EARTH is getting warmer. Sea levels are rising. According to a group of scientists reporting to the United Nations, climate change has become a threat worldwide. They say we have only one or two decades to act before irreversible and catastrophic consequences. City planners and municipal authorities must prioritise environmental issues and strike a balance between green spaces and urban environments which many refer to as the “concrete jungle”. This is especially important now that cities, especially in regions like Southeast Asia, have continued to expand rapidly.
It is well-known that an urban environment with ample mature trees feels much cooler than one without trees. Beside the aesthetic value and their shady canopies that block the sun and reduce temperatures, trees are an important part of mitigating global warming, by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and releasing oxygen.
Some researchers also suggest that nature has restorative effects on humans. The presence of nature calms, refreshes, decreases irritability and even enhances our mental functioning. This is very important in overcrowded cities.
Furthermore, having attractive mature trees and open green space in neighbourhoods increases the likelihood that residents, particularly those living in congested buildings, will come out to walk and relax in the landscaped open spaces. According to landscape architects, people enjoy nature by looking at it, being around it and having it around them.
The very action of getting out of confined spaces has other beneficial effects. By inter-acting with one another, we create strong neighbourly relationships that are important for the healthy functioning of communities.
Owing to the positive effects of well-landscaped open spaces for families to enjoy and intermingle, the government has made landscaping compulsory for all property projects. But more can be done. Many local communities do not seem to benefit from what is carried out in the name of landscaping because either the patches of landscaped space are too small to be accessible or the landscape is uninviting.
Steps could also be taken to reclaim underused lots and roads to be turned into landscaped public open spaces. In the past, local authorities have taken the step of demolishing buildings for car parks and hawkers complexes. Why not spend some funds to create something that residents including poorer families living in congested living quarters in the heart of our cities can benefit from?
In view of this, it is heartening to read that the Penang state government has plans not only to make Penang Island the greenest and most liveable city in Asia but also a smart city in the near future.
The idea of smart cities in Malaysia dates back to 2011 when the World Bank proposed that Malaysia develop 35 smart cities as engines of economic growth. Smart cities are those that are innovative, sustainable and resilient, using technology to ease residents’ lives and make the built environment function more effectively.The Penang Housing, Local Government and Town and Country Planning Committee chairman, Jagdeep Singh Deo, recently introduced the Penang Green Connectors Project. This project would include creating a coastal park stretching from Tanjung Tokong in the north to Batu Maung in the south of the island, as well as a series of linear parks along rivers to link the seafront to the hillsides.
There will be bicycle and pedestrian lanes from Botanic Gardens to Gurney Wharf. Ultimately, this network is planned to extend to the Clan Jetties in George Town and further south to Batu Maung, as well as to Batu Ferringhi in the north.
This project is a collaborative effort between George Town Conservation and Development Corporation (GTCDC) and Penang Island City Council.
In accordance with the Penang Structure Plan and Vision 2030, these green amenities are being proposed along with smart city initiatives, include smart bus stops, starting with one on the island and one in Seberang Jaya on the mainland, smart parking systems, and roof-top solar panels.
These “green connector” park projects are a welcome priority for the local government. In addition to the waterfront and riverside projects, local authorities should also be paying attention to neighbourhood parks. These smaller parks are often the ones that are underfunded and not maintained well.
Having more parks and trees alone will not solve the world’s environmental problems. We also need to reduce our activities and industries. But everything begins with a small step, and a green urban environment is a positive way to address climate change and enhance the quality of our lives in cities.
Datuk Dr Goh Ban Lee is interested in urban governance, housing and urban planning. Comments: email@example.com