Can Penang be a healthy one-planet city? (Part 3)

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We need to move more people to public transport, not build more highways - Image: wikipedia.org

In the final part of a three-part series, Trevor Hancock discusses how we can start creating a one-planet region. He also highlights the problem with the “Penang Transport Master Plan”.

Starting to create a one-planet region

Fortunately, there are many initiatives underway in our region (the Greater Victoria Region of Canada) that are working to create a one-planet region, involving community organisations, local governments and local businesses.

I will highlight two in which I am directly involved. The first is One Planet Saanich, the second is Conversations for a One Planet Region (Conversations).

One Planet Saanich

Saanich is one of five communities around the world – the others are Elsinore (Denmark), Durban (South Africa), Tarusa (Russia) and Oxfordshire (UK) – that are part of a project initiated by Bioregional, with funding from the KR Foundation of Denmark.

Each community recruits a cohort, including businesses, community groups, schools and the local government who want to join the initiative.

Assisted by Bioregional’s own considerable experience and guidance documents, by local experts and by building on existing commitments they might already have, these community stakeholders each write their own one-planet action plan, indicating how they intend to respond to the challenge of one-planet living, and how they could collaborate to achieve more.

They will also engage with the municipality and other stakeholders around their vision for sustainability in their own community – with the potential to influence action in the other participating cities.

The project began in April 2018 and will run for one year – at least initially. Clearly it will need to continue and indeed spread to other cities, towns and regions around the world, since it is a challenge we all share.

Creating Conversations for a One Planet Region

I initiated Conversations in 2016, some time ahead of even learning about Bioregional’s ‘One Planet Living’ work, and more than a year before Saanich was selected to be part of their initiative. Clearly, serendipity was hard at work!

We started Conversations because right now communities in our region – and around the world – are not even talking about the massive global ecological changes that constitute the Anthropocene. Neither are they talking about the implications of those changes for our entire way of life and for future generations.

To the extent that we are discussing it, we are focused almost exclusively on climate change.

We recognised that meeting the challenge of being a one-planet region (or city, town or community) will require the full and genuine participation and engagement of all sectors of the society and of the city.

Public, private, community and non-governmental organisations, youth and schools, seniors, academic, faith and other partners must learn to work together for the common good of the people as well as the planet.

Our operating slogan is “Learn – Discuss – Imagine – Design – Create”. We take the view that if we don’t learn about and discuss the challenges we face and the solutions we need, we can’t begin to imagine what a one-planet region would look like, and if we can’t imagine it, we can’t design and create it.

So we started with Conversations, which are free, open to anyone and held once a month in the evening in the public library.

We only use local speakers and leaders, since we believe we have the expertise, experience and leadership we need in our own community. But we we are also aware of and try to be informed about the many examples from elsewhere that we can use and adapt to our need. (We hope soon to webcast these conversations so we can have speakers from other places in our community, and they can gather in their own neighbourhoods and have their own conversations following the presentations.)

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Our presentations are deliberately wide-ranging, addressing more than the obvious issues – energy, transport, housing, urban design, water supply, waste management, food supply and so on.

We have discussed the role of the arts and of faith communities in creating a one-planet region, what sort of economic and education systems we will need and how to manage cities and regions as urban eco-social systems.

We focus less on defining the problem and more on presenting and discussing potential solutions.

Once we begin to understand the challenges we face and the potential solutions available to us, we need to begin to imagine it, before we can design and create it.

We have some thoughts about developing a region-wide, community-based multi-year charette to design a one-planet region, linked to advanced systems modelling in an iterative process. (A charette is an architectural and urban planning process in which local people, local government staff and expert professionals work together intensively – often over a couple of days –to create a design for a building, a remodeled street or a neighbourhood.)

This year, we are hoping to begin to reach out to municipal councils to provide some basic information and ideas about the long-term challenges they need to be considering, beyond climate change. (We just had municipal elections which saw a number of new councillors elected, many quite young and very supportive of these ideas; they now form the majority of councilors in Saanich and Victoria).

We also hope to educate and train groups of citizens – especially young people – so that they can appear at municipal council meetings to support policies, programmes, plans and proposals that move us towards being a one-planet region – and oppose those that do not.

And we have thoughts about a conference, trade fair, film festival and other ways of advancing this vital agenda.

All of these, in their own way, help to contribute to the conversation.

Penang as a healthy, sustainable one-planet city

I do not claim to be an expert on Penang, as I have only visited twice, and each time only for a few days. But I do have some thoughts about the situation here, based on our experience in the Greater Victoria Region, that I hope will be helpful.

First, I suspect that food might not be such a high proportion of the ecological footprint in Penang, because the local diet is not as high in meat as is generally the case in Canada. In fact, Penang is probably much closer to Michael Pollan’s sage advice: eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

But this means that a Penang food policy should aim to maintain and improve this local, more traditional diet and resist the siren call for a higher-meat, more processed and Westernised diet.

Like many other cities, Penang may want to consider setting up a food policy council that brings together the health, nutrition, farming, food services, community food activist and local government sectors to create a healthy and ecologically sustainable local food system.

Second, I suspect the transport portion of the footprint would be higher in Penang. Like many other large cities around the world, it seems to me Penang has made the mistake of pursuing – or at least allowing – the North American model of urban sprawl.

