Cities 101: Who makes a city? (Part II)

GoCar’s driving vision is to create sustainable cities by transforming urban mobility. Cities 101, a series by Yan Teh, contextualises this vision within wider urban perspectives. Part II looks at the people who shape our cities for a living.

Cities are critically important, as established in Part I. We must pay attention to cities, and we need cities to succeed. Problematically, the people who make decisions about our cities are often unseen. In a nation of aspiring doctors, lawyers, and accountants, the disciplines that form the foundation of our built environment receive scant attention. But if nobody knows of these vital roles, then how can they attract the best talent? Part II addresses this deficit by highlighting the individuals and organisations who work to make cities better.

If the city is a machine, it is controlled by a motley crew of button-pushers. In modern times, public authorities have been the dominant forces, formulating and executing 20-year master plans. The byzantine network of highways swaddling Kuala Lumpur results from plans like these. In the blandly titled Kuala Lumpur Structure Plan 2020, DBKL (Kuala Lumpur City Hall) outlines ambitious goals such as “to reverse the decline in public transport usage” and “to achieve a targeted public: private [sic] transport modal split of 60:40 by the year 2020.”

Rush hour
Above: Kuala Lumpur commuters at rush hour. (Image: Jorge Láscar)

Citizens may know DBKL best for issuing parking tickets, but city councils actually handle much more than clamping illegally parked cars. For example, councils determine whether our pavements will be wide enough for wheelchair users to pass each other. (Two unobstructed metres is the recommended minimum.) In fact, councils decide whether to bother building pavements at all! They also decide how many trees to plant and where to plant them, the impact of which goes beyond mere aesthetics: greenery is a powerful weapon for cooling and cleaning hot, polluted city air. Whether that vacant plot of land near your house becomes a public park, an office tower, or yet another shopping mall is in your council’s hands, too. So what kind of knowledge is needed to make these decisions well?


What can aspiring city-makers study?

The professionals who shape our cities study a wide range of disciplines. One major field is urban planning, the technical and political process controlling the use of land. Contemporary urban planning combines many fields: architecture, civil engineering, public health, economics, sociology, law, and geography. Whereas architecture deals with individual buildings, urban planning operates at the scale of whole cities, districts, or neighbourhoods – including communication and transportation networks. Urban planners conduct research and public consultations to inform their policy recommendations, and implement the resulting plans.

In contrast, urban design concerns city features: streets and sidewalks; parks and plazas; waterfronts and downtowns. It focuses on the physical form and “user experience” of cities. Whilst urban planners work more with written policy, gathering and interpreting data on a community’s needs, urban designers produce more visual work – closer to that of architects. However, urban designers also draw from social and political theory, real estate development, and economics in creating their designs. Another distinction: urban planners can come from a variety of backgrounds, whereas urban designers typically have a design background – often in architecture.

Creating a place with a distinct identity (rather than just a space) is central to urban design. Peter Buchanan describes urban design’s objective:

[…] to recapture certain qualities […] that we associate with the traditional city: a sense of order, place, continuity, richness of experience, completeness and belonging. Urban design lies somewhere between the broad-brush abstractions of planning and the concrete specifics of architecture. It implies a notion of citizenship: life in the public realm. Urban design structures activities.

Bryant Park high res
Above: New York City’s Bryant Park is famous for its lively program of activities, ranging from trivia nights, movie screenings, and live music; to dance parties, photography workshops, and knitting classes. Poetry readings and spelling bees take place in the outdoor reading room. There is an ice skating rink in the winter. Dubbed “Manhattan’s town square,” it receives over 12 million visitors annually. (Image: Kevin Jarrett)

Despite their differences, urban designers and urban planners need each other. Both grapple with questions like the ideal size of a city block, weighing individual benefit (smaller blocks for shorter walking routes) against collective benefit (bigger blocks for more time with street frontage, instead of excessive road-crossing). They collaborate to make places more comfortable, functional, beautiful, or sociable – through ingenious junction design that keeps cyclists safe, or by building more walkable neighbourhoods.

Besides urban design and urban planning, landscape architecture is another flourishing field. Its name may conjure bucolic images of Tuileries, but this expansive discipline actually blends art, science, nature, and culture to provide robust solutions to serious problems. Assoc Prof Dr Osman Mohd Tahir, president of the Institute of Landscape Architects Malaysia, cites the example of incorporating a retention pond into a park to manage stormwater and floods. Job-seekers take note: Osman claims that Malaysia’s 300 yearly landscape architecture graduates enjoy an 85 percent employability rate.

