Tuesday, January 21, 2014

What is sustainable city development?

Our team has spent the last two weeks in Malaysia, moving from city to city, meeting with public officials, private developers, civil society organizations and academics.  We know that as a country Malaysia has managed, through careful planning, to grow its economy in remarkable ways.  Poverty levels are way down.  Investments in public education, quality health care and and infrastructure are  impressive. In addition to the new capital city of Putrajaya, which was created in part to relieve pressure on Kuala Lumpur (KL), other cities and regions like Johor Bahru (JB) expect to add millions of additional people and jobs over the next ten years.  By 2025, Malaysia intends to be a developed, not a developing nation.  In addition to explicit economic development targets, there is also growing environmental awareness (with a national commitment to becoming a low-carbon society) as well as an emerging commitment to social development. Our question, then, is has all of this translated in some measurable way to more sustainable patterns of city development?  And, what more can be done to ensure that this happens?

We have looked at KL, JB, the world heritage cities of Penang and Malacca, and Kuching in
East Malaysia.  The way cities are developing suggests at least three things.  First, Malaysia takes planning seriously.  There is a national law that requires national growth policies, state structure plans, local master plans and detailed urban design guidelines and sector plans.  Most of these are in place.  The national government funds almost all infrastructure investments (in airports, highways, major parks, energy facilities and even schools).  So, these are not a function of local or state tax revenue.  These infrastructure investments are made with the three levels of development policies and plans in mind (although there is no formal consistency requirement).  The private sector fills in everything else (within the frame of local zoning laws and a variety of tax and investment incentives).  Real estate investments (especially at the high end) are quite profitable. KL is the fourth leading shopping destination in the world (after New York City, London and Paris). Shopping malls are everywhere.  Income taxes are relatively low. While there are plans to implement a kind of value added tax in the coming months, it will be much lower (around 6%) than the European VAT (which is as high as 20%). With the public sector in a position to control the overall pattern of city development and a growing private sector (with ample capital) eager to invest, the prospects of achieving sustainable city development are high.

Second, Malaysia is concerned about providing affordable housing for those whom the market fails to serve, but the mechanisms for doing this are still evolving.   There's nothing like the US Section 8 program that subsidizes qualified households or units so that people of different incomes are mixed.  In Malaysia, the government funds most public housing or requires developers to build a certain number of affordable housing units as a quid pro quo for being allowed to proceed with large scale commercial or mixed use development. These units are almost always built "off-site." There are set income levels and square footage requirements that apply nationally. Affordable housing units tend to be segregated from high end units that are mostly set in gated communities.  And, it is not clear how the public housing projects in Malaysia will escape the fate of the US public housing programs of the 1950s and 1960s which led to dismantling large public housing projects like Pruitt-Igoe that deteriorated horribly because no one had either the incentive or the funds to maintain them.  There are government funds being invested in "catalytic" economic development projects in growth corridors in Malaysia, but the social development money (requested from the developers of these projects) is not yet being invested in mixed income housing near to the new jobs that are being created.  As in many countries, the connection between land use policies and (mass) transportation policy is weak.  Siloed authorities do their own thing. Planning does not yet extend through to implementation of separate sectoral transportation, energy policies, or university expansion and other economic development plans at the federal, state and local level. The policies and plans in place are impressive.  Implementation in a coordinated way, however, is still a challenge.

Third, Malaysia takes environmental quality and the maintenance of ecosystem services seriously. But, green jobs are not yet a focus of city development and other than in Putrajaya (a completely planned national capital), investments in ecosystem services have been used more as a marketing strategy than as a guiding principle of city development.   Malaysia has all the energy it needs. And the cost of energy is low.  While the national government has adopted a low carbon development plan, city development outside of KL is not at a sufficient density or in a sufficiently walkable form to discourage automobile use. Investment in mass transit is lagging.  In addition, the climate is not especially conducive to a lot of outside activity (i.e. biking, walking) in low density settings. There is ample water and a great deal of arable land (although more than 60% of it is devoted to production of palm oil).  While this is profitable --Malaysia in the #1 producer of palm oil in the world -- it means that Malaysia imports a great deal of its food (including rice and beef) because there is much less land devoted to agricultural production than there might otherwise be.  Marine and coastal resources (i.e. mangrove forests and fisheries) are getting some attention, but much more needs to be done to ensure that coastal cities grow in a way that balances economic objectives with ecosystem preservation.

Our university partners at Universiti of Teknologi of Malaysia (UTM) are benchmarking sustainable infrastructure investments in other countries.  The national science agency in Malaysia is focusing on sustainability and ways of responding to climate risks (especially serious flooding caused by intensive rain storms). The national government knows that social development (including concern for aboriginal and tribal communities outside of urban areas) requires as much attention as economic investment in cities. Economic relationships with Singapore require constant attention -- especially ways of ensuring that residents in the South of the Malaysian peninsula can commute easily to jobs in Singapore while Singaporians with money to spend can invest in second homes and shop in Malaysia where taxes are low. There are lots of efforts afoot that could lead to increasingly sustainable patterns of city development (economically, environmentally and socially).  The tasks ahead appear to be (1) finding the right balance between top-down government planning and investment and bottom-up citizen-led efforts to create and preserve community life; (2) dealing with the tension between the desire to promote national economic growth and the need to assist those at the local level (and the bottom of the income scale) for whom inflation in land and house prices means they could be forced out of their homes and shops; (3) maintaining the essence of Malaysian culture in the face of increasing consumerism and tourism; and (4) furthering Malaysia's commitment to democratic ideals in the face of increasing tension among the diverse ethnic components of the population.

The success to date has been noteworthy. And, I think there is reason to believe that the leadership and the population will be able to handle the four tasks I have listed. They have a well-educated population with the capacity to make a high-tech society work. I hope our MIT-UTM Sustainable Cities Program (malaysiacities.mit.edu) can be supportive in all the right ways.