Preserve Penang’s coastlines

PENANGITES, especially those who live on Penang Island, should consider themselves lucky to live in a place with long stretches of coastline.

Like others, we enjoy going to beaches and coastal parks for outdoor activities. Indeed, this is one important feature that allows Penang to be both a top tourist attraction as well as a good place to live.

However, there has not been enough emphasis on allowing easy access to the coast.

Two popular places with public access to the coast are along Gurney Drive and Jalan Padang Kota, which were built during colonial times.

There are few new coastal linear parks, except Karpal Singh Drive, despite many modern development projects along the coast.

In areas where there are new stretches of roads leading to the coast, few have facilities for walking or cycling, or playgrounds.

There used to be a sandy beach along Gurney Drive. Today, there is a pavement beside the road for walking and jogging, but the waterfront is covered with rocks and access to the sea is difficult.

Recently, the Penang Forum, a coalition of advocates for public interest and progressive social change, unveiled its "Penang Forum Agenda 2018".

It highlights 40 recommendations that the coalition urges the soon-to-be elected Penang state government to act upon to help bring a better and sustainable future for Penang.

Many Penangites have heard of plans to build an undersea tunnel connecting Penang Island and Butterworth. This project includes building additional highways.

Instead of the tunnel, the Penang Forum advocates improving the ferry service and the introduction of a cross-channel rail link.

Apart from the high construction cost, undersea tunnels are expensive to maintain and do not aid the public's appreciation of our environment.

One does not get to enjoy the view of Penang's natural and man-made beauty driving in a tunnel.

Moreover, to finance the tunnel, part of the compensation package includes many acres of reclaimed land along the Penang Island coastline.

While it may seem that the reclaimed land is for beneficial projects such as high-end shopping malls and luxury housing, it is likely that many of these facilities are beyond the means of most local residents.

Besides, many units may be bought by foreigners. This does not help local residents.

I agree with the Penang Forum that we should stop the practice of "swap deals in land reclamation" where land is given as payment for mega infrastructure projects.

Many luxury coastal development projects cut off public access to the coastline because privacy is a selling point. The new housing developments are often closed, gated communities. They tend not to prioritise public access to the coast, forcing long-time residents to use less optimal paths.

A combination of massive reclamation projects and gated communities without clear public coastline access will make the most scenic areas of Penang the private turf of just a few people. This should not be allowed.

The long-term objective should be a series of open spaces along the coasts of both the island and the mainland, all connected by footpaths and bicycle lanes.

Indeed, we can take inspiration from one of the most well-known cities in the world.

In New York City, a dense urban environment, city planners have created a pedestrian and cycling path, known as the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, which stretches for 50km and encircles the island of Manhattan.

Many other municipal governments around the world are improving access to their waterfronts for public enjoyment, knowing that this will result in more liveable cities.

Decisions such as creating and maintaining public access to beaches and coastlines, and careful, equitable regulations around new development and reclamation projects are made by elected officials at various levels of government.

Tomorrow, May 9, is polling day for Malaysians. According to the Election Commission, close to 15 million registered voters are expected to cast their votes in the 14th general election.

However, there are about 3 million eligible young voters who have not bothered to register to vote.

Young citizens need to be encouraged to take an interest in politics, and to exercise their right and responsibility to help shape the future of the states and nation.

Elections decide who forms the government, and the government makes many decisions that affect everyone's lives, including those that may directly affect how Penang's coasts are developed and maintained.

Let us look forward to a fair and peaceful general election.

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