The many sides of good city living

An unidentified BASE jumper leaps before parachuting down from Kuala Lumpur Tower in Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur August 24, 2007. — Reuters pic An unidentified BASE jumper leaps before parachuting down from Kuala Lumpur Tower in Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur August 24, 2007. — Reuters pic GEORGE TOWN, April 8 — Not only are cities becoming the centre of developmental attention, their growing importance is challenging how we look at global societies. The national economy depends on the health of its cities. And that health is multifaceted.

One out of two people in the world already lives in a city today. In 40 years, seven out of 10 will be doing that. Rapid urbanisation around the world has put to past the notion that cities would become sprawling (like many American towns); instead experts now recognise that people are moving towards cities to both live and work, at a rapid rate.

What’s fascinating is that cities will soon become more important than nation-states, where the competition for global talent will be better expressed, for example, a case of Vancouver vs. Seattle, as opposed to Canada vs. the US; or Bangkok vs. Kuala Lumpur, and not Thailand vs. Malaysia.

The challenge for city leaders around the world is to therefore develop four crucial components for sustainability, namely cities must be inclusive, competitive, liveable and cultural.

A Global City 2011 conference I attended recently in Abu Dhabi was themed “City Identity and Values”. What was noteworthy from it was the insight among policy makers and economists that sustainability must not be evaluated purely from economic or environmental perspectives. Other equally important pillars are financial (whether or not city plans have reasonable funding in the long run without overburdening tax-payers), social (how society integrates internal and external migrants of varying backgrounds, and consequences on socio-economic status) and cultural (where cities need to strongly emphasise the development of arts and culture, which actually contributes to economic growth through the building of communities).

City planning

At the conference, Abu Dhabi itself was proud to showcase its massive plans for the next decade. It has a dynamic team within its urban planning council – young, multinational and multicultural, reflective of the very city it wishes to build. In its own words, the immense amount of time expended on the planning process is well worth it – something Malaysian urban centres ought to be subject to, especially as it goes through its current wave of economic transformation.

The large mega-projects slated under the Economic Transformation Programme are based mainly within the Klang Valley, or what is termed Greater Kuala Lumpur these days, which include the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) project, the development of a new township of more than 2,000 acres of land currently owned by the Rubber Research Institute, and the “River of Life” Klang River cleaning and development project.

However, while the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council has a very clear idea of what its city’s identity and values are (inclusive, diverse, Islamic but open, vibrant, cultural), this is missing in Kuala Lumpur, where much of the city-planning and development are outsourced to the private sector whose vision may not necessarily coincide with the more social-oriented concerns local leaders ought to strive towards. In planning for our cities, where are we in articulating the sort of identities and values that we desire to be in place? How differently do we want, for example, to position the cities of Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya, George Town, Johor Bahru, and so on? Have there been sufficient breadth and depth dedicated to charting out a roadmap and blueprint for all aspects of these cities of the future?

In Malaysia

Between 1970 and 2006, the proportion of population living in big cities doubled due to rapid urbanisation mainly contributed to by internal migration. Internal migration in Malaysia is gender, age and area selective, “dominated by males mainly in the age group of 15 to 34 years” (Permanent Mission of Malaysia to the United Nations, 2008), though female migration is expected to increase in the future. In 1980, urbanisation was at a 34.2 per cent rate, reaching 61.8 per cent in 2000 and 65 per cent in 2008. This is expected to increase to 85 per cent by 2050. The government did put together a National Urbanisation Policy in 2006, and of course there exists a whole host of other well-meaning plans such as the National Physical Plan 2005 and Five-Year Malaysia Plans, State Structural Plans and so on.

However, each city is unique unto itself. Whilst it is important for those plans to provide the over-arching national vision, the cities must have visionary policymakers and thinkers able to give each its respective identity, brand and positioning – pretty much like selling a product to a targeted audience.

The two Pakatan Rakyat-led city-states in Penang and Selangor, for example, are very different and must therefore be handled differently. Between 1991 and 2000, Penang’s population grew at an annual 2.37 per cent, and more rapidly at 3.05 per cent up to 2010. It is estimated that by 2020, Penang’s population will have grown to 2.36 million due to internal migration, concentrated most densely on Penang Island, with 60 per cent converged at George Town. Selangor’s population has grown on an average of 2.4 per cent, totalling almost five million now and is estimated to hit 7.3 million by 2020. Selangor’s population is most dense in the districts of Petaling, Hulu Langat and Klang.

