Ensure Taiping keeps its heritage and green spaces

TAIPING is a town in Perak. It is the second largest urban area in the state. The name in the Chinese language means "everlasting peace". The town began as a mining area in the mid 1800s. It was the state capital of Perak from 1876 to 1937.

The country's first railway was the Taiping-Port Weld railway, the first museum was the Perak Museum, the first public garden was the Taiping Lake Gardens and the first zoo was the Taiping Zoo. These historical firsts, mostly established during the British colonial era, give some credence to the signs one sees when driving into the town centre, proclaiming "Taiping, Bandar Warisan" or "Taiping, Heritage Town".

Taiping's present charms are influenced by its economic past. By the late 1800s, Taiping, or Larut as it was called at that time, was the world's biggest exporter of tin. Indeed, one of its premier attractions, the Taiping Lake Gardens, was built from man-made lakes that formed as a remnant of old abandoned tin mines. Today it remains the largest urban park in Malaysia.

Beautiful century-old angsana and rain trees line the roads around the lake and provide shade and a serene and cool environment. Thanks to the foresight of town planners more than 100 years ago, we get to enjoy the Taiping Lake Gardens today.

But it was not just good planning that gives Taiping its lush greenery. It is also geography and climate. Taiping is the wettest town in Peninsular Malaysia because of its location at the foothills of the Bintang mountain range that encompasses the nearby Bukit Larut, formally known as Maxwell Hill. (Its name was changed in 1979 but the old colonial name is still widely used).

In addition to its gardens and greenery, another legacy of British rule in Taiping is its colonial architecture. However, since there is so much rain, the exterior walls of many buildings are susceptible to mould and mildew. The Taiping Municipal Council should make it a point to maintain these historical buildings. It should clean and paint public buildings every few years and provide regulations or offer incentives so that private owners do the same.

The frequent rainfall can also make it seem that public areas are not well maintained. In the Taiping Lake Gardens, parts of the playgrounds are soggy since the paths are not well paved, and there are unswept leaves on the ground. Worse, there is litter thrown everywhere. Of course, this is not just a problem in Taiping. Littering is, unfortunately, the norm in almost every Malaysian town and city.

Furthermore, there has not been enough emphasis in recent years on conservation of historic buildings and green space. According to UM architect Lim Take Bane in 2011, "Much of our priceless architectural heritage has been and will be lost through apathy, neglect or ignorance".

Over the years there have been plans to redevelop the Taiping Lake Gardens. But many of these plans do not emphasise preservation of what makes the gardens beautiful in the first place. Journalist Anil Netto said of one such plan in 2012, "These guys can't bear to see any untouched green space" and, "Leave Taiping Lake Gardens alone!"

Any new development plans for Taiping must be cognizant of its heritage and green spaces.

Other developments continue to impact Taiping. The North-South Expressway that links the western Peninsular Malaysia makes it easier to drive there from Penang and from Ipoh. Yet the highway may also have had a negative impact. Before the highway was built, Taiping was a convenient stop on a journey between Northern and Southern Peninsular Malaysia. It was a nice place to rest and recharge, before continuing on a long drive.

Nowadays, few would take the trouble to exit the highway to rest and have some food. The Taiping town centre is 13km away from the North Taiping toll plaza, and 10km away from the Changkat Jering toll plaza.

People busy with their fast-paced lives have forgotten the joy and beauty of old towns. Hopefully this article will lead to more people going to Taiping, and encourage the local government and residents to keep up their efforts to maintain Taiping's historical heritage and urban green spaces.

Readers who would like more detail on the history of Taiping and future plans for the town are encouraged to look up Taiping: Life and Soul - A Town Planning Perspective, a publication by the Federal Department of Town and Country Planning.

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