Sabahans advocate for community-led city planning


Rashidah, KotaKita founder and coordinator.

KOTA KINABALU: Seeing the potential in improving the walkability and livability of the state capital, a group of young Sabahans passionately advocate for community-led city planning of Kota Kinabalu, through the KotaKita initiative.

Led by Universiti Malaya (UM) Bachelor of Science Architecture graduate Rashidah Kamaluddin, KotaKita aims to provide a Sabahan context in the discussion of urban planning in Malaysia.

At its core, KotaKita advocates for more inclusive urban planning where the public, as stakeholders, are directly involved in providing input to make Kota Kinabalu more inclusive to target groups and various members of society.

Zahra, KotaKita media and marketing exco.

“There is a lot of Malaysian urban planning discussion, but it is still very lacking in the Sabahan context.

Even urban planners in Borneo do not know much about the context of Sabah and Sarawak, thus our organisation advocates for community-led city planning, starting with Kota Kinabalu. The city should be by the people, for the people. We should have a say in what kind of city we want to live in; we know our neighbourhoods better, we live in it, and we should be able to contribute.

“The members of KotaKita do not only comprise industry players but people from diverse backgrounds.

This is the community in Kota Kinabalu. Even though they cannot share their insights in terms of city planning per se, they are still able to provide valuable context in the form of livability in and around the city,” said Rashidah.

Currently pursuing a Master’s in Urban Planning at the University of Melbourne, Rashidah said KotaKita aims to raise awareness among Sabahans at large that the community plays a vital role in the planning of its surrounding infrastructure, and intends to build partnerships with more organisations and relevant agencies in the long run. This is to ensure the needs and wants of the public are taken into account at a higher level.

As it stands, Rashidah opines that Kota Kinabalu is not as inclusive or as resilient as it can be, in order to support the everyday life of its people. The most glaring example is the lacklustre resilience of the city in facing the Covid-19 pandemic, she said.

“If only our city was more resilient, we could have managed the outbreak better. This pandemic is when we saw that infrastructure, not only in the city but also in rural areas, is not supportive in curbing the spread of the virus. Facilities like the public transportation system and even roads are not resilient to support in times of pandemic. People are unable to plan their journeys accordingly and have to rush and clamour to take public transport, increasing the risk of infection. The condition of roads, especially in rural areas, makes it difficult to transport medical supplies and even patients.

“The third wave of Covid-19 was the worst in Sabah and it already attracted attention from West Malaysia, even the world. We already have eyes on us and that is justification enough to start the (KotaKita) initiative.

Discussions on urban infrastructure should be open to the public and not elitist. City facilities and amenities should be helping people out,” said Rashidah.

Single mother Az-Zahra Alex was eager to join the KotaKita initiative as she hoped to be the voice for single parents, who are not often considered in city planning. She believes cities should be inclusive to diverse members of society such as single parents, senior citizens, caretakers and disabled persons.

“Even in West Malaysia, there is a lack of accessibility for single parents. It’s good that there is focus on disabled persons in urban planning, but even that needs improvement. All members of society should be considered and included in the planning of public facilities. I hope to shed more light on this to make Sabah as a whole more accessible, with hassle-free public transport and a safe walking experience for pedestrians,” she said.

No stranger to public spaces, Zahra said she was used to taking public transport and walking around the city since her schooling days. When she furthered her studies in Kuala Lumpur, she enjoyed the walkability and accessibility of public transport there, returning to Kota Kinabalu in hopes to see her hometown improve in that aspect.

“If Kota Kinabalu can become a more ‘walkable’ city with better public facilities, I would have no doubts about staying here instead of moving to Kuala Lumpur. Through KotaKita, we hope to gather like-minded individuals to advocate for the same thing and realise that with awareness and a platform, we can help shape our city to become a more inclusive one,” she said.

As she travels with her young son using public transport, Zahra hopes for a reliable bus schedule accessible online, to better plan her journeys. She also said she enjoys the walk paths in the city centre, particularly the jogging track along Tanjung Lipat. However, she hopes that paths will be better connected to enhance the walking experience and facilitate walkability, as the current jogging track currently cuts off just before entering Jesselton Point.

Meanwhile, Wani Nadhirah Nizam wants to see better execution of existing systems and facilities, to start with. The people deserve better to enhance their lived experiences, especially when it comes to safety, she said.

“Comfort should be taken into account as well. Amenities are already built but sometimes, even something as simple as the inclination of stairs is not safe and the space to step on is very small. Another example is when there is construction, pedestrian walkways are often blocked and there is no temporary path, so people have no choice but to walk on the road, which is very dangerous.

“As part of a KotaKita project, my team and I conducted a survey on the walkability of the city, where we interviewed people on the street to assess the feasibility of the campaign. People that walk in the city mostly said they ignore zebra crossings because it’s faster to simply cross the road, instead of waiting for indication from pedestrian crossing lights as they are often faulty.

“And of course, a big concern at the moment is Covid-19. People who use public facilities are afraid of getting infected both from public transport and from simply walking around,” said Wani.

Another member of KotaKita, Nadine Mopilin, chimed in on safety and shared her concern as a researcher at University Malaysia Sabah (UMS), where major constructions are being done on the highway leading to the university grounds.

“Kota Kinabalu is okay for me but in the UMS and Alamesra area, I would like to see better pathways for those going in and out of UMS and want to cross to either 1Borneo or Alamesra. There is no designated path and cars are very close by.

“There should be a buffer zone between a space for pedestrians and the road, as well as an overhead cover so that people can walk comfortably whether it’s hot or raining. Having proper and more comfortable pathways will encourage more people to walk, especially within a short distance, and keep cars from congesting the road,” she said.

For its first public awareness campaign, KotaKita is set to launch WalKK on June 27, to create awareness on the importance and benefit of good walkability in cities. Walkability is the first step towards building a more liveable city, said Rashidah, and the WalKK series will serve as a launchpad for KotaKita as well as the concept of walkability to Sabahans.

WalKK 1.0 was meant to be a live walkabout of Kota Kinabalu, however the team has pivoted the event to be conducted virtually to comply with the Movement Control Order. Participants will be invited via closed invitation for a virtual walkabout around Kota Kinabalu, where they will be able to evaluate the city’s walkability based on their observations.

Meanwhile, professional experts as well as an OKU activist will introduce walkability concepts and accessibility in the lens of disabled communities.

By encouraging people to take more notice of city planning and how it impacts everyday life, KotaKita aims to empower citizens to play their part in influencing their surrounding infrastructure for a bottom-up, inclusive approach. With more awareness, people will realise the importance of fostering solidarity in demanding for a better city, said Rashidah.

She also hopes that as KotaKita gains more recognition, the organisation can create more partnerships not just among local Sabahans but also West Malaysians to facilitate knowledge exchange, so the discussion can put a limelight on the Sabahan context.

Similarly, Rashidah hopes that more journals, articles and research will be published on Sabah city planning, and that counterparts in Sarawak will join in advocating for their respective locality.