Thursday September 14, 2017
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Quek Yew Aun

Malaysian by birth, biologist by choice, Yew Aun meditates on various environmental, social and sporting issues. If not glued to a computer screen, he can be found trying to photograph sea slugs. Yew Aun can be contacted at quekyewaun@gmail.com.

SEPTEMBER 14 ― Last week, residents of Taman Melawati organised a public protest against the construction of a convention centre in their neighbourhood. The centre is to be built on a plot of land that was originally meant to be a public park.

Accompanying the protest is an online petition that at the time of writing has impressively garnered close to 4,000 out of the targeted 5,000 signatures.

While the main issue here is the unfulfilled promise by the developers, it draws to light a public demand for green spaces and exposes deeper underlying questions. Do urban populations need green at all? And if yes, how much is enough?

Too many people, so little green

According to a recommendation by the World Health Organisation (WHO), a minimum of 9m² of green space per resident is required for a healthy society.

But with 50 per cent of the current world population (of 7.5 billion) living in cities, town planners might find it hard to allocate enough green spaces to meet societal demands.

To make matters worse, the United Nations Population Division projects that this percentage will increase to 70 per cent by 2050. This means that seven out of 10 people worldwide will be living in urban environments, hence throwing the liveability of these cities into question.

The amount of green space per resident is a key component in many liveability indices. Vienna which came in second in this year’s Global Liveability Report allocates an astonishing 120m2 per resident while Singapore, having the third highest population density in the world, manages to beat larger cities like Tokyo, Buenos Aires and Istanbul with 66m2 of green space per resident.

Drawing attention to green

Closer to home, it is extremely heartening to see similar demands for green spaces or forest reserves being made by urban communities all across Malaysia.

More importantly, it is your ordinary citizens who are willing to stand up and campaign for them when rapid urbanisation threatens their existence.

The voices of these communities are usually channelled through local NGOs, neighbourhood associations or grassroots organisations.

Since they come from citizens themselves, the voices are powerful ones in the face of typical top-down, development is always good policy approaches in Malaysia.

Taman Rimba Kiara in TTDI and Teluk Bahang Forest Reserve are two examples of green tracts that have made the news in recent months for proposals to develop them.

The former is threatened by the construction of a six-lane highway and high-end apartments while an ambitious highway known as the North Coastal Paired Road (NCPR) will encroach on 3.34 ha of the latter.

Encouragingly, residents of TTDI through the Save Taman Rimba Kiara campaign have made their intentions clear through a series of town hall gatherings, protests and press conferences.

Aside from the park being used for recreational activities, it has been shown to be a refuge for several uncommon species like Crested Goshawks, Oriental Pied Hornbills and even otters!

Up north, Tanjung Bungah Residents Association (TBRA) have called for the cancellation of NCPR for its potential degazettement of forest reserve and construction on slopes with gradients more than 25 degrees.

According to the group, the proposed highway will affect thousands of residents without effectively addressing the traffic congestion issue on Penang island.

KDCF: Neighbourhood forest

While looking for solutions to the struggle between urbanisation and green, perhaps we do not need to look that far at all.

The Kota Damansara Community Forest (KDCF) provides a perfect example of how public participation, apathy and the involvement of various stakeholders spared this forest from the development that surrounds it.

The beauty of KDCF is that the committee has rallied stakeholders from across the board, ranging from international actors (Global Environment Facility), local authorities (Selangor Forestry Department and MBPJ), local NGOs, private companies to local residents including the Temuan Orang Asli, to their cause.

It is perhaps this idea of community use and wholesome stakeholder engagement that warranted the forests’ conservation. After all, when so many people in a democratic county like Malaysia want something to be protected, chances are that it will be so.

A public need

To conclude, I argue that green spaces and tracts of intact forest are a public necessity; useful as a form of escape from the stresses of urban life. With them, one does not need to travel far for recreation and to reconnect with nature.

Thus, efforts should be heightened to maintain healthy green lungs in the face of uncontrolled development. While the recent protests have garnered much public support (offline and online), I am of the opinion that they should be conjured as a last resort... when all attempts to partner or lobby relevant stakeholders have failed.

 

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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