Building cities that thrive: A need for a comprehensive urban policy

According to a World Bank report published in January 2015, Malaysia has 19 urban areas with more than 100,000 people: one urban area of more than five million people (Kuala Lumpur), two between one and five million (George Town and Johor Baru), five of 500,000 to one million, and 11 urban areas of between 100,000 and 500,000 people.

As of 2010, the Kuala Lumpur urban area was the eighth largest in the region, larger than some megacity urban areas like Jakarta, Manila, and Seoul despite its smaller population.

However, what is lacking is a comprehensive national urbanisation policy that takes into account the needs and wants of each urban cluster.

Besides the Greater Kuala Lumpur initiative spearheaded by Pemandu, most planning matters have been left to state and local authorities resulting in uneven growth and lack of a cohesive policy.

United Nations Habitat sums up the imperatives of a national urbanisation policy succinctly:  “Urbanisation in most developing countries is bringing about enormous changes in the spatial distribution of people, resource, as well as the use and consumption of land. Although such a process is strongly linked to social and economic development, many countries lack the supporting policies and frameworks that can leverage the process for increased development gains and guide it towards sustainable patterns.

While urbanisation creates huge wealth and opportunities, enables better use of assets and creates new ones, in many countries, particularly in the developing world, these aspects are not harnessed for development. In fact, in the developing world, urbanisation challenges often seem to outpace the development gains.

In order to harness urbanisation, mitigate its negative externalities and promote an “urban paradigm shift”, there is need for a coordinated approach and clear policy directions. This is lacking in many countries, where several government departments are in charge of dealing with different aspects of the urbanisation challenge.

Moreover, urbanisation is not considered a national development opportunity. In general, the overall understanding of cities in national development is very limited, and so is the appreciation of the structural transformations represented by the dynamics of growth in urban centres.

Hence there is a pressing need for a cohesive and comprehensive rethink of the national urbanisation policy to ensure that our cities are hot beds for creativity and innovation while at the same time, ensuring they are affordable and liveable with connectivity and seamless transit for all its inhabitants.

Furthermore, modern cities are not merely places to live or conduct an economic activity but they are also progenitors of creativity and expression and sustainers of art and culture.  They are crucibles of innovation and enterprise providing countless opportunities for its inhabitants to rise up the economic ladder and enjoy a balanced and fulfilling life.

These are indeed high ideals but if Malaysia is to provide for its future generations, then the work of building truly global and accomplished urban centres must start now.

The problems with our cities and urban centres are well documented: density (the drawbacks of low joined by the challenges of high), transport (needing greater mass transit connectivity and walkability while reducing dependence on cars), housing (affordability and variety), sanitation and cleanliness, security, affordability, inequality (divided by income, health and mobility), the spatial mismatch between jobs and homes, governance, open space, environment, heritage, design and planning.

We can find inspiration in the works of a number of writers who have proffered ideas on how to make our cities better.

Ed Glaeser’s Triumph of the City talks about proximity, density and light-handed regulation.  According to Glaeser, proximity makes people more inventive, as bright minds feed off one another; more productive, as scale gives rise to finer degrees of specialisation; and kinder to the planet, as city-dwellers are more likely to go by foot, bus or train than the car-slaves of suburbia and the sticks. Successful places have in common the ability to attract people and to enable them to collaborate.

In The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida discusses the competitive advantage of attracting human capital.

Florida talks about a creative age that he divides into the creative class, economy and ethos respectively. And what binds it all together is a city that brings together its best and brightest, and encourages and propels the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship coupled with a social structure of creativity that has new and more effective models of producing goods and services.

This new social structure will also promote a broad social, geographic and cultural milieu that is conducive to creativity.

The two authors compel us to look at cities beyond its most common attributes which is a place to live, raise a family, work and indulge in pleasure and enjoyment but beyond that, cities have also become hotbeds for cultural and artistic expressions and incubators of innovation and creativity.

As such, Malaysian cities must improve and adapt in order to move up the value chain and create wealth. Basic issues like housing, sanitation and transport must be resolved with creative ideas.

Furthermore, planning guidelines must be strictly enforced. In Penang for example, despite George Town being a Unesco world heritage site, the approach to planning and density control has been abysmal.

Reclamation has reportedly been at the expense of the environment and this makes Penang less inhabitable in the long run.

In Malaysia, they are already examples of this new approach to urban development. PR1MA is one example of an innovative approach to provide home ownership opportunities for city dwellers.

The Kuala Lumpur City Hall is also encouraging developers to provide more open spaces for recreational activities and this includes converting roof-tops of buildings into green areas.

Also, a friend of mine Soon Wei is currently developing the Asian Printing Works complex in Jalan Riong, Bangsar to create an incubator of innovation.

Soon Wei is committed to open spaces and encouraging city dwellers to come together to share ideas on how to make Kuala Lumpur better, promote arts and drama, provide spaces for start-ups to collaborate. It is inspiring that individuals have taken the initiative to transform their cities.

I also believe that a national urban planning commission is needed to ensure that urban policy is structured and coordinated between the federal, state and local governments similar to the National Council for Local Government chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister.

I am certain with the right policy vigour and civic participation, we can make our cities amongst the best in the world.


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

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