Planning for diversity

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 09 Jun 2019

Growing diversity: The increasing migration of foreign workers into the city is continuously changing Kuala Lumpur’s demography.

Without real effort to include all members of the community in the urban planning of Kuala Lumpur, the city would never be a place for everyone, and would never be able to live up to its greatest potential. 

WITH 1.76 million inhabitants, Kuala Lumpur is not only the most populous city in Malaysia; it is also one of the country’s most diverse.

Its ethnic breakdown comprises 41.3% Malay, 38.7% Chinese, 9.2% Indians, 1.2% Indigenous, 0.9% others and 8.8% non-­citizens.

Then there is the variety of religions being practised in the city.

In Kuala Lumpur, 46.4% of its population identify themselves as Muslims, 5.8% as Christians, 35.7% as Buddhists, 8.5% as Hindus, 1.1% as Confucian or Taoists, 0.6% as others, 0.5% as not belonging to any religion and 1.4% unknown.

Add on the increasing migration of foreign workers into the city – as shown by the World Economic Forum in their report on patterns of migration – Kuala Lumpur’s demography is continuously changing, and the city is becoming more and more diverse.

The question we need to ask then is, how do we plan and manage a diverse city?

Diversity is in fact, messy, and in a city with “deep differences” like Kuala Lumpur, things can get really messy indeed.

South African city planning professor Vanessa Watson describes this as “inter-group” differences, brought about by material, ethnic, racial or other differences; and “state-citizen” differences, referring to the relationship between the hegemonic technical, managerial and political systems through which public authorities manage their relationships with their consumers/citizens, and the everyday needs and priorities of people.

Last year’s incident at the Seafield Sri Maha Mariamman temple, where a case of land acquisition for redevelopment right outside the city centre turned into a racial issue, is a good reminder of how ugly things can get.

How can we ensure that a city that consists of different types of people, with different ethnicity, nationality, language and religious background, can work for everyone?

This is no easy task, but I would argue that the answer lies in getting everyone involved, through participatory planning.

There are many types of participatory planning that are being practised around the globe, each with their own pros and cons.

And of course, different models would work in different cities, taking into account the cities’ socio-political and historical context, as well as their capabilities to manage them.

In the context of Kuala Lumpur, I would suggest diversifying the urban planning profession, and scaling down governance and planning to a district or neighbourhood level, would be a good start.

But before I elaborate on those two approaches, it is worth looking into what level of participation needed to make it truly meaningful.

American public policy expert Sherry Arnstein, in her work “A Ladder of Citizen Participation”, defines participation as the redistribution of power, and the ability of citizens to influence outcomes.

In the context of urban planning, that would mean the redistribution of power among city dwellers to allow them to influence the decision making of planning and policy-making processes.

Specifically, she focuses on the redistribution of power that would enable the “have-not citizens” – those who are excluded from political and economic processes – to be included, through information sharing, goals and policy setting, resource allocations, as well as the distribution of benefits.

In further defining participation, Arnstein provides a typology of eight levels of citizen participation, to differentiate between what she calls “empty ritual participation”, with having real power that is needed to influence the outcome of the process.

Arranged in a pattern of a ladder, she begins with manipulation and therapy, which practically means “non-participation”.

Next is what she calls “tokenism”, with the typology of informing, consultation, and placation.

For Arnstein, “tokenism” only allows the have-nots to hear and to have a voice, without having any power to decide.

Real participation only occurs in the next level, what she calls “citizen power” where the have-nots would enter into a partnership and be able to negotiate, and the topmost rungs would be delegated power and citizen control, where the have-nots would obtain the majority of decision making power.

Following Arnstein’s typology to the teeth might prove to be difficult, as she herself acknowledges the limitations of her proposal.

Opponents of participation would argue that it is more costly and less efficient, it promotes separatism, incompatible with merit systems and professionalism et cetera.

These arguments are valid indeed.

But it is also important to acknowledge that without a real effort to include all members of the community, the haves and the have-nots, especially in a city like Kuala Lumpur with multiple minority groups – some are not even documented – many voices could not be heard.

The city would never be a place for everyone, and would never be able to live up to its greatest potential.

With this in mind, it is important to look into what can be achieved in a given context, and what is the scale of impact certain interventions or approaches can bring.

As regards to Kuala Lumpur, diversifying the planning profession to include more members from different ethnic minorities can be seen as a good and workable approach.

In her writing, The Minority-Race Planner in the Quest for a Just City, Centennial Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Michigan June Manning Thomas argues just that – professional diversity is a visible, tangible and basic measure that can be taken to ensure proper representation and diversity, and enhance participation in decision making.

