Over the past few months, images of empty public spaces around the world became a poignant reminder that the Covid-19 pandemic is not like anything we have experienced before. Covid-19 is so infectious, it forced us to retreat into our homes in order to subdue the spread of the pandemic. With physical movements restricted to only a certain radius by the authorities, our cities were hollowed out. Images of empty Malaysian public spaces are strangely beautiful and terrifying. Can our public spaces survive this pandemic?
In recent years, Malaysia has seen concerted efforts to improve public space – expanding public transport networks, widening pedestrian pavements, and sprucing up back lanes. Old buildings have been repurposed and given new life. Together with programmes like heritage walks, there seems to be rekindled interest in public space.
Existing efforts, however, are focused on major nodes in urban centres like Kuala Lumpur and George Town. Urban renewal is not cheap and areas with heritage value attract more tourists, so the city can recoup their investments via revenue from tourism. However, treating heritage like a cash cow hints at the larger trend of market-driven policies in our urban development, and other places like residential neighbourhoods are barely considered.
But now, the house arrest imposed by the pandemic has forced us to spend an unprecedented time in our neighbourhoods. As of 4th May 2020, we were already allowed to leave our homes for exercise, but not all parks were already opened.
This creates an interesting conundrum. Should one wish to enjoy solitary exercise, where would one go? Public parks are still largely closed, and even if they were open, there are only so many parks – the Kuala Lumpur City Hall website lists 13 public parks to serve a population of almost 2 million people. The park around Stadium Tun Fatimah in Melaka attracts people from as far as Telok Mas, a good 10 kilometres away. If everybody went to existing parks to exercise, it would be impossible to practise physical distancing effectively, given we have so few.
So where else do we go? A potential place is the streets, of course – daily we observe many people have taken to running, walking, and cycling in the neighbourhood streets and pavements. But are they prepared to accommodate physical distancing?
The pandemic has laid bare the lack of attention given to the quality of public spaces in our neighbourhoods. But now that we are spending much more time at home and local areas, perhaps we can take this opportunity to improve the public spaces around us so our neighbourhoods can become more liveable.
Learning from other cities
Once the lockdown was underway, many cities started to adapt their public spaces to accommodate for physical distancing – especially in cities that allowed their residents to still venture into public space for leisure and exercise.
Bogota was one of the first to implement low-cost expansion of their cycle path network, followed by Berlin and New York. Milan installed more permanent interventions in the form of additional cycle paths and widened pavements. Oakland, on the other hand, implemented the slow street concept so people can use the streets for exercise, leisure and active transport such as walking and cycling. The Parisian 15-minute city proposal was tabled before the pandemic, but became a timely concept after the outbreak, as people’s movements were restricted to within their neighbourhoods.
Examples from our part of the world, though, are a bit thin, but Singapore’s obsessive use of tape to mark their public spaces and places became iconic in its own right. Nevertheless, Singapore’s world-class infrastructure is the exception to so many rules, and is hardly representative of the region. The city-state’s world-class infrastructure reflects its status as the wealthiest economy in Southeast Asia.
While tempting to emulate examples like Milan and Paris, we have to be careful with how we discuss public space. It is often intertwined with the culture of the place — the production, access, use, and management of public space are often specific to the context where it is situated. Thus, it is crucial to have a contextual understanding of public space of the places we’re discussing before prescribing solutions.
The average commute in Milan is only 4-kilometres and the municipality was already committed to improving the transportation system in the city. The application of the superblock concept to achieve the 15-minute city in Paris would be a great additional improvement of an urban fabric already characterised by a mix of functions. Cities like Bogota, Berlin, and New York started expanding their cycle path network to accommodate commuters who would otherwise use the transit system before the pandemic. Would these conditions describe Malaysian cities?
Due to the sprawling urban development, uneven distribution of resources, and lack of affordable housing in the city, the average commute in Kuala Lumpur is about 17 kilometres (Shokoohi and Nikitas, 2017). While the commute distance might be less in other cities, inefficient public transport means that people are still reliant on private motorised vehicles. Unlike Paris, our urban fabric is defined by clear zoning where homes are separated from the commercial and business areas, while our urban form is looser in comparison.
Although there are exceptions in general, our public spaces are not pedestrian-friendly and not responsive towards the tropical climate (Kozlowski et. al., 2015). Thus, our use of public space during the day is utilitarian; we venture into public space for specific purposes – to shop, browse, eat, or traverse the space to get from one point to another.
The use of parks for socialising beside exercise is also prevalent, since people tend to go with other people (Maruthaveeran, 2017). It is ironic that to gauge how many people are using the park in Malaysia, we look at how many cars are parked by the entrance. This is also why shopping malls are popular; the desire to walk and loiter are somewhat met in the air-conditioned mall. The constant adjacency to commerce has resulted in our recreation becoming increasingly aligned with consumerism.
Physical distancing, not social distancing
We have been staying at home for more than eight weeks, and at the time of writing, we will continue to do so for at least another month. To remain cooped up at home is unsustainable. There is also a psychological need to be stimulated by a change of scenery and by being around other people. Walking, for example, has been proven effective to reduce anxiety and depression apart from boosting physical health. To that extent, research has also shown that adequate provision of green spaces within walking distance in the neighbourhood is important to protect our mental health (Wood et. al. 2017).
It is therefore important that we prepare the streets in our neighbourhoods to avoid crowding. Given the generally poor provision of pavements (if at all), some space needs to be reclaimed from cars so that there is more space for walking, running, and cycling. Tactical urbanism strategies used by Bogota and Oakland to cordon off parts of the street are instructive here, since they can be achieved by using simple tools like traffic cones, plant pots, and tape, among others. It can also be a community-led project where residents could lend their plants to cordon off the streets, or together with local authorities, they could work together with local nurseries to supply the plants.
The blue cycle paths in the centre of Kuala Lumpur have demonstrated that simply painting the roads is ineffective. Traffic needs to be physically separated for safety and ease of mind. This would also encourage cycling within short distances in the neighbourhood, given the long distance of commute between work and home (Shokoohi and Nikitas, 2017). While we are under the Movement Control Order, the reduced number of vehicles on the road should allow for this to happen. It would be more difficult once people start to drive again.
The future of public space
At the beginning of this article, it was mentioned that the pandemic might halt the progress made in our major urban centres. But perhaps this crisis is also an opportunity to improve our locality. By reclaiming some space from cars so we can walk, run, and cycle comfortably in our own neighbourhoods, demonstrating that urban development does not always have to be market-driven, but should be aimed primarily at improving the wellness of the population. By paying attention to the open spaces in our own neighbourhoods, we can improve our access to public space where it matters. And if we could embrace the public space available to us beyond our front door, there might be hope yet for our urban centres.
Nurul Azreen Azlan teaches in the MSc. Sustainable Urban Design programme at UTMKL. She holds a PhD from the Urbanism department at TU Delft and can be found on Twitter at @n_azreen.