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Why Urban Design Matters in Malaysia

Urban design is a field that looks into the quality of our urban environment and the effects it gives to our quality of life. It deals with the refinement of our urban environment beyond just having basic needs being fulfilled. Thus the focus of the urban design is the quality of our urban spaces and the city from where the ultimate goal is to achieve a sense of place. Sense of place is a concept that is closely related to identity, imageability, genius loci, sense of belonging, place attachment and sense of unity. Being a field which bridges the gap between town planning and architecture, the urban design translates planning’s two-dimensional policies and spatial distribution of resources to a three dimensional built form qualities that are then translated into a piece of architecture. It also dwells into environmental psychology to appreciate the effects of design on people’s perception and cognition of their urban environment.

There has been some misconception that urban design is part of town planning and that it falls into the scope of town planning. In UK urban design used to be part of the scope of town planning until the introduction of the comprehensive development plan system where the scope of work of town planning became too complex and involved with the socio-economic implications in the distribution of resources, communication network and land use activities that urban design had to be done by a group of professionals with design skills to translate planning policies into a physical form other than buildings.

In Malaysia, urban design is still at its infancy and still not given enough emphasis in the building of cities. Although new towns like Putrajaya and Nusa Jaya have attempted to build the city based on a specific concept and master plan, the outcome is still more building centric and boulevards oriented in which climatic and cultural consideration in the design of urban spaces leave many rooms for improvement.

There are still very few officials having formal training in urban design at postgraduate levels at the local authorities even a big one like Kuala Lumpur City Hall. This is despite there are two local universities offering masters in urban design program; MSc in Sustainable Urban Design at UTMKL and MSc. Tropical Urban Design at UPM. There is also the MSc in Urban Space Design offered at UITM which is more focussed towards urban spaces.

The lack of design coordination in the townscape, the car-centric planning and lack of concern for the urban spaces sum it all. This country has a world-class planning system as far as the production of documents such as the structure plans and local plans. We are also quick to adopt policies that are in tandem with the Sustainable Development Goals and New Urban Agenda of United Nations widely recommended worldwide as reflected in the Draft Kuala Lumpur Structure Plan 2030. When the MIT selected Malaysia for its Sustainable Cities partnership program with UTM in 2015 Malaysia was cited as having impressive planning documents that guide planning and development of urban areas compared to other developing countries. Hence, it is worth for a study of the success story of Malaysia as a model for the rest of the countries in the global south.

However, what is written in a report does not necessarily appear exactly as planned without an efficient delivery system and the presence of professionals. This is important as they are the ones who are able to visualise the planning policies and translate them into design briefs, programs and proposals that manifested the intentions of the plans resulting in a city form having local character and contextually responding to our traditions, culture and climate.

The outcomes of these plans did not turn out well because, at implementation levels, the local authorities need adequate numbers of skilled personnel to guide development by producing series of design briefs, urban design framework and guidelines, the coordinate design submitted by various architects and control development by scrutinising submissions of drawing for planning permission for a design that is responsive to the context. Having an urban design guideline for a city is not enough if the local authorities are not equipped with officers who can translate and guide the architects to achieve the objectives of the guidelines. The success of the policies on urban design and guidelines also depend on stringent design control to decide on the granting of planning permission.

Experience in the developed countries like the UK has shown that public interest in the way their cities are being built and the concern of their environment, heritage and culture is crucial in getting a better quality of the design of the city. Public awareness about urban planning and urban design is important in order to demand better quality design of our cities. At the same time, the curriculum of Architecture and Town Planning Education must include more urban design appreciation and awareness among the students to influence their decision makings when they practised. This can be done by teaching urban design in the studio subject as well as having one course to introduce students to the basic theories and principles of urban design. Ability to differentiate between good urban design and the bad ones is important for them to make a positive contribution to the townscape.




Image by Nicole Geri

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