Think City X KUL Design Month Part 2: Improving the Streets of Downtown Kuala Lumpur
As part of KUL Design Month inaugurated by Kuala Lumpur City Hall at the end of 2017, Think City launched three programmes in keeping with the theme ‘Connectivity: Jalan-Jalan’, aimed at enhancing the quality of public spaces in the city. One of the programmes included an exhibition based on a report titled ‘Improving Streets of Downtown Kuala Lumpur’.
JEFF LIM, urbanist, and co-author of the report highlights the biggest threats to the streets of Kuala Lumpur.
‘Improving Streets of Downtown Kuala Lumpur’ is a report and the result of a project conducted by urbanist, Jeff Lim, surveying the streets of KL’s heritage core in order to propose strategies for better utilisation of the streets, and an improved experience for pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicle drivers alike.
“It is a report on the current situation of the streetscapes of KL,” said Jeff Lim, urbanist and founder of Studio 25, a multi-disciplinary design house.
“The report has a set of parameter checklists, assessing static objects, streets, furnishing, conditions and also behaviours of street users. The Study Area/ Perimeter was set out at a 1km-radius from the symbolic centre of KL, Masjid Jamek, comprising just over 200 hectares; Think City's core area of focus.”
The study area was divided into six main sections with distinct characteristics and structures. Marking the boundaries of each section are natural features such as rivers and legacy borders (boundaries set in place during the founding of the city) and major modern roadways.
Listen to Jeff speaking at the launch of the exhibition, 'Improving Streets of Downtown Kuala Lumpur':
Threats to our City Streets
Imbalance of Pedestrian vs Vehicle Pathways
Prior to the production of this report, an initial pilot survey was conducted which highlighted the need to focus on Active Mobility; including People With Different Abilities (PWDA), pedestrians and non-motorised vehicles.
“Active Mobility is defined as self-powered movement or a means of travel that requires physical effort like walking, cycling and the use of non-motorised vehicles. It supports self-sufficiency, good wellbeing and health,” said Lim.
During the survey, data collected showed an alarming ratio of 1:3 - one pedestrian pathways versus three vehicle lanes.
“One of the largest factors concerning the KL city streets is the imbalance between pedestrians and vehicles, which directly affects Active Mobility,” Lim said.
“The ratio is one to three, which means that for every passable pedestrian pathway, there are three good vehicular lanes. This shows an imbalance to provided space, where priority is given to passive mobility in the form of motorised vehicles,” he added
Based on surveys of all six sections, the report observed that although some areas in the city are partially pedestrianised, many areas lack continuous walking paths and existing paths are either riddled with barriers, or had uneven surfaces and are hazardous. Markings for pedestrian crossings are also either faded or non-existent.
Beyond that, high contact or conflict between vehicular and pedestrian usage is a common issue, attributable to user behaviour, and traffic obstruction or encroachment on pedestrian paths is rampant.
Illegal parking and encroachment by heavy goods vehicles, street vendors, taxis, buses and law enforcement vehicles on paths or roads create obstacles, bottlenecks and disrupt traffic flow. Motorcyclists also tend to use pedestrian paths as shortcuts.
Roads leading to or at popular tourist attractions constantly suffer from congestion due to the large number of tour and regular vehicles (some indiscriminately parked), leading to a decrease in road capacity.
“One of the most debated issues is about space and the lack of it. But I believe there is enough - the issue lies in the sharing of space, as in equal accessibility and equity of space. All citizens have a basic right to the access of Active Mobility, through three criteria - Protection, Provision and Participation. This is the biggest imbalance in the city at the moment.”
Static obstructions include utilities, amenities and building extensions while live encroachment in the form of vehicles, street vendors, spillover goods or shop deliveries, and garbage are obstacles in the pedestrian experience.
In a simple exercise, the team discovered that the average walking speed of pedestrians in the area is a quarter slower than average, while pathways only provide a minimum of 1.2 metres clearance, the equivalent to the width of a wheelchair and one pedestrian.
Lack of Continuity/Impassability (based Universal Access Standards)
“Any route is only as strong as its weakest link. Continuity of pathways is a major problem in Kuala Lumpur, let alone any city in Malaysia. There is little or no priority towards these spaces, and are often treated as an afterthought,” Lim said.
Lim was referring not only to the main streets but also to the vast network of back alleys and pathways within the city. After a mapping of the back alleys, the team noted that there were quite a number of blocked and encroached areas. In addition, obstruction and encroachment contributed to waste and pest issues.
“It is perhaps something we have not had the chance to fully understand, plan out or fully utilise. Five-foot ways or kaki lima played this role somewhat in enabling pedestrianism, but since its inception, many streets have proven not to be viable pathways,” Lim said.
To add to that, Lim stressed that the city had to deal with the fact that it was actually 'sinking'.
“Over a period of time, the ground level rises through roads being dug up and re-paved. Drainage & irrigation are constantly being upgraded and roads widened to accommodate more capacity since more surfaces are being developed. It is quite a common practise to find layers of ancient cities buried.
