KL’s growth has been swift. In the late 19th century, the city’s built-up area followed a narrow spine centred around the city’s founding confluence of the Gombak and Klang rivers where Masjid Jamek stands.
Buildings were generally low rise, the population much smaller, and the surrounding areas mostly undisturbed.
Today, what had once been mainly forests and rural areas have been transformed into popular neighbourhoods.
Clustering of services and habitation have tended to follow transport links such as major highways like the LDP and public transport nodes such as LRT stations.
Tackling urban sprawl
Asia hosts more than half of the world’s urban population, and Malaysia’s urbanisation level is already breaching 70 percent, making it the fifth most urbanised country in East Asia after Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
Despite this, Kuala Lumpur remains a relatively low-density city that has exhibited a pattern more characteristically seen in American cities, with suburban centres sprouting away from the city centre.
The city’s current population density falls well below other major East Asian cities. As of 2010, the Kuala Lumpur urban area was the eighth largest in the region, larger than some megacities like Jakarta, Manila and Seoul yet with a much smaller population.
In fact, KL is not even Malaysia’s densest city, with that honour falling to Kuching.
“This pattern of growth is called “sprawl”,” Dr Zalina Sahari, board member of the Malaysia Green Building Confederation and a senior lecturer at Universiti Putra Malaysia, explained in the Star.
“Sprawl is associated with a host of environmental impacts, including loss of green space, species habitat, and agricultural land in the wake of low-density sprawling development; increased impermeable surfaces that lead to flash flooding and large discharges of polluted and contaminated water that overwhelm drainage systems and damage ecosystems; the heavy use of vehicular traffic that leads to increased air pollution; and global warming,” she warned.
Kuala Lumpur’s urban sprawl and relatively low spatial density has meant longer commute times, increased congestion and higher transport spending.
The share of transport costs to household income in the Klang Valley is more than double that of Hong Kong or Tokyo, yet 93 percent of households own at least one vehicle.
Another effect has been low job density, with Seoul, Singapore and Hong Kong recording 2.5-, 5- and 10-times higher job density levels compared to KL.
Benefits of urban density
The solution is higher densification. Environment-friendly infrastructure and public services such as electricity, piped water, sanitation, and waste management will become easier and cheaper to construct, maintain and operate the denser cities become, reducing the distance that these facilities need to extend to.
The higher standard of living associated with urbanisation – better food, education, housing and health care – will only intensify with densification as these amenities are brought closer to living quarters making them easier and cheaper to access.
“Bigger, denser cities use less electricity. The average single family detached home consumes 88 per cent more electricity than the average apartment in a building of five or more units,” Harvard economist, Ed Glaeser, wrote on the LSE Cities website.
“If the future is going to be greener, then it must be more urban,” he concluded.
Transport costs will decrease, lowering carbon footprints even further, and denser cities will also facilitate the exchange of diverse ideas and cross-pollination between sectors that boosts innovation and economic opportunities.
Studies suggest that doubling density raises productivity by anything from 6 percent to 28 percent.
According to Ryan Avent’s The Gated City, “Cities have long been incubators and transmitters of ideas, and, correspondingly, engines of economic growth.”
Jeremy Madsen of the Greenbelt Alliance agrees. “Not only are denser cities better for job creation, but they also make it easier for people to walk more and drive less.
“Paired with greenbelt protection, building denser cities is a pathway to a prosperous future,” he concludes in a letter to the New York Times.
KL’s future is dense
Dr Zalina advocates a “smart cities” approach, centred around doing densification right.
“Smart growth’ initiatives stress on usage of mixed land and building designs that create high densities with lower environmental impacts,” she writes in the Star.
Newer planned developments like KL Sentral as well as older city centre neighbourhoods like Bukit Ceylon are heeding the call, and densification is growing steadily.
KLites are responding; choosing transport-oriented neighbourhoods in larger numbers, reflected by the year-on-year increases in property prices and rentals for housing located close to LRT and MRT stations.
Dr Zalina noted that as of 2015, KL has also progressed with 95 buildings or projects achieving Green Business Index (GBI) status, and the number continues to grow.
Newer developments, like the Tun Razak Exchange, have now started embedding the principles of densification, a mixed-use approach and a focus on public transport links, all building towards a greener, more productive Kuala Lumpur in the future.