Grow vertically to preserve the environment

Posted on September 10, 2011. Filed under: Environment and Livelihoods |

The Star–

AS a city grows in tandem with rising population, it is natural that more and more challenges will surface due to scarcity of urban land and increasing housing demand.

A paper written by Professor Dr. Jamalunlaili Abdullah of UiTM on Suburbanisation of The Kuala Lumpur Metropolitan Region pointed out that urban sprawl leads to wastage of resources. Leapfrogging of urban development requires more infrastructure and takes up more open spaces; this includes areas where traditionally were our water catchment areas of the city.

He further cited Ulu Langat District as an example. That district experienced a significant population growth 177,877 to 865,514 from 1980 to 2000, compared to 919,610 to 1,297,526 experienced by KL in the same period. That’s a 4.9-time increase in Ulu Langat versus only a 1.4-time growth in KL. As a result of population boom, Ulu Langat has lost its original agriculture land and open spaces to other land uses.

A densely populated city with growing population will continuously face the need to allocate more of its land to housing and economic requirements. In turn, more green spaces would have to be sacrificed and if not properly managed, would inadvertently affect the environment.

KL like many other cities in Asia such as Bangkok, Manila and certain provinces in China such as Anhui, Chongqing, Guizhou and Hubei have had its fair share of being environmentally impacted. It was continuously hit by droughts and floods in the 1990’s and 2000’s.

The question now is what can be done to mitigate the damage to our environment while embarking on the journey of urbanisation?

Ultimately the real solution to saving the environment is to reduce population growth, but since that is not going to happen anytime soon, then mitigating steps, such as higher density or vertical development should be encouraged.

Let’s look at this simple illustration to get a better idea: In a vertical or higher density development in Malaysia, about 150 units can be built on an acre. If we decide to go for a horizontal or low density development such as bungalows or terrace houses, the same space can only fit 6 to 10 units of houses. On this note, the efficiency of land usage for vertical development is a whopping 15 times higher than horizontal development.

Using the same figures above, if we are required to plan for a housing development on an island with land area of 1,000 acres, we can only build not more than 10,000 houses if we opt for horizontal development. On the other hand, with high rise apartments at 150 units per acre, we can build 10,000 units on 67 acres, resulting in 933 acres being left for future usage.

The efficiency of land usage in some neighbouring countries with scarcity of land such as Singapore and Hong Kong is even more prominent with vertical development. To them, the sky is the limit because they are allowed to build residential buildings up to as high as 70 storeys. With such flexibility, the high rise buildings in these countries can accommodate 300 to 500 residential units on one acre.

Clearly from all the illustrations above, there is a lack of land efficiency in horizontal development. This will eventually lead to urban sprawl when housing areas are spread further and further away from the city to accommodate the increasing housing demand due to growing population.

It reminds me of a piece of land located 12km away from the Central Business District of Melbourne. The approximately 12-acre site was to house 289 apartment units initially but was later increased to 422 units. However, when the latest plan was submitted to the Victoria State Office recently, the authority insists that the local council further increase the density of the development to 700 units for better land efficiency, to the surprise of even the developer.

Now, let’s focus on our homeland. Today, 1.7 million people reside in KL, and the number is expected to increase to 2.2 million by 2020. Similarly, the population in Greater KL or Klang Valley is expected to grow from the existing 6 million to 10 million in 10 years time.

With the future population growth in mind, can you imagine how much land and forest need to be cleared in order to embark on horizontal development?

Furthermore, if horizontal developments are allowed to expand without proper control, making it difficult for the public transportation system to cover a larger mass area, more and more people would need to rely heavily on their own vehicles to commute from one place to another.

Nowadays, traffic congestions are experienced during peak hours. Imagine when the population in Klang Valley doubles in a decade and more land is used for horizontal development, expanding the current roads or creating new ones for that matter; it would clearly be a major challenge in curbing the menace of traffic congestions.

It goes without saying that if more land is sacrificed at a greater speed and without proper management, environmental issues such as land scarcity and pollution will be accelerated.

While we understand that there is no absolute solution to these environmental problems right now, we can still play our parts in mitigating the damages.

When more people opt to stay in high rise buildings instead of landed properties, it enables land conservation, helps to preserve the environment, slows down urban sprawl, conserves water catchment areas, and ultimately, creates a more efficient transportation system, a more vibrant economy and greener city for ourselves and our future generations.

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