CommentaryOPINION

Ipoh – When “Dressing Up in Tin” Will Still Be King?

Thinking Aloud

By Alex Lee, Foo Hui Ping & Christopher Choong

The news of the Ipoh Special Area Draft Plan (RKK or Rancangan Kawasan Khas – Ipoh Bandar Warisan Bijih Timah 2020) being opened for public viewing and consultation first reached us on December 17, 2013, after a five-day lag from its launch, which is not long relative to the normal shelf life of a bureaucratic project. But for a five-week long session (December 12, 2013 to January 8, 2014), it is about 14 per cent of substantial time loss, not discounting weekends and Christmas/New Year holidays yet.

Never mind all that, since the RKK could have been made available online. Unfortunately, as of the time of writing, only a 33-page Executive Summary is made available for download from the city council’s website, which doesn’t do justice to the RM3.3 billion draft plan that has a significant spatial and social impact on the cityscape.

Such a skeletal plan inevitably evoke questions as to the missing components, potential trade-offs and design choices of the plan: Why no mention of improving bus and taxi stops? Is there a better alternative to the choice of Senibina Tradisional Melayu in Kg. Kuchai? Why are the pedestrians sharing the walkways with bicycles?

It further raises the question of whether such consultation should be designed to include, as stakeholders, the Ipoh diaspora, who in many ways still maintain social and voting links to the city, when the full range of information can only be obtained by physically visiting the Ipoh City Council foyer.

It is equally confounding why a plan that is still at the drafting stage has been merchandised as coffee table books, which would also be less accessible for the lower income group, when it should be disseminated widely and freely for public consumption and feedback.

Bearing resemblance to the transformation programmes at the Federal Level, the RKK is structured by eight entry-point projects (EPPs) that smack of New Urbanism ideals and language, at least on the surface. It has projects on heritage conservation and preservation, developing green belts and cultural zones, and improving walk-ability and bike-ability.

However, a closer look at the figures reveals a certain sense of disproportion to the plan’s priorities, when 84.4 per cent of the planned budget is allocated to EPP 6: ‘Redevelopment of the Promotional Planning Zone of Ipoh’ (ZPP), which consists of three infrastructure-intensive mixed development projects covering a land size of 67.36 hectares and the remaining 15.6 per cent to the other seven EPPs, averaging a miniscule 2.2 per cent for each.

While a 40-60 per cent public-private partnership is proposed for the entire RM3.3 billion RKK, no further breakdown of public funds is provided at the project level. There is also no indication whether GLC contributions (e.g., MB Inc and SEDC) would be classified as public or private funds.

Should the selected brownfield site of KTM, a very nice part of the city, be developed from an affordable, low density area to become a high density mixed development project? Will it cause gentrification for the poor and low-income people currently living there? Will the Land Conservation Act 1960, listed as one of the implementation approaches, be used to acquire land there? How many parcels of land and who will be affected?

Lopsided numbers and lingering questions aside, the RKK’s core strategy seems to be heavily hinged on using heritage, culture and environment to generate monetary returns from tourism. A GNI return of RM25.62 billion is projected for 2020-2030, near to eight times the RKK initial investment, perhaps provided as justification for the proposed plan. But this needs to be critically re-examined, not only in terms of the assumptions and methodology behind the GNI projections (which are very often unrealistic and overly optimistic), but also the entire philosophy and thinking behind the RKK’s seemingly monotonic approach to the city.

The development and building of a city should be centred on the people who live, work and play in the city, contrary to the RKK’s primary focus and preoccupation with tourism and economic returns. Hence, the proposed plan’s appreciation of heritage, culture and environment lacks depth and looks skin deep with the suggestion to dress up the old Ipoh city centre with a tin mining cloak (Dulang waterfront, kapal korek miniature, monuments of tin miners, etc.).

Should a city be themed up artificially and be reduced to a single identity without deeper excavation of the complexities, multiplicities and identities of the past, present and future generation of Ipoh-ans both living in the city and abroad?

A different understanding of the city would suggest a different set of principles and policies relating to heritage, culture and environment. The proposed projects that have been brought up in the RKK such as the restoration of identified historical monument and the development of Sungai Kinta into a green belt are all very relevant, but the direction and emphasis is unfortunately not geared towards the revitalization of the city in its totality, that is, social, health, safety and living standard dimensions of the workers, commuters, women, elderly and children.

For example, walking paths shouldn’t just be designed and constructed merely as a heritage trail for tourists. What about the analysis and understanding of the everyday path and mobility behaviour of the students and city dwellers in the surrounding area? Similarly, a green open space along the riverfront can also be designed as a hangout space for workers’ lunch break or for school children to carry out extra-curricular activities after school or on weekends.

From a place-making point of view, there are also questions about the proposed land use change from residential to solely commercial status for some heritage buildings as well as turning a specific area into a singly-defined cultural zone, that is, Little India. Traditionally and in some countries presently, it is actually more important to use land use and zoning to create cities where people of different backgrounds and income classes live, work and play within the core of the city.

Complexities and robustness are the key ingredients that make a city a city. The famous Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck once said, “a house must be like a small city if it’s to be a real home; a city like a large house if it’s to be a real home”. It cannot be stripped down to a mono-functional zone for commercial or touristic purposes. A city plan must also make room for common, public space to nurture communities, shape individuals and educate citizens and not turn the entire Ipoh city centre into a monotonic, commodified space meant only for tourists. Tourism may add value, but is not the totality of value.

How then should such a city centre in Ipoh be redeveloped? For a start, perhaps the existing consultative mechanism for the RKK has to be broadened to allow for more meaningful and deeper inputs, reflections and conversations about the city from all stakeholders, broadly defined. The current ‘surat bantahan’ available for download seems to serve as the only feedback mechanism and only allows for comments tied to a specific proposal in the RKK.

Ipoh City Council is a participant of Local Agenda 21, which is “an approach based on participation which respects the social, cultural, economic and environmental needs of the present and future citizens of a community in all its diversity and which relates that community and its future to the regional, national and international community of which it is a part.” A genuine public participation in the RKK formulation needs to adopt and uphold the approach of Local Agenda 21 to bring about a genuinely bottom-up, locally-owned, and development-from-within city redevelopment, flourishing in all its totality.

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