrated its spatial policies.

“It has reshaped its strategies and programmes on the role of cities as engines of growth and thus as key elements in national economic and social development. This transpired towards the end of the 9th Malaysia Plan (2006-2010) from a decisive switch in approach towards the national space economy: from distribution/dispersal, balance and equity towards concentration/agglomeration, efficiency and productivity.

“The philosophy changed from place-centred to people-centred, as had been advocated at the time by the World Bank, among others. It entailed a different vision for urbanisation, urban growth, and migration from lesser to higher opportunity areas,” said the authors.

Dialogue on urbanisation

“With Malaysia having one of the highest urbanisation rates in Asia, this discussion is of critical importance. Translated through best city planning practices, this clear road map to success will benefit the millions of Malaysians that live in our cities today and tomorrow.

“This year is also a good time for a critical review of the business of town planning as formal town planning in Malaysia hits its first century,” said Noraida.

Imran Clyde, one of the directors of CEM 2021, said the world’s experience with the pandemic has shown that a lot more thought needs to be put in to ensure our cities and townships become truly liveable.

Imran: Beyond just providing green spaces, making a place livable entails many factors, and many planners are now trying to envision what a post-pandemic city will look like.Imran: Beyond just providing green spaces, making a place livable entails many factors, and many planners are now trying to envision what a post-pandemic city will look like.

“This means, there will be a lot of eyeballs on CEM 2021 as people try to reimagine a post-pandemic urban environment. However, ensuring good developments is more than just ensuring the allocation of open space, as effort and thought must be put in to make sure the space is inviting and welcoming,” he said.

Maimunah said the health of cities is linked with poverty, and the big picture is that global extreme poverty rose in 2020, the first time in over 20 years.

Between 119 million and 124 million people globally were pushed back to extreme poverty, she said, “So it is time we put people at the centre of the response,” she said as she highlighted that many in Asia and Malaysia are in acute danger of having their livelihoods wiped out.

She added that instead of revising the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal targets, we should relook the current situation and revise the way we do business, and get corporate bodies and investors to look out for other, non-financal, bottom lines.

“Covid 19 unlocks huge potential environmental changes in cities, showing a more promising trend in repurposing our priorities.

“It’s time we put policy into action, action to impact, impact to evolution and financial models. Hopefully CEM 2021 will trigger the idea of coming up with the solution to Malaysia’s National Recovery Plan,” said Maimunah.

Planning for future pandemics

Covid-19 has, of course, been a huge shock to systems that are still grappling with its ramifications.

“I think the biggest impact of Covid-19 is seen in urban areas, and because of that, whatever intervention that is done in cities will have the biggest impact, simply because there are a lot more people in cities (and increasingly so as the country urbanises),” said Noraida.

Cities were already grappling with many issues even before the pandemic, with Malaysia struggling to provide solutions for problems faced by the vulnerable or those in the B40 (low-income) group.

“When Covid-19 came, they were the first to be affected. And now we are seeing that there are more of those from the M40 (middle income) group joining the B40 group due to the economic and activity restrictions from the movement control order.

“Covid-19 led to a lot of mental health issues, especially among those living in small flats, because they have no outlet. When you get out of your unit, there’re still a lot of people around, and there is not enough green spaces, if at all.

“So we need to relook these small items, the daily things that are important to people,” said Noraida, who argued that the provision of open spaces cannot be underestimated, as underlined by the pandemic.

“We need spaces where people can go out within walking distance, so that they don’t need to drive their car and find parking. We need to now look at how we can provide these spaces within walking distance to cover everybody and all communities in the cities.

“There has to be a paradigm shift in how town planning is done. With Covid-19, we learned the lesson that town planning has to be about the ‘human scale’. It’s not about huge landmark sor iconic buildings, it is about providing simple things that connect to your daily life,” said Noraida, who also thinks that a top-down approach to town planning will also be increasingly questioned.

“Going forward, town planning will have more contribution from the ‘bottom up approach’, with more rigorous participation from communities. Town planning needs to evolve – we cannot remain stagnant and plan like today.

“Malaysia is certainly a worthy subject of study by urbanists, given its ranking of 54 out of 194 countries surveyed recently, where its urbanisation was rated at 77.2%, with room to grow to 88% by 2050.”

In this, Noraida said CEM 2021, which is supported by Housing and Local Government Ministry, PLANMalaysia (the Federal Town and Country Planning Department), and the Commonwealth Association of Planners, will bring multiple stakeholders to share ideas and solutions for city challenges in the first and largest virtual expo on town planning and development in Malaysia since the pandemic began.

“Everyone can join in a meaningful way, including through a free public exhibition that seeks to educate people on the importance of town planning.

“This event is timely as we hope to draw public attention to how planning impacts urban development and our wellbeing, as well as highlight the progress we have made since 1921, and the challenges confronting our cities today and tomorrow,” said Noraida.

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