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Saturday, April 2, 2011

How liveable is Kuala Lumpur?

Cities are built for tomorrow. As Asia progresses and joins the ranks of advanced economies, green-related issues such as sustainability, liveability and smart cities have cropped up as this drawing by a child from India illustrates.

There is a 20-something person let's call him T who has a I Wanna Be a Millionaire ringtone on his iPhone. Every now and then, he would touch base with his roots in Gemencheh, Negri Sembilan. There are many Ts in Kuala Lumpur, and other Ts from neighbouring countries who have made Kuala Lumpur their home and job market. The city and its promise of a better life draws many young people here.

They come, or their parents came decades ago, to eke out a living and over the years, this working class moved up to join the ranks of the middle-class who make up much of Kuala Lumpur today. But like any other city, the have and the have-nots create the diverse demographic landscape of Kuala Lumpur.

T lives in a nice middle-class Petaling Jaya, about 15km from the Kuala Lumpur City Centre. There are many others who are not so fortunate. Many live in slums, besides rivers and on the fringes of Kuala Lumpur.

It is not that the city draws the poor and succours the rich, but that the working class are attracted by job and economic opportunities in the city and the rich enjoy the urban pleasures like art and culture (or what we currently have) and consumption culture of the city. They may not live cheek by jowl as housing from low-cost government-subsidised flats and gated communities and shopping districts, separate them, but all of them are here because they want to be at the centre of activities, be it political, economic or cultural. As the country evolves, so does the city. In fact, because the city is the gateway to the nation, the rate of evolution begins and goes at a faster pace than the country.

The city we know today is the result of an evolution which began in 19th century Malaya. Kuala Lumpur started at the meeting point of the Gombak and Klang Rivers when early travel was by foot, boat and on bullock carts.

Today, the Federal Government is planning to have mass rapid transit (MRT) among other infrastructures. Much has taken place between the bullock days and today's rail travel. There is the Petronas Twin Towers and, before that, the current railway station and Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad.

Heritage buildings have today given way to iconic buildings. But it is not buildings that make up a city. It is the community of people who gave breath and life to the city.

According to the United Nations Population Division, the share of Asians living in urban areas has grown from 32% in 1990 to 42% last year. In 15 years, the UN forecasts that half of Asians will be city dwellers.

This can be seen in the population growth of Kuala Lumpur. In 2000, it had a population of 1.305 million (density of 53.7 persons/ha). Today, it stands at 1.627 million (density of 66.9 persons/ha).

Says Dewan Bandaraya Kuala Lumpur, or City Hall, the guardian of the city in a statement: “KL's population is growing at the rate of 2.2% per annum in the last 10 years, exceeding the national population growth rate of 2.17% per annum.” This excludes the number of foreigners who have made Kuala Lumpur their home.

What will this mean for the city's infrastructure? More people also means a greater demand on the infrastructure transport, water, amenities, healthcare, education and services. More people also means greater waste. How will the city manage this? These are the challenges confronting Kuala Lumpur today.

The Economist Intelligence Unit has ranked Kuala Lumpur 79 out of 130 listed liveable cities. The ranking has given Federal Territory and Urban Well Being Minister Datuk Raja Nong Chik a new vision to see it in the top 20 by the year 2020. That is just nine years away. Before getting to the 20th spot, he says there are several measures that need to be fulfulled, and one of the main criteria is an effective infrastructure.

In its Asian Green City Index, German power house Siemens independently commissioned the Economist Intelligence Unit to assess the performances of 22 Asian cities. Kuala Lumpur is one of them. It was given a rating of average. It was judged based on its performance in eight areas: energy and CO2 emission, transport, land use and buildings, waste management, water mangement, sanitation, air quality and environmental governance. Among the greatest concerns were waste and water management. It scored well in transport.

Says Siemens chief sustainability officer Barbara Kux: “The battle against climate change will be decided in cities. This applies to Asia, with its booming conurbations, more than anywhere else on earth. Only green cities will make life worth living over the long-term.”

US-based technology company IBM did a presentation on Smart Cities last month. It compared Kuala Lumpur with some of the best international practices in areas such as city services, people, business, communications, transport, water and energy. Kuala Lumpur was ranked below international best practices in all areas and lagged further behind in the people, business and city services systems. It was just close to average in its water and energy segments.

IBM's general manager (government and healthcare) Nazerollnizam Kasim in his paper notes that “smarter cities are working to infuse intelligence into each of their core systems.”

