Wednesday May 9, 2012
Space to park our souls
By P. Gunasegaram
Land is at a premium with the burgeoning population, which makes it essential to guard zealously our recreational areas.
I CONSIDER myself fortunate that for most of my childhood, I lived in a rubber estate that bordered the jungle on one side. One great thing about living in such a place is space ó so much of it.
There was more than one football field, there were badminton courts, there was actually a tennis clay court but sadly no more, there were kilometres of places to cycle, walking paths, streams to tramp through and catch the ubiquitous fighting fish, deeper pools eminently suited for splashing and some swimming.
Not quite Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer days but pretty much the early Malaysian way of life for many of us repeated in kampungs, new villages and even the not so urbanised areas surrounding the current big cities some decades ago.
That modern curse ó the terrace houses and low-cost flats ó were pretty rare in those days before developers cottoned on to a quick way of making money and conspired with the authorities to acquire land and put most of us in little pigeon holes and rabbit hutches.
In those days, the abode may be humble to say the least, but there was land around it. In our estate house, we had seven coconut trees, jackfruit, guava, rambutan, banana and tapioca.
Each family member had his own bicycle to get around. Things have since changed even there, and it is a shadow of the place that it used to be.
With the rapid population increase ó something like four- to five-fold over the last 40-50 years ó things have become crowded, but our population is still a lot less dense than that of most countries in the world such as the United Kingdom and most of Europe, for instance.
But somehow, it does not seem so.
Perhaps itís because I live in the KL-Klang Valley area, without a doubt the most crowded area in Malaysia, and if you go by the traffic jams, feels like one of the most crowded anywhere.
And have you tried to go to one of the parks for some respite? I have, and believe me it gets pretty crowded out there, especially on weekend mornings.
The other day we went to Bukit Kiara near Taman Tun Dr Ismail in Kuala Lumpur for a walk. We had a tough time finding parking ó it was like a rock concert was taking place somewhere close.
The scene is repeated at the other recreational spaces ó the Forest Research Institute in Kepong, Bukit Cahaya agricultural park in Shah Alam, Broga Hill near Semenyeh, and Lake Gardens and Taman Titiwangsa in Kuala Lumpur.
City folk are dying to get some recreation but they donít seem to be able to find a place quiet enough. Move further out to the Kancil recreational area past Batu Caves and outside Kuala Lumpur and it is the same.
Not just parks are overstressed but have you noticed the lack of football fields? Many residential areas donít have football or playing fields.
They have disappeared from residential suburbs such as Petaling Jaya, and few new developments plan for fields. Sentul, where I stayed for some time, lost most of the football fields when the railway land was taken over by private developers.
Now it is rare for my young friends to be playing football. Those days, practically all of us played some football. In Sentul, we made a hole in the fence at a nearby school to get access to their field. Eventually, the headmaster invited us in through the gates to keep his fence intact.
These days, my young friends play futsal in covered arenas ó I have never played a game of futsal in my life although I have played six-a-side impromptu football before.
In this world, where the population is likely to increase further before it starts declining, it is inevitable that urbanisation sets in. Space is at a premium so one has to maximise its usage. Flats and condominiums will become more necessary.
Much as that is inevitable, we must cling on to our recreational spaces and ensure that new developments provide for those. We canít be taking over playing fields and making no provision for them in development and then ask why our kids are spending time in shopping complexes. Where else can they go?
Apart from providing adequate recreational spaces ó and facilities which are generally woefully inadequate almost anywhere ó we need to keep large swathes of land free from any kind of development.
These will be our parks and green lungs, and if we let them all go away we will have nowhere to go to rest our over-tired bodies and souls.
We need to systematically improve the upkeep of our existing parks instead of putting in unnecessary buildings and structures to finish up budgets and provide lucrative contracts to others.
There are examples around the world as to how we should maintain recreational areas and parks in a crowded environment.
New York zealously guards its Central Park in the heart of tiny Manhattan island, an unlikely refuge with plants, walking tracks, skating rinks, baseball pitches, lakes and restaurants surrounded by a sea of skyscrapers. Quite unreal.
And thatís not the only park that New York has.
London has its Hyde Park and a few others besides, and Paris has probably more than 10. Kuala Lumpur has some, but none that approaches the major parks of the world in terms of space and upkeep.
Thatís a pity, really. If KL wants to be a world-class city, itís time to make its parks world class. That means aesthetically improving the spaces through thoughtful and minimal maintenance which lets some of the natural beauty shine through without being so overwhelming that you need a parang to walk through it.
We are talking about parks, not jungles and we are talking about well kept greenery Ė trees, plants, bushes, grass and blue, clear water Ė not unsightly structures, garishly painted concrete paths, muddy water from run-off and constant renovation. Whoever needs to renovate a park?
When I visit cities, I seek out their parks and take a walk in them. That for me is the soul of the city, its dedication of space to its inhabitants done tastefully and lovingly, cared for so that current and future generations will know the meaning of solace, rest, peace, nature and beauty.
If we lose our space, we lose our souls.
> Independent consultant and trainer P. Gunasegaram enjoys an occasional romp in the park as much as the next person.