A look into the staff directory of the Kuala Lumpur City Hall’s City Planning Department shows that the department consists of 100% Malay-Muslim staff members.

This truly does not represent the city’s demography, as presented earlier.

It is important to have people in the planning profession who are able to articulate the realities of discrimination, displacements, and histories of under-served communities.

Meaning it is important to have planners who come from minority groups, especially in fragmented urban areas, to help improve the planning process for minority-race people.

Therefore, it is important for the Kuala Lumpur City Hall to diversify their recruitment to be more representative of the city’s demography.

The planning profession is of course not only the domain of the government.

Private planners and consultants should also look into diversifying their recruitments.

But on top of that, I would even suggest taking one step further by diversifying all stakeholders involved in professions that can influence city planning and policies, from academics and researchers to journalists, architects as well as real estate developers.

The idea is the same; communities disadvantaged in some way or another may look into the diversity of local urban influencers as a way of gaining access into the negotiation table, towards a more equitable outcome.

Another way of increasing diversity and participation in planning is to scale down governance and planning to a district or neighbourhood level, as proposed by Jane Jacobs. Cities that are diverse in its population also consists of diverse neighbourhoods, each unique in their own way, with different sets of problems and challenges.

In New York City, for example, Greenwich Village is different from Inwood, Flushing is different from Greenpoint. In Kuala Lumpur, Lembah Pantai is different from Cheras, Bukit Bintang is different from Bandar Tun Razak, and so forth.

Hence, when it comes to planning, planners must diagnose what is needed in these specific places, instead of generalising planning and policies for the entire city.

The city of Kuala Lumpur consists of eleven townships and electoral districts, namely Batu, Wangsa Maju, Kepong, Segambut, Titiwangsa, Bukit Bintang, Lembah Pantai, Cheras, Bandar Tun Razak, Seputeh and Setiawangsa.

All of these townships fall under the jurisdiction of the Kuala Lumpur City Hall, who acts as the local authority, as well as providing services and infrastructures.

As mentioned earlier, the demography of Kuala Lumpur is quite diverse, and although there are no details of ethnic breakdown for each township, it is safe to say that each of them is different.

Each township and district has different ethnic and racial composition, different history, culture and built environment, that lead to different conditions, problems and challenges. Hence, it is only wise to plan and govern each township differently, according to its own needs.

The organisational structure of the Kuala Lumpur City Hall shows that it governs the entire city – all of the eleven townships – through four main sectors; Planning, Management, Socio-Economic Development, and the Project Management sectors, parked under the central management of the City Hall. But if one were to follow Jacobs’ idea, planning for a diverse city must not be done in this general and vertical way.

Instead, it must be done in terms of the “precise and unique places in a city with which they are dealing”.

This means, instead of having planning and governance organised in a vertical fashion – having the entire planning coming from top command – cities would be better planned if the planning and coordination of different services are localised at the district or township level.

For Kuala Lumpur, this means that instead of having the City Hall administering all aspects of planning in all of the eleven townships, the planning and coordination should be conducted at the township level themselves.

This approach to planning can be seen as inefficient, where each townships having different plans of their own might be messier than having a centralised administration, where planning and decision making can be standardised and done on a bigger scale. And it is also important to take note that not all kinds of planning should be done at the local level.

Planning that involves building and managing big infrastructure, such as the water system, drainage, power grid and so forth, would still require city-wide planning, administered by the city authority.

However, smaller scale planning that requires intimate details of district knowledge, such as commercial block redevelopment, or building a local library, or locating neighbourhood houses of worship, should be put in the hands of people who have the knowledge and intimate relationship with the neighbourhood and the people living in it.

A lot of the argument against this sort of power redistribution, the kind that puts planning and governing on a smaller scale, as well as opening up for more diverse group of people to enter the decision making process, say that it renders the city to become inefficient, that the planning process will take too long, or worse, nothing will ever materialise.

But as Arnstein aptly puts it, every other means to govern a diverse city without victimising certain groups of people, mostly the have-nots, have failed.

On top of that, inefficiency is in fact, a good thing.

According to Jacobs, what is deemed to be inefficient – the existence of multiple administration doing similar work at different localities, small-scale local enterprises instead of large and well-established ones, and different groups of people putting new meaning to the city – is the thing that promotes the city’s vitality, the key ingredients for the strength and resilience of the city.

It is time for Kuala Lumpur to truly embrace its diversity, and work towards nurturing and enhancing it.

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

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