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There are many problems with urban sprawl, not least that it is a very energy and resource-inefficient form of urban development. This makes it very expensive to build and maintain.

It is also unhealthy; three of my friends and colleagues (Frumkin, Frank and Jackson) wrote a book about the health impacts of urban sprawl more than a decade ago, in which they document a wide range of adverse physical, mental and social health impacts. It is worth a read.

A large part of that impact is because urban sprawl is not supportive of public transport and instead requires people to drive.

This results in increased air pollution, increased greenhouse gas emissions, increased motor vehicle crashes, reduced physical activity and increased obesity, increased stress and loss of family and community time.

So I was astonished to learn that the ‘modal split’ in Penang – the proportion of people using different forms of transport – is only 5% public transport. This is very low by international standards, putting Penang on a par with cities such as Dallas (2%), Los Angeles, Melbourne and Auckland (about 3%) that are held up as examples of poor urban and transport planning.

The situation is only marginally better where I live; the modal split in the Greater Victoria Region in 2006 was 8% public transport, 76% cars, 11% walking and 2% biking, with a target of reducing the car share to 70% while increasing all the others.

oreover, I gather from the critical articles in the special edition of the Consumers Association of Penang’s newspaper (July-August 2018) that far from boosting public transport, the proposed “Penang Transport Master Plan” and Pan Island Link 1 highway are going to further emphasise, facilitate and support private rather than public transport.

Clearly, this is heading in the wrong direction in a world where climate change is a growing – and indeed imminent – threat to our collective wellbeing.

One idea that I have suggested in Victoria, in response to the construction of a large $100m (about RM300m) new highway interchange to serve commuters – we too are more than capable of bad transport planning – is that it would have been better to construct 10 $10m telecommute centres in the suburbs.

In the age of ‘smart cities’ – and Penang has a strong interest in hitech and smart cities – many workers in both the public and private sectors do not need to be physically present in their workplace all week. If on average across the workforce, people did not need to commute one day a week, that would drop traffic by 20%.

Moreover, a telecommute centre could be a public-private partnership that would bring together people from different sectors, and would need to include tea and coffee shops, restaurants, daycare, perhaps a library – in other words, a community hub.

The third key element of the footprint, at least in Victoria, is the energy used in operating buildings. In Canada, a lot of that energy is used for heating them in the winter, and in many parts of the country that have hot summers, cooling them. As noted, with its temperate climate, Victoria has less need for both.

Here in Malaysia, I am often irritated by how cold buildings are, to the point that I need to bring a jacket or sweater with me. In Canada, the reverse happens – buildings are over-heated in the winter, to the point that I have to shed all my clothes except for a shirt.

Both of these extremes are enormous wastes of energy, which is both expensive and environmentally harmful. I also wonder whether the dramatic temperature differences we experience several times a day are also unhealthy.

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Surely in this age of smart cities and smart buildings, we can avoid over-cooling or over-heating our buildings, saving us all money and helping reduce our ecological footprint.

I also have a couple of other thoughts based on my experience as a traveller in this region.

First – and this actually applies around the world – why do hotels insist on turning on all the lights and the heating or cooling in my hotel room while I am out all day?

I suppose the intention is to make me feel welcome when I get back, but in reality I just feel annoyed at the stupidity of it – a waste of the hotel’s money (which makes the room rental more expensive) and harmful to the environment. I would rather pay a bit less for the room and turn my own lights on when I get back.

As a tourist-oriented city, maybe Penang could lead the world in banning such practices, as part of its green Penang initiative.

But I also suggested that there was an ocean a few hundred metres away and that a few hundred feet down the water is cold. Why not follow the example of Toronto, which uses deep-water district cooling for its central business area by running a pipe out to the bottom of the lake and circulating cold lake water. I do not know the cost and energy efficiency of this, maybe it is a crazy idea (although it seems to work in Toronto), but it may be worth considering in Penang.

Of course, my comments are based on limited knowledge, but perhaps the most important piece of advice I can give is that we all need to start local conversations about these issues. What would Penang look like and what would it be like to live in Penang if it were a one-planet city, with a low ecological footprint and a high quality of life and good health for all? And what has to be done to get there?

About the author

Dr Trevor Hancock is a public health physician and health promotion consultant and recently retired from his position as a professor and senior scholar at the School of Public Health and Social Policy at the University of Victoria in Canada.

In the 1980s he was one of the founders of the global Healthy Cities and Communities movement and was the first leader of the Green Party of Canada. He later co-founded both the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment and the Canadian Coalition for Green Health Care.

For more than 30 years he has worked as a consultant for local communities, municipal, provincial and national governments, healthcare organisations, non-governmental organisations and the World Health Organization.

His work now is focused on the massive and rapid global ecological changes that are the greatest challenge we face in the 21st Century, a growing threat to the health of the population, especially in cities, and the role of cities in responding to that challenge.

As one of the originators of the Healthy Cities movement more than 30 years ago, he was recently in Malaysia to deliver a keynote address at the eighth Alliance for Healthy Cities conference in Kuching. The alliance is a regional grouping that includes the South East Asian countries, Japan, China, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand and Oceania. This extended essay in three parts is based on his speech there and two subsequent speeches for Think City in Penang and Kuala Lumpur (23 and 25 October 2018).

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