City & Country: Rejuvenating the city

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AS this article is being written, crude oil prices have fallen to below US$70 (RM243.30) per barrel. The Malaysian government has already removed fuel subsidies for RON95 petrol and will use a managed float to determine prices.

This puts Malaysia at a crossroads. While lower crude oil prices should logically translate into lower fuel prices, Malaysians should expect to pay more for fuel in the long term and rely less on the generosity of Syarikat Petroliam Nasional Bhd (Petronas). Lower crude oil prices will dent the national oil and gas company’s earnings and its contributions to government revenue.

This, coupled with extreme changes to Malaysia’s climate (flash floods and droughts have worsened in recent years) and its obesity epidemic (Malaysians are the the fattest people in Asia, according to British medical journal The Lancet) should be the push needed for change.

Recognising the urgency of the situation, the organisers of the World Class Sustainable Cities (WCSC) conference technical tour this year invited Malaysian planners, developers, architects, townplanners and other consultants to Denmark and Sweden.

Into its sixth year, the conference’s theme for 2014 is “Best sustainable pratices towards green cities”. The tour was jointly organised by the Real Estate and Housing Developers’ Association (Rehda) Wilayah Persekutuan (Kuala Lumpur) branch, the Malaysian Institute of Planners (MIP) and the Architects Association of Malaysia (PAM).

The WCSC technical took place in Copenhagen, Malmo and Stockholm. According to MIP past president Khairiah Talha, these cities were chosen namely for their great strides towards sustainability and their architects who have made a name for themselves in practising sustainable architecture. Two architects from the host cities have participated in WCSC conferences. Danish urban design guru Jan Gehl was a speaker in 2012, while Bjarke Ingles, famed for his cutting-edge work, such as 8 House, spoke last year.

Among the more than 40 participants of the late October tour were real estate developers, architects, town planners and representatives of the municipal councils of Alor Setar, Kemanan, Kuala Lumpur, Kuching, Shah Alam and Putrajaya.

It should be noted that Malaysia’s current set of urban problems is not unique. Four decades ago, the Danes also had to contend with volatile oil and gas prices. Up until the early 1970s, the Danes were — and still are — among the biggest producers of oil and natural gas in the world. And yet, they were importing oil to fulfil 92% of their energy needs.

Around the same time, Denmark and other countries, such as the Netherlands and the US, were supplying military aid to Israel, which was locked in a battle against a coalition of Arab nations led by Egypt and Syria.

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec), then dominated by the Arab nations, had retaliated by cutting exports of oil to countries helping Israel in its war effort. The cuts hit Denmark hard and forced the city to rethink its reliance on black gold.

Their solutions were found both in the future and the past. The Danes would harness the powerful gales from the ocean to generate electricity and explore other forms of renewable energy, and they also got on their bikes. The bicycle again became a main mode of transport after a period of decline, since oil was discovered in the country.

Today, half of all Danes use the bicycle as their main mode of transportation, followed by public transport (15%). Meanwhile, renewable energy fulfils 20% of their current energy needs, which has been significantly reduced since the 1970s. This led to Denmark cutting its carbon emissions by a third from 1989 levels. Denmark is now building highways — solely for bicycles — and, among its other genuinely useful ecologically friendly practices, prioritises bike lanes when clearing the roads after snowfall or other adverse weather.

Meanwhile, the Danes are a largely healthy bunch, thanks to their habit of cycling and walking to most places.

Copenhagen aims to further reduce its carbon emissions by 40% in 2015 and eventually be carbon-neutral by 2050. Meanwhile, it plans to increase the number of people who use bicycles as their main mode of transport to 50% by 2025.

Copenhagen, Denmark

Ask some people what the greenest thing is about Copenhagen, and they might point towards Carlsberg’s famous lagers in their signature green glass bottles. However, the centuries-old city is among those at the forefront of sustainable development, thanks to its network of technologies, policies and design initiatives to help it adapt to climate change and become carbon-neutral by 2050.

“Did you know that Copenhagen has channels and drains built underground to cope with rising sea levels? This is because the sea is expected to rise by 3m in the next few years,” Khairiah tells City & Country under the steady pitter-patter of rain at the Langelinie promenade. This is where Edvard Eriksen’s iconic bronze Little Mermaid, his tribute to Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale of the same name, continues to draw tourists despite the poor weather. The lake laps gently at the stony embankments of the statue, as if to reclaim it for the sea.

The floods of August took Denmark and Sweden by surprise. People woke up to find their basements and the streets flooded after a night of relentless rain. In Copenhagen, waters rose to over a meter in a matter of three hours.

Denmark and Sweden had never faced this kind of torrent before. The ancient canals, drains and flood mitigation systems badly needed an upgrade to withstand a century’s worth of rainfall from a decade’s worth previously. It would be a costly exercise.

It was time to think of the box for some blue-sky thinking. Copenhagen turned to its abundant public parks for a solution. Enghaveparken, a popular public park, was adapted to also serve as a flood mitigation facility during the worst storms.

Inspired by the Danish summer pastime of boating and swimming and how places transform with each season, sections of the park were equipped with a custom-designed catchment system inspired by buoys, while the entire perimeter was surrounded by a tapering fence to keep the water in place. The engineering solution was designed by Cowi while the new landscape was designed by architecture firm Tredje Natur.

