Urban sprawls are not the answer

The world is in search of solutions at a time when populations are growing, energy costs are on a permanent rise, climate change is no longer a fiction, and water and other resources are dwindling. Cities, previously the problem child of policy thinkers, have come to the rescue.

Like the rest of the world, our cities have the potential to rise to the occasion and deal with some of these challenges, but not unless we undergo a paradigm shift. Some new ideas may appear counter-intuitive at first glance but, paraphrasing John Maynard Keynes, intuition is often the unconscious regurgitation of the ideas of defunct economists.

Malaysia’s extensive urban sprawl is the enemy of livable cities. Counter-intuitive thinking is sorely needed here. The more people living in cities the better it is, and not the other way round; that the denser a city (as long as it is well-managed), the more efficient it is economically and the more sustainable it is environmentally.

Apart from channelling disproportionally huge amounts of resources into the rural sector vis-a-vis urban regeneration, unsustainable urban sprawl is still a favourite game of Malaysia’s policymakers. For half a century, the rarely questioned policy imperative has been to “spread” the population to the suburbs, so as not to “choke” the centres.

Take the Klang Valley as an example. Petaling Jaya was first built in 1952 as the “satellite” township of Kuala Lumpur as its population was anticipated to grow in the post-war years. Shah Alam was subsequently developed as the new seat of Selangor’s capital.

When construction started in Subang Jaya in 1974, it was then Southeast Asia’s single largest purportedly self-contained township, planned and developed by a private entity.

The perceived success of Subang Jaya, and to a lesser extent, Taman Maluri, as a model for property development prompted forays into even bigger township developments by mining and plantation interests that owned large tracts of adjacent land, such as Sime’s USJ, IOI in Puchong, Sunway, and the Guthrie corridor in the 1980s.

To cap it all was the mammoth project of Putrajaya. The government’s only economic rationale for Putrajaya was that the relocation of public services to a new capital would smooth traffic in Kuala Lumpur. A decade and half later, Putrajaya itself is suffering a massive and complicated parking problem.

There is very little attempt to learn from past failures and new international, progressive thinking. Another round of urban sprawl will be executed through the Greater Kuala Lumpur strategy in the Economic Transformation Plan, which will include places as far as Port Dickson and projects including the re-development of Rubber Research Institute land in Sungai Buloh and the controversial re-development of the Sungai Besi airbase.

Urban growth driven by sprawling developments requires ever more land clearing. Malaysia’s built-up areas has almost doubled between 2001 and 2008, according to the National Physical Plan.

Fondness for greenfield development is inherent in the minds of Malaysia’s policymakers and construction lobby. Brownfield is looked upon with disdain. Each piece of greenfield land cleared means many families living on these estates or slums have been displaced. Putrajaya alone displaced more than 3,000 families.

Yet urban centres are hollowed. The population size of Kuala Lumpur and George Town inner cities are only two-thirds of what it had been in 1970, while the national population has more than tripled in the same period.

Malaysia’s dependence on private vehicles as the prime mode of transport further fuels urban sprawl. When Proton was rolled out in 1985, the nation had around 3.5 million registered vehicles. Today, there are more than 20 million vehicles on the road, while population size has doubled during the same period of time.

More cars do not necessarily mean more mobility. The time commuters spend in their cars is an opportunity cost loss of more meaningful things. People without their own means of transport are disempowered in a private-car oriented city. Often a third to one half of incomes are committed to transport-related cost.

Public transport is dysfunctional in part because the government’s priority is to sell national cars, and the rentier nature of the public transport licensing adds to this dysfunction. But as the city continues to spread, our public transport system is devoid of the economies of scale of other denser cities. A denser city would also likely have a more enriching cultural aspect, apart from the intensity of congregating talents.

As the availability of talents is the single most important determining factor in the new economic context, livability is the ultimate incentive for industries and investors. Talents congregate in livable cities and industries flock to where talents are. And, strangely enough, unlike the huge gap between rich and poor nations, the competition of cities is a rather leveled playing field, especially given that the challenges are not dissimilar — notably livability, soaring energy costs, imminent climate change, declining resources.

To move our economy forward, we must take a hard look at our predilections for urban sprawl, private vehicles and brown field development. In this context, Greater Kuala Lumpur is a flawed concept. Instead, compact cities with well-serviced public transport and an emphasis on rejuvenated brownfield should be our focus.

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