Chasing the green cities dream

REGULAR readers of this column would know that I am fascinated by liveable city rankings. They show us what citizens and planners consider the most important aspects of cities. There have been many interesting city rankings. Recently, environmental issues have taken priority. People want to know which cities have the most green space, the most park land, or the most trees.

Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum, in partnership with Senseable City Lab, a research lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), launched Treepedia, a website cataloguing the amount of trees in a number of different cities. The researchers use new mapping techniques to measure the amount of tree coverage in each city.

The website looks at 26 cities. Of the top 10 cities with the most trees, three are from Europe, three from North America, two from South Africa, one from Australia and one from Asia.

They are, in reverse order: 10. Amsterdam (the Netherlands), 9. Geneva (Switzerland), 8. Frankfurt (Germany), 7. Sacramento (United States), 6. Johannesburg (South Africa), 5. Durban (South Africa), 4. Cambridge (United States), 2. Vancouver (Canada), 2. Sydney (Australia), and 1. Singapore.

Since the list only looks at a selected group of cities and not all cities in the world, it is impossible and unfair to say that these are the greenest cities. But the findings can be surprising and interesting.

The city that some might consider the most surprising is Singapore. It is ranked first among the 26 cities, with almost 30% of tree coverage. Singapore is not only a very small country, but it was also part of Malaysia in the past. The town planners of Singapore and the people responsible for taking care of the city have done an excellent job of making sure their city is very green.

Malaysian cities are not on the list being studied by the researchers. If they were, one wonders how they would stack up against the other cities.

Penang, since colonial days, has many beautiful tree-lined roads, like Macalister Road and part of Green Lane. The trees along those roads are fully matured to provide shade. Unfortunately, some of the trees have been chopped down for infrastructural projects such as road widening.

Ipoh was ranked the cleanest city in Malaysia in 2016 by the Ministry of Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government based on what the state and local government officers did to ensure cleanliness.

How nice it would be if the local authorities work to make sure our cities are not only clean but also green as well.

There are many qualified town planners in the federal government, state governments and local authorities. Are they doing as good a job as they can to stress the importance of having enough tree coverage in their cities?

Malaysia is blessed with an equatorial climate, whereby trees are easy to grow. With careful planning, landscape design and maintenance we can make sure that all of our cities are on par with those cities on the list.

Besides the aesthetic of trees and their cooling effect, there are many other benefits. Climate change and global warming is now at very threatening levels. Pupils learn that trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release oxygen. Our trees are literally saving our planet and our lives.

According to the Treepedia research, increasing the number of trees in cities not only helps with air pollution, but their root systems also help with flood prevention. These are two important issues that many of our cities can take note of.

Overall, one can safely say that people who live in places surrounded by plants and trees enjoy better health and wellbeing. Exposure to nature decreases stress, encourages people to be more active and promote social connections.

State and city officials in Malaysia must do what they can to promote long-term tree planting and tree preservation programmes. They must try to curb urban sprawl that paves over existing lush, green land. They must also discourage the building of luxurious mansions and apartment buildings that do not plan enough open space for the planting and maintenance of trees and vegetation.

Just planting trees will not solve the world's environmental problems. But it is a cost-effective way to address health and wellbeing in cities, and at the same time is a small step towards sustainability.

Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee is interested in urban governance, housing and urban planning. Comments: