Friday, 18 January 2008

The Key Word is ‘Plan’

Brave New World (The Star)
22 March 2007

"Economic considerations aside, it is important that we do not develop in such a way that our future prosperity is threatened by present-day short-sightedness."


There are some jobs which sound so un-sexy. Chemical engineer conjures images of boffins in lab coats getting excited over the smells in their test tubes; accountants were once maths nerd presidents of the chess club; and urban planners ? hmm, who actually chooses to be an urban planner?

However, all three of these jobs are very important. After all, no one can sniff test tubes better than a chemical engineer; if there was no such thing as accounting, then society would have to feed ex-maths nerd chess club presidents; and without urban planners, we won’t have water catchments, designated industrial areas and flood-free housing estates.

Hold on ... but our water catchments get turned into quarries, illegal factories are legalised, and we do get massive floods. This means that either our planners are not doing a good job or their plans are being ignored.

Planning laws in this country are governed by the Town and Country Planning Act.

It’s not a perfect piece of legislation, in my opinion, primarily because there is far too little room for any meaningful public participation incorporated into it.

Be that as it may, it is what we have, and if properly used and properly enforced, planning laws are the first step towards a sustainable environment.

Basically, this is how it works. Local planning authorities draw up structure and local plans which determine the type of development that the designated area is going to experience over a period of years.

In this way, one can make sure that industrial projects do not appear in the middle of a housing estate; the housing estates are not built in dangerous areas; and there are sufficient green spaces so that life is not an endless horizon of concrete and tarmac.

If on the other hand, urban plans are disregarded, or if the planning process itself is not far-sighted enough, then we are just looking for trouble.

Take the case of the quarry in Gunung Jerai. In a piece of forest designated and gazetted as water catchment in the structure plan, a company has been given permission to operate a quarry.

This not only makes no sense from an environmental point of view; it also appears to be against the law.

Water catchments are vital not only for the preservation of water supplies, they are also important as a buffer against flooding as forested land cover absorbs water which would otherwise run unimpeded into inhabited spaces.

There has yet been no study that I know of with regard to why the recent floods that hit Johor were so devastating, but it would not be a surprise to me if poor planning were one of the causes.

Then there is the recent decision by the Selangor Government to legalise illegal factories. If factories are built illegally, there must have been a reason why they should not have been built in the first place.

One of the reasons is that the land upon which they were built was meant for other purposes.

In which case, planning that takes into account pollution and how much the surrounding environment can absorb such pollution is being ignored.

The argument that once they are legalised, these factories can be better controlled makes no sense because it’s jolly easy to control illegal factories – you shut them down.

Which makes me wonder, how on earth did these factories get to operate for so long anyway? It’s not as if we are talking about illegal DVD sellers with their ability to slip away into the night.

These are factories, for crying out loud. They tend to stay in one place.

Then there is the mother of all arguments – the one that we tend to fall back on when nothing else makes sense. It’s economically important for these factories to stay open. It’s economically important for the quarry to operate.

Well, it’s equally important that the citizens in this country live in a well-planned community that is conducive to good health. It’s equally important that we do not develop in such a way that our future prosperity is threatened by present-day short-sightedness.

By all means plan for economic prosperity. But the key word here is “plan”. Working in an ad hoc manner where decisions are made as and when, with no eye to the future, is ultimately going to do us so much more harm than good. Just ask the Johoreans.

Disclaimer: Before I get angry e-mails from engineers, accountants and urban planners with attached photographs to prove how alluring they are, let me just say that my brother is an engineer, some of my best friends are accountants, and my father was almost an urban planner. None of them are sexy.

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