“But in reference to our city which is relatively quite young, we do not have good practices in terms of resurfacing. And over time where roads have been repaved, it has not been observed to remove the old surface layer before adding on a new layer. As a result of that, the city grade level would rise four to seven inches every 10 years or so. The raising of the grade level affects everything.”
“One of the recommendations of this project is to pedestrianise a section of the city, and as a result of this, to also bring the grade to its original level,” he added.
He also observed that since its inception, the 5-foot way has proven not to be a viable option for a pedestrian path. According to Universal Access Standards, the discontinuity and multi-level pavements have rendered the ‘kaki lima’ obsolete as a pedestrian path. With the ‘sinking’ of the city, most shops are below the present grade level and are forced elevate their shopfronts to mitigate flooding and accessibility. While five-foot ways were omitted from the study due to unviability, they still act as lifelines and are an important feature of the street.
The level of pollution has always been a key concern of cities worldwide, even affecting a city’s global ranking. It also determines whether the streets are filled with life, or whether they remain dusty and deserted with citizens only moving around in enclosed vehicles.
Air, noise and chemical pollution seem to plague these areas, characterised as hard urban landscapes, with some areas suffering from pollutants flowing directly into rivers.
“Development is the undoing of nature, and in that aspect, no city in the world is truly 'sustainable’; 'zero-carbon' does not exist,” Lim said.
However, Lim believes that carbon offsetting can impact the city in a good way.
“Although highly debatable, it is in carbon-offsetting that efforts are made to bring balance to the amount of carbon released. Unfortunately 'Green Building' standards are not up to par in Malaysia and no serious effort has been made on carbon emission control, especially in transportation or energy consumption within the city limits.
Lim also pointed out that the level of pollution had a direct relationship to the city’s commerce.
“Environmental standards are being put in place, but another area where this lacks proper attention is in consumerism. There’s a need to find solutions for supporting the local economy, rebuilding resilience and weaning off oil-dependency,” he said.
Lim highlighted that preservation of heritage buildings, and the reintroduction of trades, and spaces of social, cultural and traditional significance would create much-needed cultural integrity for the city’s people.
Other issues such as the lack of biodiversity in terms of landscaping and greenery, buffer areas such as pocket parks and resting spaces, effective signage, and decongesting back alleys were addressed in the report.
“Suggestions were made to complement existing projects & infrastructures.There are more than 15 recommendations, mostly visionary & transitional strategies, but also street improvements which are easier to address, from easy implementation for improving the situation to wider 'umbrella concepts' of changing the entire streetscape,” Lim said.
“Walkability is the biggest holistic concept: pedestrianising sections, corridors and crossing plazas. But simplistically it is about creating equal accessibility and equity to space. The easier implementations are improving facilities that are important, especially the pedestrian corridor south of the city, connecting three major routes - Jalan Damansara, Jalan Tun Sambanthan and Jalan Syed Putra,” he added.
To read the various Strategies proposed in the report, click here.
The way forward
According to Lim there are no clear-cut solutions to addressing the issues faced by the city.
“The issues we face are multi-layered and all interlinked through decades of evolution. It will take decades to apply a mindset shift, but what we need is a want for change and the willingness to be that change. The city will continue to grow and evolve and I hope that the report will be useful to the future plans and aspirations of the city.
“It is what we leave behind for future generations to inherit and this will be the legacy of Kuala Lumpur and its people.”
FAST FACTS: Improving Streets of Downtown KL Exhibition
What: The project features a review of the streetscape in downtown Kuala Lumpur, their current conditions and suggestions for improvements. The report of the study highlights the importance of some of the historic streets and laneways and green open spaces, and how these elements impact the walkability (and therefore) the liveability of the city.
Why: The objective of the project is to conduct an assessment of existing street conditions of downtown Kuala Lumpur and to propose strategies to better utilise the streets, make them more pleasant and functional for street-users (pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, motorcyclists, public transport users and users of other means of transportation).
Who: Studio 25, headed by Jeffrey Lim coordinated the project, with Leong Yew Weng acting as research assistant and coordinator of QGIS (Quantum Geographic Information System) data, and Serena Chang as surveyor, assisted by Senja Ng and Marina Nazir. Leong Siok Hiu wrote and edited the report.
What next: Studio 25 has released the report online. Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, as official consultants to DBKL for the Kuala Lumpur Pedestrian and Bicycle Masterplan has expressed keen interest in using the data for their baseline study. Think City hopes that the ideas in the report will provide a framework of guidelines to inspire future initiatives and champions of the city.
Desired outcomes: To supply data on the conditions of the streetscapes in Downtown KL for complementary development and infrastructure projects. Also, to highlight and make aware the importance of equal accessibility and space equity in encouraging Universal Accessibility in the city.
Public role: The report contains over 14 strategies that can be used as a guide for the public to initiate their own programmes or campaigns. The public are encouraged to apply for a Think City grant for projects in this area.
Interesting Trivia: TVB Hong Kong television hosts Matt Yeung, Natalie Tong, Eliza Sam and William Chak participated on a night survey with Studio 25 for a documentary series on the city of KL.
To read the full report see : https://isd25.wordpress.com/