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Pitfalls of unchecked urban growth
15/01/2004 NST-PROP By Salleh Buang

Unlike enthusiastic lawyers, urban planners would probably have little time or patience for the intricacies of jurisprudence.

The rationale, or relevancy, of issues in urban management such as “development restraint policies” would probably be as far away from their minds as ice melting in the polar circles. But whether urban planners accept them or not, these issues would ultimately have to be addressed, and dealt with appropriately. After all, isn’t this what the Rio Summit was all about? That we all put our shoulders together to take care of Mother Earth, so that future generations can continue to enjoy the quality of life we have today?

There are voluminous amounts of literature on the environment available in cyberspace. Scanning them, one will learn that the main objective of environmental protection, which evolved over the last century, is to restrain (or limit, if you prefer) the growth of our already overly large, overcrowded and unhealthy urban centres.

In simple language, the doctrine seeks to achieve “urban balance” through “urban containment”. In practical terms, we find there have been laws passed to provide for this, such as the “urban growth boundary legislation” of the United States, passed in several States in that country since the 1950s. One example is what the State of Oregon did in respect of its Portland Metropolitan Area.

Under the American urban growth boundary law, a State is empowered to take steps to ensure that its urban (or metropolitan, in US terms) area accommodates growth rationally, and at the same time, inhibit sprawl and protect the rural environment on its outer fringes.

However, the growth boundary so delineated does not remain static. Periodic reviews are carried out to enable city fathers to determine whether the boundary needs to (or can) be extended. If it is to be extended, planning requirements that emphasise, among other things, sustainable development, must be met.

To be politically correct today, “sustainable development” is read as smart growth.

Many cities in the US have their own Smart Growth Initiatives. The same effect is achieved in the United Kingdom, through its “green belt policies”, which have been promoted and implemented since the end of World War II.

In Denmark, the legislative basis of ensuring restraint in urban development is found in its National Land-use Zoning Policy, while in the Netherlands, the ABC Location Policy is the basic document for this.

Since no one country is exactly similar to another, policies and rules that work in one country may not necessarily work in another. Nevertheless, there are common features in many of these policies that merit further consideration and analysis on our part as Malaysia too moves towards sustainability in growth and development.

We certainly do not want our cities to grow indefinitely, so that the outer limits are undefined and unlimited while a growing array of economic and social problems - such as urban poverty, lack of affordable housing, clean water, sanitation and the like - arise and multiply.

In Europe, the practice of sustainable development has generally evolved in favour of exercising urban restraint in the form of “growth management policies” within strong national or regional strategic planning frameworks.

In the local context, as a result of the recent amendment to the Town and Country Planning Act 1976, we now have a three-tier planning model - the National Physical Plan at the apex, the State structure plan below it and the local plans at the ground or local authority level.

However, while the three-tier planning hierarchy is already in place in terms of legal infrastructure, I am not sure whether the doctrine of restraint in urban development has ever been an important factor in shaping our landscape.

Having lived in the Klang Valley from the early 1960s until the late 90s, and having witnessed the frenzied “growth” of that period, I doubt whether the doctrine of restraint has ever been an important part of our urban planning vocabulary.

One may ask, “Why restrain growth?” A good answer will be: “To avoid or eliminate diseconomies arising from excessive growth or the mismanagement of growth.”

Properly implemented, the doctrine of restraint can make a city “leaner and fitter”, thereby becoming better equipped to discharge its national and international functions.

Kuala Lumpur, having declared its intention in its recent structure plan to become a “world class city”, should ponder this.

Exercising restraint in urban development is crucial because, in its absence, it will be difficult for a city or urban area to maintain orderly, coherent, development. Exercising restraint will facilitate the implementation of orderly and balanced zoning and the rational use of land and urban infrastructures.

Physical considerations aside, exercising restraint in development will also facilitate sustainable development, ensure greater social cohesion and economic competitiveness through more compact cities and balanced urban development.

That was the common view adopted by both the European Union’s Expert Group on the Urban Environment in 1997and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Committee on Spatial Development in 1999.

Broadly, the experts say there are two ways of handling urban development. The first is the regulatory or restrictive approach; the second is the management approach. We are constantly reminded that the first approach has limited success in restricting urban sprawl.

In the local context, looking at our urban development all these years - as regulated by the Town and Country Planning Act and other statutes - we probably have all along been using the first approach. This probably explains why we have limited success in preventing urban sprawl and resolving problems such as urban slums and squatter settlements.

This realisation brings us to the last questions I want to pose: “Why not adopt the management approach? Why don’t we have our own brand of sustainable urban development in the form of a Growth Management Act (GMA), such as that adopted by the State of Washington in the US, to ensure a balanced development in the State?”

Under the GMA, all urban communities in Washington are required to construct and adopt comprehensive development plans, backed up by necessary regulations, to ensure that they are duly implemented. The plans must address specific issues including (but not limited to) land use, transportation, housing, capital facilities and services, natural environment and economic development.

I have on previous occasions addressed this issue of sustainable urban development, but no one in authority or in urban planning has thought it fit to respond to my argument, or to take it up as an issue in town and country planning.

Nevertheless, I have now learned that the authorities are formulating an urbanisation policy for Malaysia. Perhaps the time has come to take another look at my suggestions on the GMA.

In the meantime, I will have to be content with reminding myself that until now, we still do not have our own land use policy.

Salleh Buang is senior advisor of a company specialising in competitive intelligence. He is also active in training and public speaking and can be reached at

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