Why the green lung next to your condo won’t last

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KUALA LUMPUR: Returning from Australia to settle here, Ashok Gorasia sought a quiet, green haven away from the concrete jungle that suburbs in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, and the outlying areas of Kuala Lumpur were fast turning into due to a spurt in high-rise development projects.

So, he bought the first property he viewed in Damansara Perdana, Petaling Jaya — taken in by the view of lush greenery and the morning mist on a neighbouring hill from his 15th floor duplex condominium.

Now, the hill view is gone and when he looks out of his Armanee Terrace unit, all he sees are concrete structures being built on the once green slope.

“When the property agent showed us our unit, my wife said it was the perfect place as she looked out and saw the wonderful green view.

“We were also told that the hill would be maintained as it was part of the master title of the land where our condos are,” he said.

Later, they found that while there was one land title number in their sales and purchase agreement, the 30ha of land their condo stands on, was sub-divided into three lots, one lot was sold to another developer, another lot is slated for a 48-storey building, and the third is for extended development of Armanee Terrace.

Now, they have to put up with daily pollution from the ongoing construction barely 20m from their corridors, and worry about the dangers posed by cranes and machinery surrounding their condominium.

Such scenarios happen, said lawyer and town planning activist Derek Fernandez, because the policy of spreading development across a wider area and away from existing high density areas is often disregarded.

This principle is behind the National Urbanisation Policy passed in 2005 which is meant to ensure sustainable development.

But developers’ proposals, in which new projects rely on existing infrastructure to generate larger sales margins, have only ended up squeezing development into already overcrowded areas, the former Petaling Jaya city councillor said.

Demand is just too good, as figures from the National Property Information Centre (NAPIC) show. In Kuala Lumpur, for the second quarter of 2014 only 854 units, worth RM1.29 billion, of a total of 5,031 condominiums and apartments launched, were left unsold. In Selangor, there were only 620 units, worth RM688 million, not sold, out of 4,655 launched. Future developments of 12,394 condominiums and apartments in Kuala Lumpur and 13,805 in Selangor were planned in the same period. 

With the good take-up of properties, it’s probably wishful thinking for owner-occupier buyers like Ashok to expect that no more new projects will sprout up on empty land nearby, or even on a hill, in their vicinity.

From Malaysian Institute of Planners president Md Nazri Mohd Noordin’s perspective as a town planner, however, the cramming of new projects in already dense areas is not due to a lack of planning but is a mismatch between “needs” and “wants”.

“Property development is based mainly on the private sector’s ‘wants’ which do not meet the ‘needs’ of the growing urban population. For example, there are more high-end properties being developed which are beyond the affordability of the majority of our population,” he said.

Property sales figures do show that developers focus more on building higher-end condominiums, with the take-up rate getting better as the price gets higher.

Part of the problem also lies with decision-makers who fail or refuse to heed the advice of town planners, Nazri said.

Planners would always take into account surrounding developments, prevailing national, state and local development policies and guidelines, when making development proposals.

Statutory requirements meant to control the development planning process require the planner to prepare reports with all these considerations to accompany layout plans. This is necessary to get project approval from the local authorities.

“However, the final decision lies in the hands of the local authorities and their councillors, but some decisions may be influenced by external factors, which include the lobbying power of developers.

“There must be stricter enforcement to ensure adherence to existing laws and guidelines and a more efficient system of governance to effectively manage our cities, as well as to lessen the influence of the big ‘P’,” he said, referring to politics or the lobbying power of developers.

Still, Nazri disagreed that main urban areas such as Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya are suffering from “haphazard” development. “Haphazard” would mean a lack of order or planning, he said, and town planning laws have been in existence since 1923.

He added that local authorities also have their statutory development plans, in the form of structure plans and local plans, prepared under the Town and Country Planning Act 1976, to guide and control development within their respective areas.

“One cannot say that development is out of control. However, the current pace of development is arguably not sustainable because one aspect of development, namely property development, has not been matched by the corresponding needs to enhance and improve the supporting public infrastructure,” he said.

Such infrastructure includes accessibility and traffic management, mass public transport, recreational facilities and public parks, and other public facilities, he said.

Fernandez echoed this view, saying policymakers are wrong to treat the Klang Valley as if it were Hong Kong or Singapore and to follow development models in these places.

It is like “comparing a Kancil to a Ferrari” because Singapore and Hong Kong have far better levels of infrastructure, he said.

“They can only justify the comparison if they show the level of transport infrastructure that Singapore and Hong Kong have.

“We don’t have anything like them and yet we allow development to carry on, taxing the existing infrastructure and causing the problems we face today, which include shortage of water, pollution, flash floods and an increase in diseases,” he said.

While this might sound like “overdevelopment” to most people, Nazri stresses that the term is relative to how well a city can accommodate population and development growth. Sustainability is not static, he said, and is not determined by the size of a city but its ability to provide adequate support and control over the forms, development types and needs within it.

Existing laws and guidelines are all there, he said, and what is needed is “a more efficient system of governance”, not only to manage Malaysian cities, but to reduce the lobbying power of influential developers. — The Malaysian Insider


This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on January 13, 2015.