Seeking clarity in city streets

Life beyond Kuala Lumpur’s heritage quarter and what’s in store for the ROL project

There’s a river rejuvenation bug going around in Asia. Nations around the world are pursuing river restoration and beautification projects with zeal after witnessing positive results in neighbouring land.

South Korea’s Cheonggyecheon River transformed from a concrete-covered open sewer into a major tourist attraction. Our siblings are following their success with the Singapore River by commencing work on the Kallang River. India’s numerous environmental projects were recently overshadowed by the 66 million trees its citizens planted on the Narmada river basin in just 12 hours.

River of Life, Malaysia’s river rejuvenation and beautification project, is one of the biggest environmental initiatives ever undertaken in Malaysia. The project is busy cleaning up Kuala Lumpur’s eight major waterways but is more concentrated along the Klang and Gombak rivers.

Kuala Lumpur is a large city with a complex profile. Greater Kuala Lumpur, which comprises the federal territory and the ten municipalities of the Klang Valley, houses one-fifth of Malaysia’s population. This ratio is expected to increase to one-third by 2020.

Effective river rejuvenation calls for close attention on its people and traditions, which vary from one part to another. Malaysia’s River of Life initiative achieves this by breaking down Kuala Lumpur into distinct zones and tailoring its efforts to maximise the potential of each zone.

One of River of Life’s activation zones spans the Gombak River from south of its confluence with the Klang River up to Sentul Selatan. Identified in the River of Life masterplan as Zone 3, this area includes a 1.5km stretch of the Klang River.

Zone 3 possesses a distinctly aged but busy charm. Having blossomed from intertwining cultural and commercial threads, its patchwork of influences reveal the harmony and heritage protecting the city’s inhabitants.

With the capital city densely packed with skyscrapers and malls, it is easy to forget that there are still small patches of kampungs hidden away. Here, a wooden house photographed on Jalan Raja Abdullah sits on the bank of the Gombak River.

Jalan Raja Abdullah is very close to the city centre but it still has old residences by the riverfront. One of these houses, located on a prominent intersection, seemed to house many young college-going students.

Its protective landlord divulged no more than his flood worries. His only hope from River of Life is to see less flooding. He is tired of how easy his premises flood. Two to three hours of rain was all it takes for water to spill over the riverbank.

Approaching Jalan Sultan Ismail, there are more shops by the river. One of these is a humble restaurant with fried rice and popular local dishes on its menu. Manning the store is a young man in a baseball cap who calls himself Ash.

“If there’s anything I hope the project brings to Kuala Lumpur, it is lighting especially after hours,” shares Ash. “Some parts of the city is still very dark late at night and this creates security concerns.”

Better lit walkways would be a welcome change to the streets of KL, creating a safer and more comfortable environment for families.

River of Life’s plan for Zone 3 is to bring in life after dark. At present, the area enjoys strong traffic during the morning and daytime, but activity dies down late at night. Business operators like Ash only have limited hours to serve the neighbourhood before safety becomes a worry.

“Once that is tackled, I hope priority is given to city maintenance, particularly our roads and sidewalks.”

Though more and more of the city turns sleek and impersonal in pursuit of modernity, local identity comes through in this part of Kuala Lumpur. Walking along this river delta is akin to brushing off a dusty scrapbook.

Emanating northwards from the city’s historic core -- a distinct zone undergoing separate beautification efforts under River of Life -- to the latitude of Titiwangsa, this zone will see mixed-use riverfront developments, public parks and streetscape improvements implemented.

Courage is thinking aloud

Norman, driving an Uber through Jalan Tun Perak, had plenty to say about Malaysia’s very own river rejuvenation project.

“I’m all for River of Life. I am completely for these initiatives especially if it’s something that the people actually need,” he vouched for the project. “There are many ways to improve the city and this is a huge step.”

Norman’s personal vision for Kuala Lumpur is to have it become as popular and aesthetically inviting as the Amalfi Coast of Italy.

Noting the Kuala Lumpur river cruise currently in development, Norman is convinced that the sights along the Klang River can match the attractiveness of river cruises elsewhere, but only if we highlight the confluence of our various cultures.

The proposed zones are a re-organisation of the current precinct classification used by DBKL as a basis for creating community identity and placemaking along the riverfront. Each zone may comprise of up to four precincts, and adhere to precinct boundaries.
Source: River of Life Masterplan

Like many others interviewed in the city, he too had plenty of questions and a myriad of suggestions for the project.

“You know what I never understood? The lack of drinking fountains around town,” Norman continued. “It’s cumbersome to bring your own water bottle around the city.”

If we are to be a global city, we must be able to provide the most basic of amenities. Unfamiliar with the extent of River of Life’s implementations, Norman hoped to see drinking water faucets in public spaces.

He curiously suggested installing more statues of Malaysian people in public spaces.

