Rethinking the city

The Draft Kuala Lumpur City Plan 2020 also provides detailed land use and development information, to an extent.

THINK of the last five locations you were in.

Were they mostly of a private nature - a dwelling, a shopping mall, a coffee shop - or did you largely find yourself in public spaces such as parks and squares?

Chances are, you made it from the day's start to end almost entirely confined to private spaces, with the exception of taking to the roads to get from point A to point B.

I remain unsure as to whether our hot and humid weather is what keeps us mostly indoors, but having recently returned from an assignment in the Big Apple, I was struck by how much its citizens enjoyed and utilised the many public spaces the city had to offer.

People from all walks of life pound the (broad, well-kept) pavement as they head to work, to school, to play, disappearing into and resurfacing from as many subway stations as their commute requires. Granted, it's easy to get around in New York City's straightforward grid system.

Cyclists are another ubiquitous presence, with even a designated bike track on the iconic Brooklyn Bridge. If you don't have your own set of wheels to get around, there is the option of borrowing one from the Citi Bike station, with necessary check-ins at their stations at certain timed intervals.

As I learnt from a tour guide, Manhattan's homeless also devised an additional use for the latter bike-share system last winter. As you can pedal backwards on the bicycles, many without shelter did so to keep warm in frigid weather.

In the East Village, youths flocked to Union Square to loiter, dance and catch up on their day.

Greenwich's picturesque Bleecker Street had a public playground full of excitable children and watchful parents with nannies in tow, while nearby park benches and picnic tables were filled by those catching up on their reading and snacking on banana cream pie from the infamous Magnolia Bakery across the street.

Museums had no shortage of visitors, be it the trendy Museum of Modern Art with its popular sculpture garden, or the venerable Metropolitan Museum of Art with its roof garden cafe.

You'd also see joggers sprinting across avenues as they steadily made their way to one of the many lush parks and green lungs the city had to offer.
A personal favourite, Central Park, was a constant hive of activity that also hosted beautiful pockets of quiet.

You'd see kids on kick scooters, picnickers feeding bushy-tailed squirrels with the remains from breakfast, pet owners walking their dogs (Gotham's pet du jour), and people doing everything from catching some solitary shut eye on gently sloping rock hills, to taking in the green on the many benches dotting the park's walkways.

Another tidbit I learnt from a chatty local was that their progressive zoning laws - which prioritise contextual zoning and special district requirements such as the inclusion of arts and entertainment uses for developments over a certain size - also provide incentives and guidelines for stakeholders to be mindful of how said developments impact existing communities.

The information above is easily and readily available online, and it was this collective dedication to the creation and upkeep of great public spaces at every level that impressed me most about New York City.

Back home, the Draft Kuala Lumpur City Plan 2020 also provides detailed land use and development information, to an extent.

It highlights issues such as the steady decline of public open space in the city centre, with recreational areas and sports facilities only representing 6.5% of total land use.

Alarmingly, the amount of open public space is "even less when private open spaces such as golf courses are excluded".

Local organisations such as Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (Empower) subjected the plan to scrutiny in 2008, and it remains to be seen whether the plan will sufficiently address the lack of public open space and other development issues in the national capital.

For now, there is varied accessibility to our public spaces, though ongoing public transport projects such as the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) are cause to hope for greater mobility in the near future.

And with our prevalent mall culture, it is fairly easy to have most everyday needs met by the many retailers in our mega complexes, which may explain their enduring popularity with our population.

Certain malls may have designated public areas within their sprawl - such as The Square at Publika, and rooftop gardens at others - but many are happy to merely keep mall-goers shuffling from store to store.

So while these complexes may keep us in each other's company, there is a distinct lack of other options that encourage actual engagement with one another, which is a real pity.

After all, a city's sociability is part and parcel of the quality of life it has to offer. If we don't have the necessary venues to interact, there is a reduced opportunity to learn from one another.

Even when alone on a park bench, you are privy to the louder conversations around you, which can quicken the mind and nourish a personal wellspring of ideas.

We already have beautiful public spaces - our many lake gardens and parks come to mind, as well as the amazing Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia - and it is imperative that these spaces are as people-friendly as possible.

This can mean anything from sufficient access and facilities for people with disabilities, to better security and crack-free pavements for our pedestrians.

To see this become a reality is to engage in a continuous exercise of rethinking the city and taking an active part in advocating for its betterment.

For when we are able to use our surroundings in a meaningful manner, it won't be long before we enjoy a better quality of life - the best part, will be the ability to do so together.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.
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