The park is now able to hold up to 26,000 cubic metres of rainwater. Moreover, the park’s different spaces will now have different uses depending on the season. For instance, the spaces that hold water in the park can be used as an ice-skating rink in winter or as a wading pool in summer.

Tredje Natur is in the midst of adding more green space to St Kjelds’ Square, a residential neighbourhood in Copenhagen. This is being done in two ways — by adding undulating green space of bricks and other filler materials throughout the roads, and by adding greenery to the edges of pedestrian lanes, to increase total green space. The undulating surface doubles the overall green surface area without having to cut into roads and lends the otherwise ordinary square a dynamic appearance, while adding plants to the pedestrian lanes alone helps to boost total green space by 20% or 50,000 sq m.

The Western Harbour, Malmö

The Western Harbour in Malmö and Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm are both rejuvenation projects and were pioneers in the use of sustainable technology. Like Denmark, Sweden is committed to sutainable development.

Malmö is a city in transition. The commercial hub of southern Sweden used to be an industrial city before it was transformed into a city of knowledge, with universities and industries such as logistics, retail, wholesale trade, construction, property, biotechnology, environmental technology, IT and digital media among its various economic growth drivers. Cosmopolitan Malmö boasts about 170 nationalities among its 300,000 residents.

Among its innovations is the rejuvenation of the Western Harbour. This former docklands is a testbed for the government of Sweden and Malmö city council.

A huge sum was committed to treating the soil, poisoned by decades of shipping activity and other heavy logistics, and installing sustainable infrastructure such as aquifers to draw thermal waters from the ground.

The state and federal governments also invested in pioneering housing schemes that were part of a sustainable housing project called bo01. The project was exhibited in 2001 and has since drawn thousands of people to the city.

Visitors today will see a variety of architecture — an eclectic melding of aesthetics is one freedom that Malmö has given developers to encourage them to venture into the area. They were also provided financial assistance to implement what was, at the time, cutting-edge sustainable technologies such as open stormwater management, renewable energy systems and energy consumption monitoring systems.

The completion of the Turning Torso, the tallest building in Malmö, marked the city’s rebirth. It now symbolises the passage of the town’s industrial era to one of high-value services and skills.

Hammarby Sjöstad, Stockholm

According to Khairiah, Stockholm was chosen as a WCSC technical visit site because of its amazing resourcefulness. “There is virtually no waste in Stockholm. They import rubbish from Denmark to power their incinerators, from which they generate energy,” she says.

This is particularly true in Hammarby Sjöstad, an eco-friendly district that used to house warehouses, workshops and factories until the early 2000s. The soil treatment and subsequent redevelopment was undertaken by the City of Stockholm and 25 construction companies, with the latter footing 80% of the bill.

The place has since been rejuvenated into a slightly upscale neighbourhood with beautiful parks. Hammarby Sjöstad boasts some of the most advanced sustainability practices. Its carbon footprint is estimated to be 50% lower than its neighbouring cities that were built in the 1990s.

In fact, its namesake, the Hammarby Model, is a wonderful example of how all the residents and facilities there are part of an “eco-cycle” that handles waste, sewage and water for its homes and offices.

The system was developed by Fortum, Stockholm Water Company and Stockholm Waste Management Administration. Some of their joint innovations include pipes for separate types of waste that are sent directly to recycling or garbage-incinerating (for fuel and heat generation) facilities. These pipes are installed throughout Hammarby Sjöstad and are a more efficient way of waste disposal.

Lessons in political will

It took an oil crisis to awaken the Danes to the dangers of strongly relying on oil. But ultimately, it was strong political will to push for these changes that paved the way for transformation. Having 98% of the Danish parliament agree to rely more on renewable energy and enforce sustainable living practices — including raising income taxes to 25%-50% of taxable income, and introducing different types of taxes at the state and country levels — has enabled Denmark to become a leader in sustainable development.

Similarly, Sweden too has high levels of income tax. In addition to social security contributions,  Swedes also pay tax to the municipalities and federal government.  However, those making below SEK30,000 (RM13,503) a year are exempt from municipal tax. Crucially for the implementation of high taxation, Denmark and Sweden are rated among the most transparent in the world.

“Over here, they have a big middle class. Their wages are higher. A fresh graduate’s salary may be €2,000 (RM8543.87), while a manager is looking at €5,000. But they are taxed so that [the gap in] their take-home pay is closer — the fresh grad takes home €1,500 and the manager, €2,500. But many of their essentials are provided for by the government from their high tax contribution. So that’s the way — fatten the middle class and narrow the gap,” says a developer.

Can these lessons be learnt in Malaysia? To be fair, some municipalities have already included sustainability plans and goals in their draft plans. For instance, the Kuala Lumpur Structure Plan 2020 has provisions for building more green spaces into the city, as well as to reduce pollution. KL City Hall organises monthly bike-only mornings on weekends.

Meanwhile, Putrajaya is in the midst of adding bicycle lanes to all its roads, and has embarked on recycling programmes throughout its precincts. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Wellbeing has also announced that household solid waste must be separated into several types, such as paper, glass, metal, and food waste, from next September.

In some municipalities, assessment rates have risen significantly.

Are these the foundations of sustainable urban life?

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This article first appeared in City & Country, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 29, 2014 - January 04, 2015.