The problem with our cities

Exciting development: The River of Life project has injected some life into the historical area of KL where the Klang and Gombak rivers converge, but sadly not enough to make the city centre alive and vibrant again.

OUR cities, like many others, suffer greatly from the mistakes of previous planners that came before us. Experience going around in our cities can immediately tell us what the problems are: congestion, pollution, safety, dullness, et cetera, et cetera.

Even worse, our downtowns are dying. In a conversation I had not too long ago with an official from Think City, she lamented about how the downtown area of Kuala Lumpur is almost lifeless. No one really spends time there outside of office hours, except for backpackers, who use our city as a stop-over before going to other more ‘exotic’ places.

More recently, the River of Life project has injected some doses of life into the area – or rather the area where the Klang and Gombak rivers converge – but for the most part I would say it is still a sad case. This is the area that used to be the heart of the city, not too long ago I might add. As a kid, I used to take the bus to this part of the city. I would do my window shopping in Kotaraya Complex, check out what’s new at the record store, have lunch at the S&M Food Court, watch a movie at Rex Cinema, and do people-watching (the best thing to do in cities) in front of an indoor fountain in Dayabumi Complex, facing the passageway to Pasar Seni. I would take a short bus ride to Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, walk along the sidewalks where blind musicians sing Malay ballads, and stop by Pustaka Minerva to go through their collection of books. And of course, who can forget the robust bootleg industry in Petaling Street. And sometimes, I would watch the sunset from the bridge that connects Pos Malaysia Headquarters to the old KL Railway station. How lively that place was. But now, just like what the Think City lady said, you can hardly get people to stay there outside of office hours.

Like many other cities, urban development in our cities practises land-use planning, also known as zoning. In short, zoning refers to the idea of demarcating different sections of the city for different functions. This idea or concept of planning can be traced all the way back to Plato, but for modern cities, this concept became prominent in the industrialised cities in Western Europe, to tackle public health issues and urban slums. In the neoliberal economy that most cities practice today, including our own unfortunately, the rationale for zoning is for best land-use purposes, meaning making the most profit from property value. Areas considered as prime land area are demarcated for commercial purpose, so the properties can be sold or rented at a much higher price. Buildings that have less commercial value, for example shophouses or residential, are allocated at different areas, usually further away from downtowns and city centres.

The River of Life project will be continued under the Federal Territories Ministrys vision for 2019 programmes.
The River of Life project will be continued under the Federal Territories Ministrys vision for 2019 programmes. 

As much as this approach makes economic sense, unfortunately, zoning has a lot of other implications, which in turn are also hurting us economically. Zoning, accompanied with the almost criminal act of designing a car-oriented city, is the main cause of the disease we now call the urban sprawl. As the city grows, housing (especially affordable ones), which has the lowest commercial value compared to other types of development, is being pushed out further away from the city centre. As a result, this creates a bigger work-home separation. In cities like ours where almost everyone drives, this huge work-home separation creates peak hour congestion, pollution, and ultimately the loss of vitality in our cities. City neighbourhoods become single-used due to zoning, and because people are living further away from the centre, our once vital downtown becomes dead.

To be fair, the old planners did see zoning as a remedy for the problems that they were facing at the time. But when the pattern of the city’s growth begins to threaten its well-being, as what we are experiencing today, sticking to the same approach that led to the current condition is no longer a wise thing to do. City planners and designers must then come to grips with the failures and shortcomings of the old approach and look for other ways to deal with the current conditions.

The remedy, so it seems, for this disease, comes in the form of mixed-use development. This idea that became prominent thanks to writer and activist Jane Jacobs, pushes the concept of an inclusive urban development, not separated by zones or land-use. Each city neighbourhood should consists of retails, offices, residentials, public parks, et cetera, et cetera. Each city neighbourhood should have luxurious as well as affordable buildings, old and new, tall and small, work and leisure.

Each city neighbourhood remains self-contained while still keeping their arms open to the world outside of their boundaries. The streets and public spaces are lively and vibrant, and act as veins that connect one neighbourhood to the next, instead of acting like rivers that separate communities.

But like any other good ideas, this beautiful concept of city planning has also been misused and abused. “Mixed-use” has become a mantra for all developers, dropping it here and there, everywhere, as a marketing slogan to attract investors, buyers, and consumers. Even our new malls are boasting themselves as mixed-use development, where people can come to live, work, and play.

But instead of building an all-inclusive city neighbourhood that can bring life out into the streets and public spaces, these new complexes are sucking life out from the street, and imprisoning people in their privately-owned buildings, built for the haves rather than the have-nots. Mixed-use development, like democracy, is not a one-size-fits-all. And like democracy, if not properly scrutinised, it can be used as a smokescreen for more malicious agendas.

Studies and experiences in other cities have shown that mixed-use planning that comes from a “top-down” approach would yield results that are no better than the current condition we are already in. Mixed-use should not only concern with the outcome, but also in the process of planning itself. Planning that includes participation of local community have proven to be more inclusive, and have yielded outcomes that are more robust and sustainable in the long run. But we also have to be clear that community participation is not as simple as conducting an opinion survey on SurveyMonkey. The case of the closure of Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman have proven that community participation requires more than that. Community participation – as advocated by American researcher Sherry Arnstein, who wrote the influential Ladder of Citizen Participation – is about power distribution, and giving local community the ability to influence planning outcomes. It is itself a complex process that requires more than a few lines that I can churn out here, but what is for sure is in our cities, it is still far from ideal.

Perhaps, the remedy for our cities is something even more basic than that?

To create a vibrant city, we need to make it inclusive and mixed-use. To create a successful and truly inclusive, mixed-use neighbourhoods, we need community and collective participation that can really influence planning outcomes. But in our cities, we are not even able to choose our own local councilors, city officials, and mayors.

Perhaps we can start with that?

Badrul Hisham Ismail is a partner with IMAN Research. He is now pursuing his Masters.

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Lifestyle , Government , urban development , KL


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