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Planning for a city

I HAD the pleasure of attending the World Class Sustainable Cities 2009 seminar recently organised by the Real Estate and Housing Developers’ Association Malaysia (Redha), Malaysian Institute of Planners (MIP) and Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM).

The speakers were experts in various fields that ranged from transport to cityscape infrastructure and building development. I would like to share some of the lessons and concepts here, with the added context of what it means to Petaling Jaya.

Consultation, planning and PR

All townships go through a phase where the increasing population places an increasing burden on the existing infrastructure and services until it can no longer cope.

The best example of this in Petaling Jaya would be in Kelana Jaya, along the Lebuhraya Damansara-Puchong (LDP). There are numerous applications to the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ) to develop the plots located next to the highway. However, with the LDP already classified as a Class F highway (meaning worst-case traffic congestion), any such development would exacerbate the traffic problem.

A section of the LDP during rush hour (Pic by Azreey; source: Wikimedia commons)

The landowners still have rights to develop their land, however, and the council cannot simply deny a proposal to develop a piece of land because of widespread protest. Yet the failure of a developer to consult with the existing neighbours often puts both parties at odds. The number of newspaper reports where the public objects to new development in Petaling Jaya is testament to this.

Developers could start off with a comprehensive proposal that extols the benefits that their project would bring to the neighbourhood. For example, if the developer can prove that their proposed development can increase the property value of the surrounding residents, the objections would certainly decrease. This is not impossible to do, as an application for a development order requires a social impact study to be done, which can be used as the basis for the developer’s arguments.

The problem with many developers is the mindset that their role is only to build and sell, and the responsibility of maintaining the development falls back unto the local council after the sale. The right attitude, as one of the speakers noted during the seminar, is the concept of the value added to the city, or “How does the project benefit the city and its inhabitants in the long run?”

Affordability, transportation and profitability

A good public relations exercise would help mitigate the complaints, but it still doesn’t solve problems like traffic. The present system on handling development is to allow developers to submit their plans, go through the objection hearing period, and approve the amended plans based on the feedback.

In the wider scope of town planning, looking at each developer’s project in isolation demonstrates the failure of the local council to plan the city properly, resulting in insufficient amenities and infrastructure to cater for the communities.

In Petaling Jaya, this problem is apparent in the newer sections of the city, namely Kota Damansara and the former slum areas of PJS. Both areas are extremely high-density residential developments without proper supporting infrastructure such as public transport, religious institutions (especially for non-Muslims), parks, hospitals and schools.

The proper way to do town planning is to look at the overall landscape and ensure that the transportation — roads, buses, taxis and light rail transit (LRT) — is adequate and there are sufficient public amenities such as hospitals, schools, police stations and fire stations for the population. This overall macro picture must then be tempered with an understanding of how all these facilities are meshed together to be complementary.

LRT in Petaling Jaya (Pic by Hatta Affendy @ Flickr)

For example, the Singapore government looks at the importance of transport in more than just the physical infrastructure.The plot ratio for development around their Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) stations is extremely high within a 2km radius, to ensure that residential homes can be built nearby. This would encourage those who live in these areas to use public transport. Planning for these developments includes providing ample parks for recreation purposes, covered walkways from the surrounding residential areas to the MRT stations, and easy access to facilities.

The efficiency and connectivity of the MRT transportation system goes into a wider scope where complementary bus services must also be suitably efficient. This includes providing bus priority lanes, easy access to route information and ticketing, and other facilities.

The availability of cheap efficient transport would then enable developers to allocate less space for car parks in their development and more floor space for profitable revenue-generating activities.

These are just some of the many applicable lessons that can be applied to Malaysian cities as well. However, the solutions mentioned also denote a comprehensive working partnership among the various government institutions, the private sector and the public; something that Malaysia still has problems with.

Onboard the MRT in Singapore (Pic by VirtualErn @ Flickr)

Leadership and vision

At the seminar, a KL City Hall officer said that the original KL structure plan in the early 1980s had included a layout for the LRT, but the implementation of those plans only commenced in the late 1990s.

Although the need was recognised early on, it took legislators many years to allocate the funds to ensure that the LRT project was done. Why does it take so long for the government to fund something that was deemed necessary even back in the 1980s?

I had a quick glance at the audience that day and noted the lack of policymakers in attendance. Those who were being trained were professionals from the property development sector, senior town councils officers, and representatives from the various residents associations around Kuala Lumpur.

With a key group of persons missing from this education process, it is little wonder that the plans for our cities don’t take off. For our elected representatives to lead effectively, they must understand all the issues at hand to enable the government to prioritise what needs to be done.

To be fair, our politicians are also being drawn into fixing micro problems faced by their constituents and may not have the time to spare for such educational seminars. But perpetuating such practices is not solving the root cause of the problem, and is ultimately not sustainable.

Education and partnership

On a final note, I am must reiterate how happy I am with Redha, PAM and MIP for the role they played in organising this capacity-building seminar. Were it not for their initiative, I would not have learnt so many important town-planning concepts and solutions from experts all over the world.

I call upon them to continue such partnerships with the government, as these sponsored educational seminars will benefit the country in the long run.

MBPJ councillor KW Mak sees a lot of potential for Malaysia to have world-class cities. Sadly, the potential which lies within our human resource remains unrecognised, and thus, untapped.

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5 Responses to “Planning for a city”

  1. abubaker says:

    No matter how good the concept of a private town planner is, it is of no use in Malaysia.

    This is because the “government” town planner will have the final say in approving the proposal by the private town planner.

    The private town planner’s proposal is only an application to the local authority or city council office. It carries no weight. Meaning, you have to listen to the town planning department whether you are right or wrong.

    Eventually, the expert or the knowledgeable private town planner has to be “loyal” or follow the “instruction” from the town planning department in the local authority.

    Or else your so-called development order cannot be obtained from the town planning department of the city council or local authority.

    In KL, the town planning department (in DBKL) has its own enfocement unit. The enforcement unit is more interested in tearing down structures or buildings which are said to be illegal.

    However, a business person would rather face the risk of getting a shop torn down than losing in their business. This is because there is no specific guideline from the building section or town planning department to refer to. Time is crucial in business.

    Rehda, PAM and MIP should not fear expressing their professional viewpoints in facing people who have “authority” in the local authority.

    It would be a waste of everybody’s time to organise or attend seminars if town planners in local authorities still stick to their arrogance and ignorance.

  2. Selina says:

    I do not forsee a day when Kuala Lumpur, what more smaller townships like Kelana Jaya and the like, will ever have proper plans that are implemented in a timely fashion. There is no sense of purpose or urgency among our politicians or bureaucrats. They live in an insular world where they don’t face floods and jams, I think. They have little or no idea what makes a city livable. We need forward thinking mayors and we haven’t got any.

  3. KW Mak says:

    @ selina

    Good mayors are possible – you just need to have local council elections and insist that the post of mayor be elected. Pakatan Rakyat did promise the people during the 2008 elections that local council elections was one of their goals. Maybe you can join a pressure group and request that Pakatan Rakyat fulfil its promise?

  4. yifan says:

    No world class city without people-elected mayor and councillors. Simple as that.

    We lost this important political asset for 40 years, for two generations. We want our local elections back.

    What say you, politician-appointed councillor? For or against?

  5. KW Mak says:

    I am for local council elections. The issue of how we can implement it in Pakatan Rakyat-led states is actually being discussed at length. Wong Chin Huat is co-heading a Selangor state-funded study on how to make this a reality.

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