Penang has had the unique edge of having its city George Town declared a Unesco World Heritage Site, which in turn has been a catalyst for city transformation through a multitude of stakeholders. It has successfully painted itself as a cosmopolitan city of heritage, culinary delights, culture and history. Urban rejuvenation efforts over the last three years have paid off here, with The Edge magazine’s Options section featuring Penang in glowing terms in January 2011.

Selangor, whose original capital of Kuala Lumpur was carved out for mainly political and electoral reasons in 1974, is the most urbanised state in the country. Residents of the Klang Valley tend to think of the “city” as Kuala Lumpur, whilst they return to their suburban homes in the rest of Selangor. This in some way has struck a poser for Selangor to develop its own unique city, being already in such close proximity to its down-the-highway neighbour, Kuala Lumpur. The capital city of Selangor, Shah Alam, has not experienced over the last few decades the kind of development that a capital ought to have. By definition, Petaling Jaya is the other official city, and although the others are still labelled towns, by sheer population size Klang, Subang Jaya and Kajang ought to also be considered cities. All these areas, though within Selangor, are themselves greatly varying in character, size, demography, ethnic makeup and culture.

Petaling Jaya with its PJ Elevated City and other rejuvenation projects in store within the older sections; along with Ampang Jaya and selected development sites related to the Klang River rehabilitation project will be two areas to look out for. However, the more important task of crafting an image, identity, brand and culture for these individual cities will be required.

In the area of urban revitalisation and rejuvenation, some bi-partisanship has been experienced despite political enmity between the federal and Pakatan Rakyat state governments. In Penang, Khazanah Nasional and its special purpose vehicle Think City Sdn Bhd, have worked with the Penang state government through funding and coordination in developing George Town.

In Selangor, the Greater Kuala Lumpur/Klang Valley plan will benefit Selangor in certain respects (funding of redeveloping sewerage pipes, rehabilitation of river areas and so on). However, being Pakatan Rakyat-led state governments means they must play the role of watchdogs in ensuring that these projects are conducted with full transparency, public accountability and good governance. It remains to be seen how effective this role can be played in actual project implementation.

Diversity in cities

One of the key themes at the Abu Dhabi conference was the diversity in cities. The most successful and attractive cities of today also happen to be the most diverse. Studies have shown that cities which feature the most ethnically diverse communities are also the cities that attract the most talent, resulting in the greatest innovations and fastest economic growth. In the US, research proved that the city with these elements was San Francisco where more than a third of its residents were born outside the US. This city also houses Silicon Valley, the ultimate city of talent, innovation and modern technology driving the tools such as Google, which are daily necessities for many.

There are 214 million international migrants worldwide, 128 million of whom are living in developed countries. However, the number of international migrants in developing countries has risen more rapidly recently, by eight million in 2005–2010 compared to four million in 2000–2005. But interestingly, 740 million people are internal migrants, people moving within their countries from one city to another. Countries are therefore forced to formulate policies that deal with the situation of an increasingly heterogeneous society since they ultimately impact upon social structures.

Malaysia, for example, is home to at least three million migrants, both documented and undocumented.  As of 2006, we had 32,000 expatriates and 1,728 migrants under a unique programme called “Malaysia My Second Home” for foreigners to stay in the country with a multiple entry visa. The bulk of our migrants therefore lies in the 1.9 million unskilled and semi-skilled workers from 23 countries, with Indonesia and Nepal as the top sending countries. Malaysia also has about 50,000 to 60,000 foreign students.

Although all countries compete for the most talented, the truth is, without the unskilled and semi-skilled migrant labour in Malaysia, we would not be able to generate the six per cent growth per annum our government is projecting to hit over the next 10 years. They contribute to the traditional construction, manufacturing sectors of the economy. And increasingly, in order to maximise economic value, the country hopes that the services sector will contribute at least 60 per cent–70 per cent of the economy. Foreign labour will be contributing to this vibrant services sector. It is a daunting thought that cities of the world are clamouring to be the best, most attractive and competitive, as this means time is short for Malaysian cities. However, as we rush ahead, we must be cognisant that sustainability and diversity are key.

* The column is contributed by Socio-Economic and Environmental Research Institute, a non-profit Penang-based think tank and research institute set up in 1997, with a focus on facilitating dynamic and sustainable development for Penang.


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