“Sometimes art is so abstract that people don’t get it,” he mused. “I want to see actual statues of Malaysian families doing things, not art installations. So people get a better picture of the Malaysian lifestyle and maybe even feel encouraged to spend time doing things in public spaces.”

According to Norman, the biggest hindrances to recreational activity on the river banks is the local weather. He thinks more shade and courtyards will coax the public into coming outdoors and enjoying the city but trusts that River of Life will make the right choices.

In an effort to expand the public-realm for the public to enjoy, the authorities are working on changing the way we experience the city. What used to be a bare water-cascade is now being renovated into a pocket-park, a one-of-a-kind oasis in the heart of the city.

“I believe in the project,” he reaffirmed. “I found out about it after picking up a Mat Salleh passenger once, she was this girl who was involved in River of Life through a consultancy. I thought it was a great initiative and have been following it online to keep up to date.”

Paving the way for pedestrians

Having completed much of its river cleaning measures -- Klang River is less smelly claim arrivals at Bandaraya monorail station -- River of Life is pushing full steam ahead with its placemaking aspect.

The river cleaning and beautification initiative wants to make Kuala Lumpur’s rivers stars of the city and achieving that goal means studied implementations. After proposing a longlist of potential ideas ranging from pedestrian priority zones to water features and outdoor cafes, the real work has begun.

Increasing connectivity is key in enabling the public to enjoy public facilities. One example is the redevelopment of walkways and crossings to allow flexible movement by foot, versus the point-to-point movement by cars.

Zura, waiting at Jalan Munshi bus stop, has issues with this part of Kuala Lumpur. Initially hesitant to engage in conversation over the nearby rivers, she found her voice when the topic turned to pedestrian accessibility.

“It’s difficult to be walk around here, walkways are commonly in disrepair. It’s no thanks to the people who bring their own vehicles onto a sidewalk.”

Zura confesses to not having a relationship with the river. Having never fished or swam during her many years in Kuala Lumpur, she looks forward to River of Life’s street improvements.

“I don’t go out much because I worry about my safety and the cleanliness of public spaces here in the city,” Zura continued. “People who go outside to use public transport like myself would be grateful if authorities can make it more comfortable for us to be outside.”

Sitting at a plastic table behind the bus stop is Zainal. As someone who works for a public bus company, he also wants things easier for those who walk around Kuala Lumpur.

Design guidelines within the River of Life project is based on extensive study and analysis of the city, including pedestrian connectivity, commercial development potential, and a sustainable distribution of resources.

“I’m not in touch with the city as much as these people because I use a motorcycle,” he claimed while indicating at the people at the bus stop. “They could use better walkways and paths as well as shade so it’s not too hot to get around Kuala Lumpur in the daytime.”

Zainal indicates towards a tall notice board on the corner of the street up from where the bus stop stands. According to the sign, the upcoming Jalan Munshi development belonged to Zone 1 under the River of Life masterplan.

The future begins with a vision

The first signs of a successful river rejuvenation project in an urban setting is an improved environment. The water becomes clearer, the polluted river stench dissipates, and aquatic organisms arrive, making the river more attractive for recreational and pedestrian use.

An overview of the ROL elements around Masjid India.

As it attracts more activity, the economic value of its catchment area soars. The benefits of river rejuvenation is not limited to the environment. On top of boosting the local economy, it also raises quality of life within the area.

“As far as I’m aware, the project is 60% completed so I won’t comment on whether it is going to be a success,” said Syed Yusof on the bridge across the river to Selangor Mansion. “But I know it’s going to be great because it’s going to be useful for our image.”

“Malaysia is going to be more attractive to tourists so I see this as a good investment. ROL is going to put us on the world map.”

The pragmatic businessman seemed to have good knowledge on the River of Life project. Not exactly something to expect from someone standing next to a sock salesman on a bridge overlooking the Klang River.

The historic Masjid India as seen from the bridge over the Klang River.

River of Life is more than three-quarters through its river cleaning component as of May 2017. It has begun beautification efforts on Precinct 7 -- also known as the city’s heritage quarter -- and is weeks away from introducing Kuala Lumpur’s improved core.

Syed revealed that his information came from the Prime Minister’s visit to Precinct 7 several months ago. As the present chairman of Masjid India’s bazaar vendor association, he was invited to the session.

Syed wants River of Life to reduce pollution in the city and create a more livable metropolis for everyone. On his wishlist are clear, odorless rivers and cool, fresh air -- irresistible to the visitors at his Masjid India bazaar.

A restaurant operator close to Masjid India and the equally famous Selangor Mansion spends a few moments feeding pigeons by the Klang River.

There’s no question as to why Kuala Lumpur is undergoing extensive restoration and beautification projects. River of Life is targeting the Klang Valley’s major water bodies which comprise eight rivers. Each river will be undergo cleaning and treatment with Sungai Klang and Sungai Gombak enjoying additional beautification measures.