California’s Arcata Wastewater Treatment Plant and Wildlife Sanctuary is an impressive landscape-based solution. Natural biological processes in the odour-free marsh purify sewage, producing water so clean it can be released into Humboldt Bay. On top of that, the project transformed the former landfill (once nicknamed “Mount Trashmore”) into a wildlife haven. Now, flowers bloom in their multitudes, and locals enjoy bird-watching and tranquil walks along the shore.

Arcata Marsh.jpg
Above: A bird’s-eye view of Arcata Marsh. (Image: Terrence McNally)

Although urban planning, urban design, and landscape architecture are excellent gateways into city-making, they only scratch the surface what it takes to build a great city. Architects, public administrators, transport and civil engineers, and many other specialists also make indispensable contributions. We need our brightest minds to take on these roles because Winston Churchill was right when he proclaimed, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Research indicates that our brains respond to the geometry and arrangement of the places where we live. More importantly, studies show that buildings and cities affect us both psychologically and physiologically. A well-designed city can literally make its inhabitants happier and healthier. City-makers of every stripe share the great privilege and responsibility of shaping the daily lives of millions.


The triumph of one town planner

Maimunah Mohd Sharif demonstrates what can be achieved with an urban planning degree and a whole lot of hard work. Starting out as a Penang Island town planner in 1985, she became Seberang Perai Municipal Council’s first female president (essentially, the mayor) in 2011. When she revealed that Seberang Perai spent 42 percent of its budget on solid waste management, her shocked Japanese colleagues asked whether she had meant 4.2 percent. Maimunah confronted her stakeholders: “Look, I collect the rates from you, and I turn your money into rubbish. Do you want that?”

Litter mural
Above: A mural in Richmond, Virginia, reminds people where litter ends up. In Penang, choked drainage systems full of plastic bags and polystyrene containers were causing flash floods and dengue. (Image: Eli Christman)

Maimunah took action. She launched composting campaigns and an inter-neighbourhood waste reduction competition. In participating neighbourhoods, the council was able to slash rubbish collection from three times a week to just once a week. Penang became the first Malaysian state to ban Styrofoam food containers and free plastic bags. By 2015, Seberang Perai reduced its solid waste management expenditure to 32 percent, freeing up USD 9 million for other programs.

One such program: free aerobics classes. The quietness of Seberang Perai’s public spaces had bothered Maimunah, who declared, “A city without activity is a city without a soul.” Maimunah was hands-on, dancing Zumba alongside her constituents. “With aerobics, I meet the people,” she reasoned. “And people like music; it makes them happy. Now, every neighbourhood wants aerobics.”

This year, Maimunah made history again by becoming the first Asian to be appointed executive director of UN-Habitat. Headquartered in Nairobi and active in over 70 countries, UN-Habitat is the United Nations’ agency for human settlements and sustainable urban development. In her new post, Maimunah is on a global mission to make cities better for women, arguing, “If we plan the city for a woman, we plan it for all.”


Building cities to last

Elsewhere in Malaysia, the city of Melaka has partnered with US-based non-profit 100 Resilient Cities to secure its long-term future. 100RC is building urban resilience (defined in Part I) in 100 cities worldwide.

Each chosen city appoints a chief resilience office (CRO), whose salary is funded by 100RC for two years. 100RC president Michael Berkowitz says cities are usually stuck firefighting immediate problems; the CRO is “the one person […] who has the luxury to think a little bit more strategically.” Lauren Sorkin, 100RC’s Asia Pacific regional director, outlined the CRO’s key responsibilities: to understand the city’s major risks and opportunities, and then to draft and implement a resilience strategy and action plan within nine months.

Above: A striking Pikachu-themed trishaw in Melaka. (Image: Robin Hickmott)

Undertaking this tall order in Melaka is CRO Mohd Ridhwan Mohd Ali. Ridhwan must tackle traffic congestion and poor air quality before they cause tourism decline and citizen health problems. The increasing flooding risk that threatens to damage heritage buildings and worsen congestion also demands his attention. Devising a strategy to handle these problems before they become unmanageable will require Ridhwan to coordinate across departments, business communities, academia, and civil society.

*    *    *

The monumental task of designing our cities is an exciting prospect, offering immense opportunity for large-scale, meaningful impact. Urban planning, urban design, landscape architecture, and development work are just some of the compelling career paths into city-making. But public authorities and development organisations no longer hold sole dominion over the making of a city. In Part III, the new players on the scene will take centre stage.

Coming up: Part III of Cities 101 will celebrate the new players in city-making. In case you missed it, Part I explained why cities matter.

Copyright © 2018 Yan Teh. All rights reserved.

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