Expert: For a sustainable city, people and government must form a pact

BY A. RUBAN
Regional Director of Asia Pacific’s 100 Resilient Cities, Lauren N. Sorkin, speaks during a special interview with Malay Mail at KLCC. ― Picture by Miera Zulyana

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 27 — Government agencies, local councils and ordinary people should collectively look at a viable approach to create cities resilient to urban challenges, an expert from a US-based non-profit said.

Failing to do that, the 100 Resilient Cities (100 RC) programme, which is working with Melaka and 99 other cities, said all will crumble and the rapid development as seen in most developing nations, including Malaysia, will go to waste.

“Many think about the short-term solutions to the impact of say, earthquake, flooding and traffic jams, but we talk about getting all stakeholders to deal with a broader aspect that deals with the impact from rapid urbanisation and ageing population — although this may not be the case for Malaysia,” Lauren Sorkin, Asia and Pacific regional co-director for 100 RC, told Malay Mail in an interview.

Some examples of stresses that could happen from rapid development, Sorkin said, included high unemployment, inefficient public transportation, endemic violence, flooding and water shortages as among others.

In Malaysia, Melaka has been adopted by the 100RC programme to become the first resilient city in the country.

According to the 100 RC website, coastal flooding, cyberattacks, a declining population, disease outbreaks, landslides, poor air quality, rainfall and coastal erosion topped “shocks and stresses” in Melaka.

The website said under-investment in infrastructure development was causing major traffic congestion and reduced air quality in Melaka.

“Over the long — term, these stresses may cause tourism to decrease, the health of citizens to decline and a sharp increase in the city’s greenhouse gas emissions,” said 100RC’s website.

“Melaka contends with an increased risk of rainfall flooding as a result of inadequate drainage facilities and rising high tides. Flooding impacts quality of life in numerous ways by hindering access to critical infrastructure, causing damage to heritage buildings, disrupting urban services such as waste management, and further exacerbating traffic congestion.”

100RC, which has offices in New York, London, Mexico City and Singapore, is a project pioneered by The Rockefeller Foundation, dedicated to helping cities globally become more resilient to physical, social and economic challenges. It has selected 100 cities across the world, including Melaka, to work with.

Sorkin said that by addressing stresses from rapid development, a city becomes better at responding to an adverse event and is overall able to deliver basic functions in both good times and bad.

But, Sorkin pointed out that problems faced in each city differed and thus required specific strategies to address specific issues.

To form a strategy and subsequently implement the process, she said, would require synergy between authorities who have expertise on city planning and people at the receiving end.

Because the 100RC programme is less than five years old, she said most cities were still in the planning stage and thus could not give a specific example of a city that has successfully executed a strategy from the partnership of both sides.

But, theoretically she said the partnership would require both sides to brainstorm for ideas for a holistic approach towards a sustainable township and city.

She, therefore, explained that not one strategy can be used for all cities.

“And that is why under this 100 RC initiative by New York-based Rockefeller Foundation, we appoint a chief resilience officer from each city to tell us of the pressing issues faced in their city and we will provide the expertise as well as a grant for him or her to run the strategy through for a two-year term,” Sorkin said.

The role of the chief resilience officer (CRO), Sorkin said, was to understand the key issues of the city and present them to the 100 RC committee, city mayor, government agencies and sectors of society.

After that, she said, it was all about drafting strategies and implementing them within six to nine months.

However, she said appointing and vetting candidates for the CRO position required “a lot of time”.

Among the criteria to appoint a CRO and for a city to be part of the 100RC programme, Sorkin said the respective applicants for the CRO position must, among others, show elements of commitment from higher officials and the ability to work with international players.

When speaking to Malay Mail, Melaka CRO Ridhwan Ali said rapid demographic changes have altered the city and old infrastructure had caused traffic woes and flooding.

“Old infrastructure somehow causes severe problems such as traffic congestion, flash flood, safety and health.

“These are some of the challenges that we are working on currently with various stakeholders in finding the best strategy to mitigate it,” he said.

Ridhwan said he viewed the 100 RC programme as a platform for Melaka City Council (MBMB) to access international experts to establish good connections with other cities in the network.

“MBMB could learn from their experiences and initiatives to improve our urban and city planning.

“Urban resilience is a new concept and we want our efforts to be aligned with others,” he said.

Prior to his appointment, Ridhwan worked at Tenaga Nasional Berhad as a site engineer in a project deployment team for a Smart Metre pilot project in Melaka.

Smart metres are electric-powered reading metres that allow consumers to monitor daily electricity consumption, which TNB is reportedly mulling to implement the system nationwide to support more efficient energy consumption.  

Ridhwan’s tasks as a site engineer vary from monitoring the Smart Metre onsite, to managing engagement with local authorities, the community leader and end users.

Having some experience here, Ridhwan said getting government agencies and the community to collaborate to achieve a sustainable city will not be “that difficult”.

Without elaborating much, he said there were already some collaboration between MBMB and the people.

“The next step that needs to be focused on is how to break the attitude of working in silos and start thinking of the impact from the very beginning stage of a project,” he said.

This, he said, involved carefully utilising available funds within various agencies to implement and design a better development for the future of Melaka.

Currently, Ridhwan said MBMB and other stakeholders were still in the midst of narrowing down their analysis on steps to tackle some of these burgeoning problems.

“More focus engagements and deeper analysis will be carried out in the next phase of the programme to seek for opportunities for collaborations between the relevant stakeholders.

“For the implementation part, the main and most normal problem is on funding. I believe the existing funds in the cities are able to get things moving when everybody sees the potentials of an integrated planning, and shares the same vision to prioritise towards the same direction in making it a success,” he said.

After a two-year term as a CRO — a position that is paid by 100RC — the person is expected to be institutionalised in the local council.

When asked if he foresaw this happening with the MBMB or with the state government, Ridhwan said it was still too early to comment.

“I believe that if we could show differences from what we could bring into the current system especially in getting various stakeholders to start working together, not only locally but also internationally, then the CRO and his resilient unit would be given more opportunity to lead resilient agenda for all other city councils in Melaka and ultimately Malaysia,” he said.