Therein lies the crux of the issue human intelligence. A city thrives because of its creative, productive and talented workforce. Smart people go out in search of smart people to benefit from that interaction. Over this, there is the great need for governance and government. Which is why the Government is trying hard to pull talent and high-value human capital back to the country.

But people will only return, and new ones come, if Kuala Lumpur promises more than just tall skyscrappers. Security, amenities, liveability, education, financial rewards for hard work and talent among other urban pleasures are their measure.

Harvard economic professor Edward Glaeser in his book Triumph of the City writes: “London's amenities have helped the city attract 32 billionaires, according to Forbes, an impressive share of the world's wealthiest people. About half of those mega-rich Londoners are not English ... Human capital, far more than physical infrastructure, explains which cities succeed.”

The fact that we are trying to bring back our own is very telling.

Last year, the Government through Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Seri Idris Jala unveiled the Government's plan to improve the city's liveability. His tool urbanisation.

His rationale is that the city will provide the engine of growth for the entire country. That means, the next 10 years will be crucial. A decade is a short time, actually, to do all that he has laid down. His emphasis on liveability is based on improving the public transport system, stability, healthcare, edcuation, infrastructure, culture and environment.

At the moment, the city has big plans for infrastructure. By the middle of this year, the Government will begin work on the RM50bil MRT system to connect the entire city. Seven mega projects are currently being planned in and around the city. There is another type of infrastrasture which is not so physically visual, but of utmost importance water and waste management. Both the studies by Siemens and IBM have highlighted the fact that these two areas need attention.

The issue of water management was brought up by Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister Datuk Seri Peter Chin Fah Kui last week. He lamented that Malaysians use an average of 226 litres of water per person daily, which is way above Singapore's 154 litres and Thailand's 90 litres.

Unlike our neighbour Singapore, which has two-thirds of its land area as water catchment areas, Kuala Lumpur, together with the state of Selangor and Putrajaya, are expected to suffer water shortage by 2014.

Says Syarikat Bekalan Air Selangor Sdn Bhd corporate affairs department executive director Abdul Halem Mat Som: “We only have 6% reserve (of water supply). By right, we should have 20%. During the dry season, the demand goes up, so the reserve is gone. We cannot maintain a 20% reserve, which is why the Selangor government is buying water from Pahang.”

Says Economist Intelligence Unit head of research Jan Friederich: “The wastage comes from old pipes and high water consumption. Water leakages is running at an estimated 37%, compared with the Asian Green Index of 22%.” Today, there is an impasse as the water sector is being restructured.

Water and waste management is crucial because many diseases are water-borne. Before the days of air travel, some of the diseases that had ruined many a city were due to contaminated water. City Hall is also planning to plant more trees from 25,000 to 100,000 and clean up the Klang river. All these efforts are to add value to the city.

“Intensive cleaning of the river and flood mitigation works are the most crucial parts of the whole programme. These works will include rivers from upstream in Gombak and Selayang and scheduled progressively until 2020. The budget allocated for these works is RM3bil,” City Hall says.

Botanist and researcher Dr Francis Ng is all for beautification. But he stresses the need for diversity. “We have a total of 4,000 species compared to Britain's 50. But our city does not reflect the biodivesity of our forest. There are about 50 species planted in and around Kuala Lumpur today, about half of which are imported.

“Diversification will help to address the problem of extinction, as more areas are opened up for development and other uses besides putting a bit more creativity in our planting, such as creating small clusters of three to five trees.”

Ng, who is the former deputy director-general of the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia, says the country works with five-year plans, “basically to keep contractors going and all they can think of is having concrete, but no maintenance. So the lack of maintenance is built into our culture. That's why trees fall on rail lines and cars in the city. There has to be a tree maintenance programme which includes fertilising and pruning.”

But beautification programmes alone will not draw people into the city. Security, still an issue, is being progressively and successfully addressed. Cities are crime-prone because people bring their social problems such as poverty with them. It's hard to make a living as a snatch thief in small towns, although some do as some of our newspaper headlines testify. The many pockets riding on the rail system promise better returns.

So as Kuala Lumpur restructures and weeds out crime, builds new rail linkages, addresses water and waste management issues, the issue of balancing competing needs comes into the picture. Opening up green fields versus reducing water catchment areas, congestion versus crime, carbon dioxide emissions versus selling more cars, there is no end to competing needs.

But if it is to be ranked as a city for the future, it must build for the future.

By The Star

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