Development in Penang: Rhetoric and reality

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People must be at the centre of the planning process and must participate in it, says Lim Mah Hui. They cannot be relegated to a footnote or as an after-thought.

Worrying hill-slope development in Penang

I will begin by referring to two recent and important publications on the direction of Penang as a liveable city.

First is the state government’s Penang Blueprint published by Penang Institute and the second, ‘Cities, people and the economy: A study on positioning Penang’ by Khazanah and the World Bank

What is a liveable city (p. 135 of Blue Print)

“Although there is no internationally recognised definition of liveable cities, these can be defined in broad terms as:

  • people centred with emphasis on well-being of their residents
  • strengthening of community relationship
  • increasing civic engagement and building environment facilitating human interactions
  • need for well-functioning public realm for meetings and encounters
  • public places must be appropriately human scaled
  • liveable cities characterised by short travelling distances achieved with
  • pedestrian network, bicycle networks, efficient transport system

The second study, in the section on ‘Improving Geoge Town’s liveability’ (pp 58-62) says:

  • Penang offers a lifestyle that is relaxed, cosmopolitan and balanced…
    Most attributes summarised by “liveability” have depreciated along with economic growth
  • Air and water quality have deteriorated, traffic congestion soared in absence of plan to manage growth in private cars
  • Absence of public transport
  • Urban amenities like libraries neglected
  • Lively civic participation suffered (today’s event is an exception)
  • A commitment to improve liveability must start with a discussion and measurement of its key attributes that citizens are concerned about.
  • Last study on people’s views was – Penang People’s Report of 1999
  • Lower stress, open spaces, convenient access to shopping, heritage sites, medical care, bookstores and libraries, sports and social facilities, cultural events are features of liveability that young professionals cited as most important. These must be incorporated into the design of Penang’s development strategy.

Two major conclusions

1) Significant is what are not mentioned as attributes of liveable city:

  • More roads, highways, cars
  • More high rise luxury apartments
  • More trees being cut down for more roads
  • More hill slopes being cut for “development”

Greater emphasis is given to social and cultural infrastructures rather than physical infrastructure, except for public transport.

Yet what we witness today in Penang is the over-emphasis given to build more and more non-human scale concrete structures along established residential communities. Best examples are along Kelawai, Gurney, now Macalister and Burmah Road

2) Both studies emphasise the human element and the need for people to be at the centre of planning and that people must participate in the planning process. People cannot be relegated to a footnote or as an after-thought.

Planning is at the heart of a liveable city. The private sector cannot be assigned this role. But right now, it looks like planning is fragmented and outsourced to the private sector. It has been said that developers are treated as clients and people as complainants

READ MORE:  The Hills and the Sea

Local Agenda 21 and this public forum by civil society is a step in the right direction. We must have more of such events.

Is the current ‘development” in Penang moving in the direction of liveable city? Let’s measure it against the objectives spelt out in the above two documents. What is the rhetoric and what is the reality?

1) People-centric, civic engagement, public places for meetings, well being

Is our “development” more people-centric or property-centric?

Who has more access to government officials and politicians?

Are people regarded as “clients” or as “complainants”?

Why do surveyors, planners, architects, engineers, developers have dedicated committee (SPEAD) to meet regularly with MPPP directors to expedite development projects but why no such regular meetings with the rakyat? Should not the rakyat also be represented in SPEAD?

Why the increasing number of resident associations who are complaining of ‘development’ that is threatening their liveability and environment ?

How often are people consulted before a project is done?

I must say that with public awareness and pressure, this government has become much more responsive than the last one in engaging with the public as witnessed in the Botanic Garden Special Area Plan, the MPPP budgeting process, the Penang Transport Master Plan, and the Chowrasta market renovation.

But I hasten to add that these came about because of public diligence and clamour for participation. This should give our audience encouragement that participatory democracy (i.e. people participating in decisions that affect their everyday lives) is paramount and we must continue to build on this

But this journey is just beginning, not the end.

2) Availability of public amenities – libraries, pedestrian walkways, bicycle networks, more green and open spaces like pocket parks, linear parks, public transport

The city is sorely lacking in these amenities and we would like to see the state and the local councils set concrete objectives, budget and resources with time-lines to provide these amenities.

Open space is an important measure of a liveable city. The Structure Plan calls for 4ha of open space for every 2,500 persons but MPPP plans for only 2ha per 5,000 persons (1/4 of target). The present policy of requiring 10 per cent of land of a development for open space is inadequate.

