Community, Economy, Featured, General, Govt, World

Lessons from cities around the world

Originally published in the Edge Malaysia

IN the last couple of months, the Penang Institute has been screening a very interesting documentary to an audience of councillors, engineers, town planners and urban managers in the two local governments in Penang.

Response from the audience at both screenings was overwhelming. Council officials were inspired by the perspectives of urban development from around the world shown in the highly acclaimed documentary called Urbanized by independent film producer Gary Hustwit.

One of the interesting urban planning projects featured in Urbanized was the Lo Barnechea social housing scheme in Santiago, Chile. We are familiar with the Malaysian incarnation of social housing projects, the Projek Perumahan Rakyat (People’s Housing Project, housing rental scheme for households earning below RM1,500 per month) and the low-cost housing scheme (housing purchase scheme for households earning below RM2,500 per month). It is unfortunate these housing schemes often conjure up images of badly managed, dirty and unsightly residential flats, with the notoriety of being the cradle of all sorts of social ills.

There are many reasons for such phenomena in the Malaysian social housing schemes. One of them is the lack of visionary planning. Social housing which excludes its residents from healthy interaction with the wider community, from sustainable economic activities and from opportunities of social mobilisation, risk turning into a ghetto, albeit one built through the goodwill of the government. In many cases, this ghetto phenomenon is caused by the planners’ lack of understanding of the needs of those who will eventually stay in the housing schemes.

In Lo Barnechea, the social housing scheme intended for the poor, mostly informal settlers (squatters), was built within the proximity of “good neighbourhoods”, with ease of access to social facilities and jobs as well as social interactions with other communities.

A very interesting feature in planning the Lo Barnechea social housing was the consultation with the would-be residents. Instead of the typical top-down-experts-know-best approach, architects and planners sat down with the people and discussed the project together.

An example given in the film was how officials thought the poor would choose a hot water shower system over a bathtub, but the project soon found after consultation with the residents that they actually preferred a bathtub over a hot shower. Besides, the cost of maintaining an electric or even gas water heating system is beyond the affordability of the new house owners in the scheme. Such facility can come later at an owner’s own pace.

In Penang, both the Penang Island Municipal Council (MPPP) and Seberang Perai Municipal Council (MPSP), in collaboration with the Penang Women’s Development Corp (PWDC) are experimenting with such a consultative method in planning development, through a three-year pilot project beginning this year. One of the activities involves the planning of safety features in Projek Perumahan Rakyat Jalan Sungai (MPPP) and Projek Perumahan Rakyat Ampangan (MPSP). Residents were interviewed according to gender and age groups to find out their security concerns.

Discussions were held between the residents and officials to discover lifestyle patterns in relation to safety in the area, such as where the children usually gather to play and if they felt unsafe while being there or if women think certain spots should have additional lights or even a closed circuit television system installed. The residents then voted to decide on the items to be purchased within the limited budget available next year. A dialogue is then held with other stakeholders in the local council and other government agencies on the results of the consultative process.

This approach not only allows the residents as stakeholders and taxpayers to voice their views on development in their area but also provides the opportunity for city and municipal planners to develop a more in-depth understanding of the locality they are working on. Consequently, development planning will better reflect local needs.

During an OSC (one-stop centre) meeting at MPSP, I asked why the development plan submitted by a developer had an odd-shaped playground, a long and narrow triangular field, and why, in the largest area within the field, a sewage facility was to be built.

Councillors present, including myself, asked for the sewage facility to be moved to another area off the field and the field to be redesigned so that the residents can have a better, bigger playground. Then came a reply which shocked me. One of the officials said if these were done, the developers may have to forego building a few houses.

I believe it is a genuine case of professional concern for the clients, but the problem is obvious, we are thinking of the interests of profit-oriented private sector more than those of the community. One of my comments during the same meeting was local government officials especially the planners must interpret development policy from the perspective of the users, that is, the community.

To use the example of the “open space” policy, the requirement for “open space” and green areas must not be seen as being fulfilled by merely having small patches of grass totalling up to the amount of “open space” required, as was sometimes done by unscrupulous developers trying to maximise the space to build houses for sale. Rather, local government planners must ensure that for every submission, the “open space” must be actually functional for the community.

It is often thought that local governments in Malaysia outsource planning to the private sector. This is evident in the way developers decide on what to build, where to build and how much to profit from what they build. To be fair, there are technical regulations to be fulfilled, but these aside, development in Malaysia is often perceived to be almost wholly dictated by the market.

While central planning may not be an option now, the local government should reclaim a bigger role in the planning process instead of merely ticking checklists of technical compliances. A more active collaboration between the community and the private sector facilitated by a stronger and more professional local government will help to balance up the current asymmetrical outcome of development where the interests of one party far outweigh the interests of the others.

Development, if governed well, not only creates numerous opportunities for economic and social gains, but also serves as the very foundation of our human civilisation, projecting its impression into the future. We must ensure that when the future looks back at us, our civilisation is not blemished by irresponsible construction projects but portrays human cooperation in building a better world.

Steven Sim is senior executive officer of Penang Institute. He is also a councillor of Majlis Perbandaran Seberang Perai. This is the first of a two-part series. This story appeared in The Edge Financial Daily on Sept 14, 2012.

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