The Malaysia Sustainable Cities Practicum has been one of the highlights of my time at DUSP. Having lived and worked in Malaysia previously, the experience for me was not defined so much by the country as much by the subject matter. Our aim was to find and document sustainable city practices in cities across the peninsula. The reality is that my recent experiences there left me somewhat skeptical of whether a sustainable city can even exist. Indeed, I am indebted to the experience for pushing me to think critically about what sustainability really means.
I did not enter the practicum with the same critical lens. Having worked in the field of development, and having been exposed over the years to all the catchphrases involving recycling, carbon offsetting and clean energy, I had come to believe in the possibility of an environmentally sustainable future.
I brought that same optimism with me to Malaysia. Indeed, most of the questions I was asking myself as we traveled through Johor Bahru, Malacca and Kuala Lumpur were very much about why each city had not implemented more environmentally sustainable planning strategies. Some of my thoughts were almost accusatory: “Surely citizens must be upset at the direction their cities are taking? And, “Why haven’t they instituted the practices that are now a part of standard conversation in the west?”
It wasn’t until we reached Penang that I started to think a little more critically about the concept of sustainability. Penang, an island on the west coast of Malaysia, is one of the country’s most famous tourist sights. It is also one of the country’s most developed states and with economic growth criteria surpassing most others largely due to its technology industry.
The biggest dilemma in Penang we kept hearing about was the fact that its growth had come at a cost to the surrounding environment and coastline. It was widely reported that waters around the island were fairly polluted due to various resort developments around the north of the island – which were reportedly dumping raw sewage into the sea – and also partly due to the high tech industry, which was dumping effluent. Apparently the waters we so polluted that the fish stock had plummeted.
Since we were not able to get a hold of the Malaysian fisheries department, we decided to speak with the Angling Association Of Penang, an informal group of friends that fished on the weekends. While they were not authorities on the topic, we felt they would certainly be able to shed some light for us.
The conversation with the Angling Association started off as we expected. The members explained that the fish catches had dropped and the waters were worse than they used to be. Sewage was indeed a problem as was land reclamation. We recorded the information and included it as part of our report. It fit the story of environmental degradation as a result of development strategies.
However, just as the conversation was about to end, one of the members, who had been quiet up to that point, spoke up and declared that he wished Penang would become more like Singapore. “Look how much they have grown and how prosperous they have become!” he declared. “The only way to achieve growth and sustainability is by mimicking the Singaporean model.”
His observation raised a whole slew of issues for me – the most glaring of which was whether achieving a fully sustainable city or community was even a possibility. Singapore has arguably become a more environmentally sustainable place, but that is largely because it moved its economy from one based on manufacturing to one based on services. It is true that the city has also “cleaned up its act” – it does not dump raw sewage into the sea – but, I wondered, is Singapore really a sustainable place when much of what is consumed is produced in far off places where environmentally damaging practices are still the norm? Does it make sense to call Singapore “sustainable” when most of the t-shirts worn by Singaporeans are produced in Bangladeshi factories using Uzbekistani cotton that pollutes the air and destroys local biodiversity? Can a city – as very narrow geographic focus – ever be sustainable given the necessary inflows and outflows of products and services that are necessary for cities to function?
Well, I was far from a conclusion – and I am still far from even a clear understanding of the problem – but I realized then that the question of environmental sustainability depends on where we choose to draw the boundaries. Given global trade flows, is “the city” the right geographic area for assessing sustainability?
Post by Anirudh Rajashekar