In The Mass Media

Long term model needed to create more sustainable cities

By Stuart Macdonald
Thursday, 21 June 2012 15:45

THE Penang Institute has recently been hosting a series of screenings of the documentary film Urbanized. The first screening to a selected audience in Penang has spawned subsequent screenings as each showing brings an enthusiasm to share the film with a wider audience.

The local authorities in Penang have shared it with their entire staff, and the series of showings is extending out from the state, with screenings planned in Ipoh and Kuala Lumpur and maybe in Selangor, too.

Why such interest? Well, Gary Hustwit’s documentary is both engaging and beautifully shot. As it moves around the world viewing a range of cities and the challenges they face, the commentators outline how they have creatively addressed some of their most intractable issues.

There is a strong theme of citizen engagement and participatory governance running throughout the film. All of the creative solutions presented, from participatory design of low cost homes in Chile, to citizen engagement in the development of a pedestrian regime in a township in South Africa, the film as a whole posits the idea that it is citizens, not architects and planners, who have the best answers to urban questions.

The population of Penang is projected to increase to 2.5 million from around 1.5 million between 2010 and 2030; so questions arise about how we can absorb such population growth in a sustainable manner and what these challenges mean for our economy.

How will our urban form need to change? How will we get to work? Where will we spend our leisure time? Where will our children live? How are we going to provide for people’s needs in the context of declining natural resources and increasing fuel costs?

Can the Asian development model forge a different path to Western models that appear to have run out of steam? The region is already proving that its development paradigm is different with continued growth rates, which even at 5% are viewed enviously from the West.

However, Asia can no longer rely on Western consumption patterns to drive its exports, and its challenge now is to leapfrog the mistakes of the West and go straight to a more sustainable economic, social and environmental system. Bejing, Shanghai, New Delhi and Mumbai will likely be the drivers of the new global economy.

This of course presents opportunities for Penang as we are well-placed both geographically and culturally. However, a recent Un-Habitat survey has highlighted the shortcomings of current approaches to urban development in Asia.

The findings suggest that most Asian local authority officials still hold on to a traditional approach, one that focuses on technical aspects related to urban management rather than urban governance.

A number of blind spots point to the need for an urban vision that places the highest priority on democratic decision-making, community participation, inclusiveness, equity, empowerment and people-centered development.

The Shanghai Manual — A Guide for Sustainable Urban Development in the 21st Century (2011) — notes that developing a vision and a plan “for what you want your city to become” is the essential first step for pursuing new pathways towards transformation.

It provides a guide to creating a city vision. However, methodologies and frameworks exist that can help urban leaders establish an over-arching vision towards sustainability. Essentially, the “process starts with getting a better understanding of what the community wants, and ends with a consensus of an overall vision”.

The process itself of developing a “shared” vision can support the development of stronger participatory governance structures. Penang has a very active civil society, which engages the people in the challenges of development, and plays a valuable role in pushing for solutions which are bottom up.

The state government’s commitment to competency, accountability and transparency, and steps taken towards passing the Freedom of Information Enactment, proves that a more open city is being built.

The recently passed enactment to revive local council elections demonstrates a thirst for local democracy. Although the challenges in bringing about a third vote are significant, there is a clear trend towards greater participatory governance in Penang.

In setting the trajectory with a shared vision, a process of “backcasting” can be used to map out the individual steps and key milestones needed to turn a future “vision” into a reality. Policy pathways can then be developed to alter the trajectory of current trends, and ensure that all strategies and plans contribute towards the shared vision of the future.
This process can be used to negotiate the political interference and short-term interests that often prevail.

To address the long-term challenges of climate change, resource depletion and a growing urban population, Penang, and indeed Malaysia, needs a long-term development model to be adopted which will create more sustainable cities in the future.

Stuart Macdonald is head of the cities, urbanisation and environment programme of the Penang Institute. This story appeared in The Edge Financial Daily on June 21, 2012.