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Thursday, September 10, 2009

A trip to the future

If you are concerned about where you want to go in life or even the direction of society as a whole, first appreciate where you are coming from. To provide this understanding is a basic objective of the Malaysian Heritage Trust.

Forget the tourism spin-offs and the fact that many older buildings might be prettier than their modern counterparts. That’s not the point of conservation; it’s a secondary issue. In any case, beauty is a subjective quality.

In Australia, disgusting chunks of concrete infrastructure and revolting 1960s high-rise office buildings have been gazetted for conservation. Time will judge the validity of this approach. Over time, the Tower of London has probably been thought by many to lack a certain charm, especially those occupying the dungeons. Nevertheless, it provides an important understanding of how British society has evolved. Sophocles said: “Many are the things that man seeing must understand. Not seeing, how shall he know what lies in the hand of time to come?”

When it comes to town planning, time travel is quite easy. To go back in time, Yangon is a very beautiful example of a city that has not yet been ravaged by development, a virtual time warp. Prague under the communists was once similar. Florence and Venice have retained their integrity, and little new development has been allowed in Paris up till now.

If you want to see the impact of allowing development on a controlled basis, then contemporary cities such as KL are a good example, along with, say, Budapest, Sydney, Brisbane and so many others, depending on the degree of control that interests you.

There are cities such as Leningrad and Bucharest spoilt by the growth of really ugly public housing. There are others where an effort has been made to make public housing a cultural asset (erm ... give me time, there must be one ...).

It is interesting to observe the impact of cities putting in the public transport early (London, Sydney) or racing to catch up (KL, Dubai).

For a trip into the future, go to the United States.

In fact, I just came back from Los Angeles (LA). It’s pretty depressing. Here is a huge urban metropolis filled with some of the smartest people in the world, who have allowed their living conditions to deteriorate to a very uncomfortable level.

Certainly, bold and expensive steps are being taken to preserve the air quality in LA but the sheer quantity of vehicles has turned the roads into “traffic sewers”. When I took the keys to my rental car, the Hertz lady muttered darkly “beware of the 405”.

I soon learnt that this wasn’t a triad, but a constipated arterial highway. LA has many splendid features – the beaches, the hills softly burning in the sunset, the colourful pan-handlers. But how can you work in a city where the traffic is largely paralysed at peak hours? And of course, the fundamental question is, what is society’s tolerance level? My friend in lovely, low-density scenic San Diego wouldn’t move to LA even if promoted.

This is surely a supreme sacrifice for an American. He can’t be alone in this view. So, how long will it be before thousands, or millions, choose not to live there? Or will the rich move out and leave the poor behind, or vice versa? What impact do those possibilities have on the way other cities – even KL – should be developed?

California is the world’s fourth largest economy, ironically suffering high unemployment and insufficient funds to keep all its schools open. LA is the way of the future if you allow unbridled development and vehicle use. Is it our future, too?

The world is growing and so are most of the cities in South-East Asia. It is only a matter of time before these problems begin to threaten KL, Penang, Johor Baru, Kuantan, Kuching and Kota Kinabalu.

What to do?

The soft option, of course, is to keep approving new development and tacking on infrastructure as and when public interest raises its voice. The man in the street, inured to the daily grind, would not expect much more.

But 2020 is only one more property boom away. Maybe it’s time to raise our sights even higher, and envision exactly how we want our grandchildren to live.

And maybe do something about it?

·Christopher Boyd is executive chairman of Regroup Associates Sdn Bhd

By The Star (by Christopher Boyd)

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