In terms of its future-proofing against future pandemic threats, Covid-19 would have wide consequences to urban society. In Malaysia, spatial planning, especially settlement planning and the mobility facets of economic, family, and social life, desperately needs to be rethought.
People have been increasingly concentrated in some advantageous areas in human civilisation, leading to accommodation, trade in goods and services, with transportation all developing around this trend.
This accumulation has helped maximize the use of land, water, electricity, human capital, and other services, invariably contributing to high housing densities and high industrial and commercial densities.
When livelihoods and economies were closely connected, so did the spatial structures of urban space, such as the propensity to have optimally used plots of land compressed into houses, employment, industries, and living facilities.
These are bundled today as lifestyle deals using catchphrases such as “Live, Learn, Work, Play.” Such combining of land use is not bad in itself. Real estate prices have been pushed to artificially high levels by urban intensification, causing a vicious cycle that feeds itself by further accelerating the push for ever-greater density and less physical separation amongst individuals.
In the meantime, Malaysian city hubs have high rises urban slums like City One and Selangor Mansion in the Jalan Masjid India area, which became hotspots of Covid-19 infection during 2020.
Today’s and Future’s Standard
Today’s standards do not crowd these older apartments at all, but they were built with ‘family units of four’ in mind – not 30 people sleeping six to eight in one room. And they will only continue to fill this market niche in the absence of incentives to redevelop the region. For today’s more portable options, the same planning standard – of ‘four to a family unit’ still prevails.
Like several pandemics before it, Covid-19 might well vanish in a few years, but it teaches a crucial lesson to town planners in Malaysia. As a biological organism, not by any specific uniqueness, it spreads more readily between people living in close quarters through the plain fact that disease spreads more readily. The time to get it in reverse gear is now.
How can we stop the crowding of our urban communities as a human society?
In urban and town planning, town planners will take the initiative to create momentum for a new normal.
For any mass revolution to occur, we must first plant the seeds of a change in attitude across the continuum of stakeholders, right down to shaping home/property buyers’ expectations as to what constitutes decent homes and value for money.
In the near term, localized, lower density growth will see property prices decline to more rational levels – counterbalanced in the longer term by other factors at hand, such as new transport costs across larger geographies, changing demands for social infrastructure, etc.
Town planners and other experts in Malaysia, including city planning consultants interested in development, will need to reconsider their approach as house buyers’ expectations and preferences change.
This long-term transition could extend through the lifespans of a whole generation of public and private sector city planners.
To identify alternatives for decentralizing away from places that are already crowded, such as Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya, Klang, Shah Alam, and Johor Bahru, town planners must first actively take a step back. Town planners need to embark on some soul-searching, moving back to our moral responsibilities to humanity. Besides disease control, the environment would also benefit from decentralization.
A modern model that weighs income against environmental and social obligation must learn to embrace the manufacturing sector.
Clean technology can only be successfully applied through an industrial decentralization plan in synergistic groupings of sectors that have similar infrastructure needs.
Other major industrial centers should be deconstructed or downsized, aside from a few national significance sectors functioning as mega-complexes, expanding employment and economic prospects around broader geography, and helping to discourage unproductive rural-urban displacement and its associated social evils.
We need a paradigm shift towards tactical, small clustered development. Different human actions may be placed everywhere but coordinated to work as one, through drastic developments in technologies such as online schooling and high-speed communications.
An industrial firm could have its manufacturing base with a well-trained captive workforce in a remote kampung in Kelantan, its logistics center in the port of Tanjung Pelepas, its R&D in Cyberjaya, etc. Local communities will then appear to be characterized by the human capital base serving each city’s advantaged sectors, cohesively adding to national GDP together.
Instead of pursuing its current misdirected course, the creative mixing of land uses described earlier should instead be tweaked towards building rights-sized economic excellence clusters.
Hypermarkets and massive shopping centers may also become things of the past in a decentralised development. Smaller shopping centers in the area will find their balance of online shopping and e-commerce, which did very well during the Movement Control Order (MCO).
When lower densities require reduced property costs, it is important to reformulate zoning codes and construction bylaws. We have to start thinking that small is lovely, practical and spacious.
A rethink not only by professionals but also by developers, policymakers, and the government is needed for decentralization and lower intensity growth. While looking at the wider issues of where Malaysia is headed as a country, they have to weigh profit against citizens’ health and well-being.