“This is a move that was made for the people,” he added. “I don’t see it creating any problems but I think the success of this project really depends on the people’s cooperation. It can’t work unless everyone does their part and changes their mindset about the environment.”

It is space which glues us together

Engaged in conversation over River of Life, some people were caught off guard. Several locals chose not to participate, shaking their heads or ignoring questions altogether. Foreigners were relatively more receptive. Migrant workers interviewed along the way had more opinions than many of Kuala Lumpur’s residents.

People will love the city as their own, but only if we give them a chance to do so. Small parks and rest areas within the city gives people a chance to take a breather and enjoy their surroundings, rather than treat it as a transit point

While Malaysians commonly requested for additional parking spaces and amenities, Indonesian tourists provided fresh insight. A young man named Reki hanging out on Dataran Merdeka saw the need for more plants, flowers and beverage sellers in the area.

“The streets are too hot in the day time,” he stated. “I would need to walk quite a distance before I can buy a drink. Though this part of the city is pretty, it is just too hot for sightseeing. More plants and shade will help but there should be drink vendors serving this area.”

The glaring tropical heat in the relatively flat heritage quarter was exacerbated by a lack of refreshments in the vicinity.

Meters away from Reki, Lastri was taking photos of her friends on the field. The young woman loved Kuala Lumpur for its diverse population and mixed aesthetics but she too found the lack of food and drink vendors in the heritage quarter unusual.

“I have to go to Pasar Seni if I wanted a good choice of food and drinks. That is not too far away but it is a hassle for someone who came here to spend time and relax.”

But young father Roslan has other ideas. While sitting on a mat with his wife and two young children, Roslan suggested modernising Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad by giving it a new coat of paint and making it more inviting to the public. His wife nodded in agreement.

“We should create more open, public spaces in the city,” he began. “I don’t mind old buildings like the Royal Selangor Club destroyed if it will make way for more parks. Tear them down and put up a children-friendly park.”

Scenes of families enjoying the evening together against the Sultan Abdul Samad building is a common sight at the Dataran Merdeka. The ROL project will make the space more accessible and comfortable once work is completed.

Roslan’s view may be unpopular but it is a reality check. Everyone functions in a Kuala Lumpur of their own. Though iconic establishments like Bangunan Sultan Abdul Samad and the Royal Selangor Club have an important role in national history and heritage, there’s only so much of it that can be appreciated by regular, working-class Malaysians who must wait for the weekend to be with loved ones.

There is a real need for attractive public spaces, especially in a bustling city like Kuala Lumpur. Parks and flat spaces are naturally beckoning, multi-purpose venues. They are vital in cities where outdoor and social activity are encouraged. This has can be seen clearly around the globe, even in countries as far apart as Edinburgh and Ho Chi Minh. Large clearings in urban settings attract people to spend time socially and recreationally.

Precious fires

Sitting close to the intersection of Jalan Raja and Leboh Pasar Besar, Kassim rummaged through his wallet to retrieve a parking fine, suddenly livid. The middle-aged man was unfamiliar with River of Life but was more concerned about perceived injustices.

“Please get traffic police to behave consistently!” he spoke sternly. “They only issue fines when there are not enough offenders to make noise.”

“On some days I don’t get fined. Why are they even fining people for parking along this road? Where else am I supposed to park if I want to spend time here?”

Kassim thinks a lot can be done to make Kuala Lumpur a better place for work and living, but he simply wants authorities to be clear and consistent.

“If it’s a recreational space, put in chairs. If you don’t want people going there, install a fence,” he proceeded. “Why don’t we have chairs on our river banks? If we can spend taxpayer money cementing our river banks, we should also spend to help the people enjoy it.”

Kassim perks up hearing about the planned upgrades to the promenade, laments the never-ending construction down by Panggung Bandaraya and appears genuinely pleased to know about the solid waste and river water treatment plants coming soon.

Potential impact of the River of Life project on Kuala Lumpur, and how it directly relates to the people who stand to benefit the most.

What River of Life has in store for the people of this zone is vast. Pedestrians are expected to be the biggest beneficiaries thanks to improved walkways and wayfinding. Next in line are urban residents who will enjoy the implementation of riverside parks, plazas and community facilities.

Sensing the potential of Sungai Klang and Sungai Gombak for recreational and commercial developments, River of Life’s projects on the river delta is aimed at improving connectivity and forming more conducive social spaces.

Expect tired landscapes rejuvenated and new attractions riveted into the city. Pushing for a strong revitalisation effect, River of Life’s efforts may herald the evolution of Kuala Lumpur into the world’s top destination.

No big deal for a city already ranked tenth globally on tourist arrivals upon welcoming 12.153 million visitors in 2015.