The campaign for a cleaner and greener Penang is good, but there is no integrated master plan to plant trees or to clean up rivers and beaches. The MPPP has 22 acres of prime land around SP Chelliah. Should it be another site for an MPPP headquarters as well as commercial and mixed residential houses? What about an international class urban park? Can Penangites be consulted publicly, as in the case of Botanic Garden, before it is built upon? Sungei Pinang flows across the site. In any rehabilitation scheme, this should be the first priority – to rehabilitate the river as they have done it in Singapore, Kaoshiung and Taipei.

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Penang, the Pearl of the Orient, is known for its beaches and hills, among other things. The beaches are close to dead and the hills have been encroached upon dramatically. Shouldn’t the authorities make it a top priority with a master plan to clean up the beaches and to protect the hills? The hills with their luxuriant forest form the green lungs of the island, producing oxygen and cool air that flows down in the morning to refresh the city. It also provides an aesthetic backdrop for the island and gives the island its character. Hill slope development cannot be evaluated simply from a technical-engineering point of view; environmental and cultural sustainability is equally important.

The Blue Print shows there are 66 km of coastal shoreline in Penang island of which 20km are beach, 8.5 kn are new reclamation, 2.3km of properties built along shoreline and 3km are listed as public amenities. The Penang Blue Print highlights that recent private developments are making sandy beaches and foreshores less available to common folk and this trend must be reversed as quickly as possible. The first 100m of any reclaimed coast must be made public. The Structure Plan of 2007 gazettes no development above 250 ft or more than a 25-degree gradient; yet ‘special projects’ are passed on the basis of 1996 zoning guidelines. Which supersedes which?

Reality must match rhetoric.

3) Planning and public transport

One of the most urgent problems facing Penang is traffic congestion. Penang has 1.6m inhabitants and over 2m vehicles. The population growth rate is about 2 per cent but the growth rate of vehicles is about 10 per cent per year. Building more roads alone will not solve the problem. The solution lies in managing the growth and use of vehicles and linking this to urban planning. The draft Local Plan for Penang island, with its proposed density and plot ratio is based on the assumption of 50 per cent public ridership. But today the public share is only 4 per cent.

Under the draft local plan, a policy of 87 units per acre density is allowed only in public transport nodes. Why are these approved when such public infrastructure is not yet provided resulting in traffic congestion? The recently completed Penang Master Transport Plan envisages that if a balanced approach is adopted this percentage could reach 30 per cent by 2030 and if the building roads approach is used, it could be 10 per cent. The state government has spent RM3.2m on the master plan and a survey showed that the majority favour a balanced approach. Will the state government give more emphasis to road building or public transport?

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4) Preservation of heritage and culture

It is fortunate that George Town has been named a world heritage site and all buildings in the enclave are preserved. What about the buffer zone and the other parts of the city where there are buildings, and also communities, with rich architectural and historical value? Several recent episodes highlight the fragility of our heritage. The mansion of Khaw Bian Cheng on Pykett Avenue was illegally demolished, two historical houses where the first Prime Minister of Thailand, Manopakorn, lived were torn down and only one left standing. Another beautiful mansion in 177 Macalister Road was razed overnight. There is a case in the Appeals Board to demolish 425 Burma Road.

Even if not demolished, many of these heritage or beautiful buildings have been mutilated and suffocated by 30-storey structures surrounding the so-called ‘preserved’ building. Many foreign tourists have lamented this state of affairs. Planners and local and state authorities must give immediate attention to addressing this issue. I have proposed that a temporary moratorium be placed on the demolition of buildings of architectural and historical value until a complete inventory is done.

When we speak of liveability, we must keep in mind, liveable for whom? For the rich, for the expatriates, who are able to afford good and expensive schools and health services, or for the ordinary people who increasingly cannot affordable housing, or for the foreign workers who build our roads and our houses but are shunted in society?

Finally, I will touch on the idea of an ‘international’ city.

What is an international city? Should “international” be the primary or secondary adjective?

International place of abode – cosmopolitan cities like New York, London… Hong Kong, Spore (nation states). Recent developments in Spore, where locals are left behind in the internationalisation of the city, has left political authorities in a quandary. Be careful of what you wish for.

International place for a visit – Bangkok, Kyoto
International place for foreign investments
International place for arts and culture – Hong Kong
International place for foreigners to invest in property e.g. Dubai

We should be clear about what we want and what are the consequences – positives and negatives.

The Chief Minister will spell out his vision of an international city to us this afternoon.

Dr Lim Mah Hui is a Penang Island Municipal Councillor and representative of Penang Forum.

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