TWO narratives meet at the confluence of cities. The good and the bad.
The good thing about the cities is that they bring people together in many wonderful ways. As The Economist newspaper puts it, city dwellers are often richer, freer and more tolerant. Perhaps the mixing and mingling of men make this happen. Unfortunately, worrisome stories come attached with wonderful ones.
The New Straits Times yesterday headlined five worries the cities of the world face: homelessness, ageing population, women’s safety, air pollution and floods. Do Malaysian cities face them all? Yes and no. Malaysian cities have all of them, though not in the scale of other Asian and African nations. Malaysia’s challenge is, to put it globally, to get policy directions to sync with what city dwellers want. We seem to excel at city retrofits — build first, think later. Towers here and towers there with very little in between for men and machines to move. Not to mention anything about public parks to plonk people to play. Sprawl is inevitable, but let it be the one we choose to have. What is the point of a city if it isn’t liveable?
Take the case of Kuala Lumpur. When it was granted city status on Feb 1, 1971, it was sans sprawl. Today it has swallowed nine municipalities to become Greater Kuala Lumpur, growing from 1.6 million to 7.7 million. This isn’t a bad thing. But being densely packed with little space for work and play? Mutandis mutatis, the story is similar for other Malaysian cities. New York has a better story. According to The Economist, when the American city was still confined to the southern tip of Manhattan in 1811, it planned for a sevenfold expansion and laid out a street grid. The Economist is right. Good planning gives the right kind of sprawl. Ours is, in many places, messy.
Environmental sustainability is one big problem for Malaysian cities, big and small. According to a study published in October 2018 in the Institutions and Economies journal, Kuala Lumpur road users spent the equivalent of between 1.1 per cent and 2.2 per cent of the gross domestic product in wasted fuel, carbon emissions, delays and vehicle maintenance or RM3,100 per resident annually. In the same year, the city’s residents spent an extra 19 minutes per 30-minute trip in the morning and extra 24 minutes per 30-minute trip in the evening, according to the TomTom BV website. There is ample evidence linking traffic congestion to environmental degradation. Malaysia must find a way to get city dwellers to shift to public transport.
The World Bank, in association with the Economic Planning Unit of Malaysia and Khazanah Nasional Berhad in an earlier study, told of temperatures for the past 40 years in Malaysian cities increasing faster than the global average. Ultimately, the report argues, heavy, more frequent precipitation events will cause severe urban flooding and landslides, forcing our cities to pay special attention to land use planning and spatial form. Malaysia needs to act now to have the urban sprawl we want.