Understanding Sustainability Does Not Come Naturally


As more people move into urban areas, much care and planning are needed to ensure that the cities do not self-destruct.

Half the world’s population live in urban settlements – 54.5% in 2016 to be exact, according to the UN. This figure is expected to rise to 60% by 2030.

The movement of people from rural to urban areas may be defined as urbanisation, but it does not necessarily happen the same way in different places, especially in widely developed and industrialised nations. For urban planning to be effective, the scale of urbanisation must be recognised. Urban development processes need to be guided and managed in a sustainable manner, and be associated with economic growth and development, providing vital opportunities, social advancement and poverty reduction.1

Depending on the pace, nature and pattern, urbanisation can create numerous problems that will need special attention. Sustainable urbanisation maximises “economic efficiency in the use of resources including air, water and soil, maintaining natural resource stocks at or above their present level, ensuring social equity in distribution of development benefits and costs, and avoiding unnecessary foreclosure of future development options”.2

The Case of Penang

Penang’s urban population stood at 90.8% in 2010.3 It is also the second most densely populated state in Malaysia at 1,490,000 persons.4

During the “Sustainable Urbanisation: A Myth or Reality?” forum held earlier this year, which was presented by the Chevening Talk Series, questions were raised about the sustainability of Penang’s development. Panellist Surin Suksuwan, regional director of ProForest Southeast Asia, says that the state has undergone rapid urbanisation –shifting from agriculture to an industrial-based economy, leading to profound social and economic changes – and resource management is therefore essential if we are to effectively respond to changes in consumption patterns without exhausting our planet’s finite resources.

Responsible use of public goods plays a key role in this regard. For example, while Penang has several reservoirs, such as the Teluk Bahang Dam, Air Itam Dam and Mengkuang Dam, a large amount of its water comes from the Muda River. (Roughly 20-30km of Muda River lies within Penang’s borders.) Water from the river is drawn to irrigate the rice fields in Kedah and Seberang Prai, which in turn contributes to our food security, says Suksuwan.

Urban and rural areas are highly dependent on each other: rural areas depend on urban markets for income, while cities rely on agriculture for their food supply.5 Therefore, according to Suksuwan, while we can import our resources, it is unreasonable to expect cities to provide enough water and food without relying on the environment. This leads back to the concept of how a city came into being in the first place: because different cities are developed in different ways and sizes, production from their natural resources will vary. For land-scarce Penang Island, there have been suggestions to start vertical farming; however, this might not be suitable for all kinds of farming.

Left to right- Khoo Salma Nasution, Surin Suksuwan, moderator Anil Netto, Zairil Khir Johari and independent documentary filmmaker Andrew Ng.

Penang Island City Councillor Khoo Salma Nasution agrees that we as consumers are consuming more than we can produce. This will cause conflicts between economic growth and environmental sustainability, and urgently increases the need to find ways to reduce the environmental impact of economic growth and urban production on our city.

Khoo also mentions the need for social inclusion and the need to close the inequality gap. Rising inequality generates tensions, while improving the urban environment fosters personal development, creating better living conditions and enabling social mobility. Participation and political empowerment are key factors in an urban society when it comes to enhancing the equality of opportunities and social inclusion; citizen-friendly infrastructure development that improves mobility – in urban transportation, for instance – facilitates interaction between different social groups and fosters social cohesion.6

Why do some cities seem to “get it right”, while others appear to fail? The character of Penang – or any other city, for that matter – plays a role in how we plan and build the city. Penang does not need to follow in the footsteps of other successful cities: “Every time someone says, ‘Let’s do this to Penang because Japan or Europe is doing it’, I get very worried. If you cut and paste solutions, you are also pasting the errors. Most of the pilot tests or experiments only show the successes, not the mistakes. By just looking at the good side, we do not understand the full context, and it is not smart to repeat the same mistakes done by others,” says Khoo.

Global Warming is Real

Economic progress cannot happen without development. But while over-development is often blamed for Penang’s recent floods and landslides, these are just as related to extreme weather changes: cities all over the world produce greenhouse gases and share the responsibility for climate change – this applies too for Penang, which is beginning to see unpredictable weather patterns.

“This raises the question of how much we are prepared to deal with weather change,” says Zairil Khir Johari, state executive councillor for public works, utilities and flood mitigation. “To me, urbanisation is the increase in the number of people moving into urban areas, leading to changes in our environment – as well as the social and cultural landscape,” says Zairil. At the same time, population density, building stocks and infrastructure are directly exposed to risks associated with climate change.

According to Zairil, the state government is committed to growing the economy by expanding the industries, improving infrastructure, facilitating social inclusion, overcoming inequality, and providing affordable housing for citizens – and doing so in a sustainable manner. “We’ve introduced many green policies, but sustainability and sustainable activities are very counterintuitive. For example, when we first introduced the ‘No Free Plastic Bag’ campaign in 2009, people got upset. Next was the polystyrene packaging ban, which caused hawkers to invest more in alternative packaging as well as segregation of waste. It is difficult to introduce and educate citizens on sustainable practices, but there has been progress. We even have the highest recycling rate in the country, at 38%.

“Also, we are trying to improve on green buildings, cycle lanes, waste segregation at source and public transportation – such as introducing new feeder busses for free,” says Zairil.

As Penang Island is not large in size, land reclamation and building upwards are some of the options the government has to house its people. A research paper published by the Penang Institute actualised response from the state government, which then incentivised the construction of more affordable housing rather than luxury developments – another step in the right direction.

Sustainable urbanisation rests on the government and its partners at the local level. Critical action and good synergy between the two can enact change, and make our cities more dynamic and viable.

1UN-Habitat. Sustainable Urbanisation: Achieving Agenda 21. UN-Habitat Regional and Information Offices, 2002. Retrieved from www.unhabitat.org.
2Keles R. “Sustainable urbanization and its policy implications. The case of Turkey.” Interdependency between agriculture and urbanization: Conflicts on sustainable use of soil and water. Bari: CIHEAM, 2001, p. 119-135.Retrieved from: http://ressources.ciheam.org/om/pdf/a44/02001592.pdf.
3Latest available information from the Department of Statistics Malaysia.
5Müller, Gerd. “Managing Urbanisation – Towards Sustainable Cities.” BMZ Information Brochure 3.Berlin: Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, 2014, p. 4.

Noorhasyilah Rosli is a publication graduate who is fascinated by books. She is an island girl who loves her beaches and hills.

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