Hello, Internet! I finally bit the bullet and got myself a blog. Just what the place needed — another voice crying out in the wilderness. I’m hoping to use this space to write about the things I’m interested in: architecture, heritage, and urbanism, mostly. I’ll be using this blog to explore ideas in a more fluid way than I might when writing for a magazine. I figure if some things (like cake batter and cookie dough) are better before they’re fully baked, perhaps the same can hold true for ideas. So with that caveat lector, let’s begin.

To kick things off, I’d like to write about the place I sometimes call home. I have an ambivalent relationship with Kuala Lumpur, the city where I was born. While I’ve spent some 18 of my 26 years living on and off in KL, it’s by no means the city I’m most familiar with, nor the place I feel most at home.

I couldn’t for the life of me draw you a map of KL. This is a bit strange, since I could draw you pretty decent maps of Melbourne and George Town — the two other cities where I’ve lived. I could probably even do justice to Venice and Amsterdam, cities where I’ve done brief stints of study abroad.

So, I don’t feel entirely at home here, and I can’t draw a decent map of the place. I think these two things are interrelated. And I think a great deal of this has to do with the way the city itself is laid out.

Despite its compact historic core, Kuala Lumpur is essentially a city of suburban sprawl. This sprawl is facilitated by a network of highways that snake around the lush, hilly terrain of the Klang Valley. For decades, policies aimed at propping up the nation’s automobile industry have privileged private vehicle ownership and the expansion of the highway network over investment in public transport.

If the goal was to get people to own cars, it’s certainly worked. Some 90% of vehicles in Malaysia are privately owned, with a roughly even split between motorbikes and cars.1 But these policies have also irrevocably reshaped the city, and not always in a good way. Greater Kuala Lumpur now covers an area of 2,793.27km2 (cf. Greater London’s 1,572km2, and 2787km2 in Greater Melbourne).

But because Kuala Lumpur’s key arteries are designed for the logic of the automobile rather than the pedestrian, they defy the easy familiarity that comes from neat lines and human scale. The tangle of streets is hard to make sense of unless you’re behind the wheel of a car.

If how we travel is problematic, where we’re going is an issue too.

For much of the middle class, life in Kuala Lumpur exists in the nexus between home, the office, and the shopping mall. As the editor and blogger Nine notes in her piercingly accurate guide to Kuala Lumpur:

Malls are everywhere in KL, and there’s a reasonable chance that you will end up in them even if you hate shopping. They’re attached to train stations; they contain pubs, theatres, art galleries.2

As with our car dependency, we owe much to North America for this particular brand of urbanism. In The Experience of Place, Tony Hiss summarises this style of planning as follows: ‘Put up a shopping centre, hope that it will eventually create some jobs nearby, and then call it a success.’3

While this might be an oversimplification, I’d argue that a similar philosophy has guided much of Kuala Lumpur’s suburban expansion through the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. The suburb I currently live in, Bandar Utama, has at its core the monolithic (and redundantly named) 1 Utama Shopping Centre. Homes in this suburb are nestled between a constellation of malls: 1 Utama, CentrePoint and, further west, the agglutination of IKEA/Ikano/The Curve. When I was growing up in the inner suburb of Bukit Damansara, much of my social life revolved around the two shopping centres in the neighbouring suburb of Bangsar.

Malls and highways. These are the yin and yang of KL’s (sub)urban character. And while this pattern of development may have fostered certain economic benefits, I believe it has taken a toll on the city’s liveability and indeed its identity.

This car-centric pattern of development may be making Kuala Lumpur less equitable. As noted by Dr Nurwati Badarulzaman, Associate Professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia,

car dependency not only exhausts fossil fuel and pollutes the air, but undermines the character of city streets and reduces the opportunity for chance encounter and community interactions. Access to affordable, healthy food also deteriorates with rising spatial concentration of shops away from the city centre. Lower-income earners and immobile people are often mostly affected by the inequality in access to urban services and amenities.3

This decentralisation of the population reduces access not only to commercial services, but also diminishes our chances of having rich social and cultural lives. In a 1959 study cited by Jane Jacobs, it is noted that

the lack of sufficient density of population to support cultural facilities… [means] that the only effective economic demand that could exist in suburbs was that of the majority. The only goods and cultural activities available will be those that the majority requires.’4

Our suburbanisation reduces us to the lowest common denominator. This is nothing short of a tragedy. Malaysians have every right to enjoy the richness of our multicultural society. Instead, leisure in Kuala Lumpur is confined within the limits of the shopping mall. Our private lives have been zoned for commercial use.

On a more abstract level, Kuala Lumpur’s built environment fosters a sense of alienation. Hiss argues that the experience of place ‘involves taking our attention away from the conversation that so much of the time goes on inside our heads.’4 To experience our surroundings, we must be aware of them.

But in the neoliberal dreamscape of suburban Kuala Lumpur, we are encouraged not to engage too deeply with our surroundings — not unless we are buying something. Residential areas are mediated by vast and completely unwalkable tracts of highway. The crime rate — both real and imagined — keeps people off the streets, particularly at night. Insulated within the metal frames of their Protons, Peroduas and Hondas, KLites emerge only once they have reached the parking lots of vast suburban malls, which present blank walls to the highways that enfold them. The bulk of urban experiences are packaged in corporate settings, the dominant architectural mode is a one-note concrete greige.

What can be done to remedy this? That’s not an easy question, but I think greater mobility and a serious rethink of how we organise services must be part of the answer. The expansion of the LRT system is a step in the right direction, though the scale of KL’s sprawl means that many will remain far from stations for the foreseeable future; a strengthening of multi-modal transport networks is essential to improving the city’s connectivity. We need buses and trains to work in tandem. And we need to invest in improving the walkability of our suburbs.

The hegemony of the shopping mall is a trickier problem, though as with public transport, there are glimmers of hope. In suburban town centres across KL, independent stores and restaurants have sprouted up in old shophouses, and these may soon become new centres of activity. But this still privileges consumer activity as the root of KL life. If we’re to move away from the idea of KLite as citizen-consumer, we’ll need to invest in civic and cultural institutions that are accessible to all. Parks, libraries, museums and concert halls are all places we desperately need more of in KL. It’d be great if we could get to them without owning a car.

Perhaps then KL will feel more like ‘home’.

[1] Jeyapalan Kasipillai & Pikkay Chan, ‘Travel Demand Management: Lessons for Malaysia’, Journal of Public Transportation 11.3 (2008): 42
[2] Nine, ‘Life in Kuala Lumpur‘, The Skinny, URL: http://www.theskinny.co.uk/travel/features/life-in-kl-kuala-lumpur-malaysia.
[3] Nurwati Badarulzaman, ‘Planning for a Sustainable Retail Environment in Malaysia’, Towards a Sustainable Built Environment in Malaysia, edited by Mahyuddin Ramli & Hugh Byrd (Penang: Penerbit Universiti Sains Malaysia, 2012).
[4] Jane Jacobs, The Life and Death of Great American Cities (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 201.
[5] Tony Hiss, The Experience of Place (New York: Vintage Books, 1991), 207.