With chronic traffic congestion, flash floods, lack of green living initiatives, and other inadequacies, Kuala Lumpur hardly fits the profile of a “world-class” city. Political will is needed to change and overcome these perennial problems,  according to participants of a roundtable discussion at the recent World Class Sustainable Cities (WCSC) 2009 conference in Kuala Lumpur.

Representatives from property developers, residents associations, Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL), Petaling Jaya City Council, Malaysian Institute of Planners (MIP), Real Estate and Housing Developers’ Association (Rehda) and the Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM) were among those who took part in the roundtable on how to make Kuala Lumpur a world-class city.

The WCSC conference was jointly organised by Rehda (Kuala Lumpur chapter), MIP and PAM. Speakers from Australia, Singapore, Holland and South Korea presented case studies on living standards, transport, green cities, river rehabilitation and city branding.

Not surprisingly, traffic congestion topped the list of grouses among the participants. Sufian Abdullah, Sime Darby’s vice-president II of R&D innovation (property division), shared some ideas that DBKL should consider adopting. These included building sky bridges and elevated walkways, seamless connectivity in public transport, 15-minute walkable routes to transport nodes, park and ride areas and even introducing free shuttle bus service.

Another group highlighted the need to devise a better method of controlling the flow of private vehicles into the city, citing as an example Singapore’s Electronic Road Pricing system. The city’s public transport system is also an area that many agreed was inefficient and needed to be improved.

Klang Valley secretariat
Another hot topic was floods. Although the multi-billion ringgit SMART tunnel has paid dividends in managing water flow within the city centre, there are still areas which are prone to flooding. To overcome this, several participants suggested rehabilitating the Klang River and Gombak River to help mitigate flood waters. For this to happen, they said the authorities needed the political will to push it through just like the Seoul metropolitan government did to rehabilitate the Cheong Gye Cheon River.

Kie-Wook Kwon, the South Korean representative, recounted how the river was given back its life.

Kie-Wook, who is director of the water management division in the Seoul metropolitan government, said in the past, the river was polluted. To get rid of the eyesore, the authorities decided to cover it with an elevated highway. The highway was built in stages, starting in 1958, and completed in 1977.

In 2003, the highway was removed and the river rehabilitated, with the subsequent beautification of the surrounding areas.

Kie-Wook said Malaysian rivers are still flowing and hence have a better chance of being rehabilitated at a lower cost. The Cheong Gye Cheon River rehabilitation project cost more than US$300 million.

However, rehabilitating the Klang River and Gombak River is not such a clear-cut issue, considering that the rivers flow through Selangor and Kuala Lumpur, and are under two separate jurisdictions. One solution is to reactivate the Klang Valley secretariat, an idea broached by Datuk Prof Zainuddin Muhammad from the Urban Development Authority. Members of the secretariat comprised the prime minister, menteris besar and heads of local authorities, and were tasked with tackling issues pertaining to the Klang Valley as a whole.

A Green City
The current catch-phrase of the season is green living and as global warming and climate change escalates, the stakes are high in the quest to turn things around. N K Tong, group managing director of Bukit Kiara Properties Sdn Bhd, shared his group’s hope that KL would become an integrated city.

His group suggested that the city have mixed development properties (about 70% residential and 30% commercial), with land set aside for green lungs; pedestrian network within developments and links to key buildings; and underground passages for vehicles while the surface area is for walking and cycling, with an elevated monorail.

Money and political will
Although various issues and ideas were presented, the most pertinent one was overcoming the funding issues. Dr Gan Lay Chin, representing the Bangsar Baru Residents Association, said money issues can be solved by getting a mix of federal and private funding so that DBKL’s coffers will not be strained as it is not big enough to deal with major projects like a river rehabilitation programme. A review of taxes and assessments may be required to raise additional finances for expensive schemes, she added on behalf of her group.

Nevertheless, all the participants agreed on one point: the need for someone to take responsibility and get things done. Political will is needed to exact change and it is hoped that the concerns raised will be considered by the government.

At the end of the event, all the viewpoints and suggestions were presented to DBKL for consideration.

This effort to encourage open discussion and dialogue augurs well for KL and its inhabitants. While it may be a tentative step, considering the mammoth challenges confronting the city, it represents an important initiative to make KL a world-class and environmentally sustainable city.

This article appeared in City & Country, the property pullout of The Edge Malaysia, Issue 751, April 20-26, 2009