Put people first

AS Malaysians look forward to what 2018 will bring, it is a good time to review the past year in city planning and local governance. This year-end round-up revisits some of the most important points made in this column the past year. What are the key issues local authorities should focus on to improve the liveability of cities?

Overall, the cities should be clean, vibrant, safe, orderly and sustainable places for people to live and work, bring up families, and take part in their communities.

General cleanliness is an important issue that many Malaysian towns and cities still need to improve.

Thinking about cleanliness, I was brought back to an incident that I remember vividly. Many years ago, when I was a research fellow, I was walking around Komtar with a Japanese friend who was in Penang for a conference. He suddenly stooped down to pick something from a flowering pot. It was a sweet wrapper. He held it until he saw a rubbish bin to throw it in. I was very impressed by his action.

Laws and fines will only do so much to change peoples' behaviour. How can we change the culture of our people not only to not litter but also to pick up rubbish thrown by others? Most of us would comment, "I did not throw the rubbish, why should I pick it up?" But working together to keep our cities clean will end up improving all our lives.

Local authorities need to ensure that our cities are not only clean but also green. We need to implement and educate the public on the 5R's – reduce, reuse, recycle, repurpose and refuse. (The last two R's were recently included in this well-known dictum to emphasise a truly low-waste lifestyle.)

It has been 10 years since the Solid Waste and Public Cleansing Management Act was passed in August 2007. The Act makes the local authorities responsible for managing solid waste.

Now there is no excuse for Malaysians not to comply with the separation of waste that can be recycled.

Besides waste and recycling programmes, long-term tree planting and tree preservation programmes are necessary in cities to keep our streets shaded, reduce pollution, and help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.

Order and safety are also important parts of liveable cities. We still see irresponsible and illegal parking of vehicles and non-compliance of traffic rules among motorists. Five-foot ways, a distinct architectural feature of our Southeast Asian cities meant to provide shelter from the sun and the rain is often blocked by goods put up for sale and motorcycles parked without a thought for pedestrians.

There is also a sentiment of fear among urban residents. There are common crimes such as thefts, robberies and trespassing. People also fear serious crimes such as rape and kidnapping.

Gated communities are becoming more popular as they promise better security and privacy. But not everyone wants to live behind gates separated from vibrant city life.

More effective policing and better accountability will reduce crimes and ensure a sense of safety.

Several events over the last year, including floods and landslides, also brought up the necessity for cities to have more stringent monitoring of development and tighter safety guidelines for new building applications, especially on hill slopes.

Such development controls and building regulations guide population growth to safer parts of the city, and make it easier to implement municipal programmes. These steps are all part of keeping our cities safe, and to protect the wellbeing of residents.

How do we accomplish all this? Many planners and government officials are touting the promise of smart cities, using new technologies to help manage and govern cities. These technologies, such as smart grids, mobile sensors and traffic tracking, show promise.

But we need to understand their potential and limits better. Research needs to be done on ways to incorporate smart technologies into our cities to help us maintain cleanliness, order and safety.

Above all, the most important thing is to build cities we can be happy in. Take Penang, for example. We possess striking, natural beauty including beaches and hillsides, and a diverse, historical built environment with many architectural highlights.

We have delicious street food, including world-famous char koay teow and laksa. We are developing as a cultural centre, with art galleries, museums and creative industries.

We have all the ingredients for a happy, liveable city, as long as we prioritise the health, safety, and wellbeing of the people.

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