Tuesday, January 19

‘Rus in urbe’

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Trees are seen throughout the urban landscape of Kuching South.

THE countryside in the town concept helped us in urban areas to focus our vision and sense of well-being during the various movement control orders, so rightly imposed by the government, which have given many people the time to look and stare at the beauty of nature. Locked into our houses, for fear of contracting this virulent pandemic, we have for once enjoyed gardening as a break from working at home and to treasure our endeavours when new sprouts and blooms appear.

For those living in the suburbs and in rural areas, few people really appreciate the environment in which they are fortunate to live. Housing, commercial, and industrial estates arise on the fringes of towns and most of us are not immediately concerned with landscaping and ‘treescaping’, yet to be provided when purchasing a new house at the loss of ‘green field sites’ to concrete structures and tarmac roads. It is the accessibility of our houses to our places of work and to nearby schools and shops that most matters. Convenience often overrides our judgements!

Yet, within a few years, such residential developments can be returned to nature through imaginative planners’ creations of leisure walkways in parks, tree-lined avenues, and even wildlife parks or reserves. Economics come into play, focussing essentially on the need to cope with growing populations, work places, road networks, industrial development etc, but how much do planners and developers set aside for making such urban developments ‘green’ in enhancing the beauty of a town or city?

 

Garden cities

An aerial view of the Sarawak State Library and its vicinity in Kuching North.

Sir Ebenezer Howard, a British urban planner, envisaged in 1898 ‘A Garden City of Tomorrow’. Such a city plan would encompass an efficient layout of housing, communications and social, economic, and cultural interaction. This concept was based on creating satellite small cities surrounding a larger city such as London. His initial thoughts were based on the overcrowding and unhealthy conditions of major inner city areas and the fact that workers deserved better and more affordable housing. Beyond London’s green belt, Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City became his model creations. His concepts were later incorporated into the post-World War 2 plans for many British and overseas cities in the creation of ‘New Towns’. However, what Howard did not foresee was today’s growth of commuters, involving ever increasing rail fares and car taxation for car travellers entering the inner cores of large cities where the Central Business Districts are located.

Singapore is universally acclaimed as one of the finest examples of a garden city. Those of us who have taken a taxi from Changi Airport to the central core have undoubtedly noticed the sudden hike in fare upon reaching the inner city. This city exemplifies how greenery and nature can be incorporated into a city’s plans to bring together that island’s green spaces and parks within the city dwellers’ access. Nature reserves are created and none better than Bukit Timah, which I visited with my son and his family in 2016 just after its reopening after a lengthy restoration.

To see sections of preserved primary forest, with its abundance of wildlife, and to observe, at a distance, a deadly poisonous snake, apes leaping around in trees, and many other free ranging animals was like a dream come true. Recreational parks in many Southeast Asian cities are an inheritance of former British and French colonial times such as the padangs in many Malaysian cities and the extensive park in Yangon, Myanmar near the High Courts of Justice.

The models of city planning formulated by Americans in the first half of the 20th century by such modellers as Burgess, Hoyt, Harris, and Ullmann do not apply to cities beyond the USA and Western Europe and certainly cannot be seen in Southeast Asian cities. Even the more recent McGee’s 1987 model of a Southeast Asian city is irrelevant for Kota Kinabalu and Kuching. Both these cities are unique, for KK is like the phoenix rising from the ashes after extensive Allied bombing during the Japanese occupation and Kuching is two cities divided by the Sarawak River – not unlike the Hungarian capital, Budapest, split by the River Danube. All the urban models mentioned have no mention to green zones, nature parks, or recreational parks in their structures. They are but broad brush paintings.

 

What of ‘rus in urbe’ in Kuching?

I must first declare my gratitude to the Environmental Department of Architecture at Universiti Malaysia and to the researchers at Universiti Putra Malaysia and their Danish counterparts at Copenhagen University. However, dated their findings and prescriptions may seem, I still believe they hold true today for urban planners to take cognition of.

In July 2003, Kuching was declared as a garden city, thus appreciating that forested areas were under immense pressure from infinite forms of development. The planners feared that the very fast urban sprawl, which had occurred over the last four decades, with subsidiary commercial centres located nearby housing estates, would see the gradual decline to almost a ‘dead’ city centre. However, satellite commercial centres have evolved here and there, in Batu Kawah, Matang, Petra Jaya, Taman BDC, Tabuan Jaya, Taman Hui Sing, and Mile 7. Industrial zones such as the Sama Jaya Free Industrial Zone are located on the city’s perimeters. The central core of the city at Kuching South, particularly near the waterfront, has understandably become the focus of tourism, hotels, restaurants, and government departments. Kuching North, the other side of ‘The River’, by contrast, has lower density housing with an abundance of tree-lined avenues, further government departments, and shipping facilities.

Kuching South sees many ailing trees amongst a network of dense communications. Secondary forests and local kampungs have been removed to make way for housing and, sadly, in some areas nearer the city centre landowners are sitting on overgrown plots of land awaiting the right price from developers for urban infill. Compulsory purchase orders should be placed on such sites to minimise the loss of forests on the city edges. That said the upkeep of the roadside verges and local residents planting of native shrubs and trees along these verges is second to none. Residents have shown their initiative and should be applauded for beautifying their cityscape.

 

Green spaces in Kuching

To the utmost praise of Kuching’s urban planners, nearly every housing development has a green park, in which residents may exercise and children play. Each house has a small garden both to the back and front.

There are more eco-designed houses and schools such as the recent developments at Saradise, a true model in urban design, allowing easy walkable distance to shops and workplaces thus avoiding unnecessary fossil fuel burning.

The writer’s two youngest grandchildren explore the beauty of a harmless grass snake during lockdown.

Kuching South is blessed with many city parks such as Reservoir Park, Kuching Park, Friendship Park, not forgetting Sama Jaya Forest Park, while Kuching North has the nearby Santubong peninsular coastline, together with Muara Tebas, Bako, and Kubah National Parks, and wildlife centre at Matang.

However, affordable accessibility to each has been shown to be related to our socio-economic circumstances and cultural backgrounds and the will to explore and to discover nature.

Undoubtedly, access to green spaces, locally and further afield, enhances the health and mental and physical well-being of city dwellers whatever our ages. In tropical climes, whilst replanting of faster growing tree species is to be complimented for beautifying a city, they can never enhance the former environment where primary rainforests have been removed to create ‘concrete jungles’. So far Kuching has been blessed with ‘green planners’; long may such sentiments continue for the benefit of generations of children yet to be born.

The movement control orders have jolted us into realising how much we co-exist with nature. The macaques in Sama Jaya Forest Park even came out from their tree homes with two packs, one residing on the roadside near The Chapel of Mother Mary and the second pack alongside the main arterial road from there. Sun birds brightened up my mornings in the house I was staying in and I devoted more attention to the garden plants. Even upon my return to the UK and in needless government self-quarantine, I spent hours in my home garden with the ever-increasing company of ‘my’ robin, who chirped at me as he flittered

from branch to branch and followed me around. What a homecoming!

For more erudite reading do refer to: 1. ‘Defining the Garden City of Kuching’ by Prof Dr Hamdan Hamad, Malsiah Hamad, Hong Lim Foo, Then Jit Hiung (Unit Enviro, Dept of Architecture, University of Technology, Malaysia) and ‘Recreational Use of Urban Green Space in Malaysian Cities’ (concentrating on KL and Kuching) by Nor Akmar Abdul Aziz, K van den Bosch, K Nillson (International Journal of Business and Society, Vol. 19SI, 2018 Pages 1-18).