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"Social Urbanism" in Malaysia

01 December 2014

Richard Summers and Phil Godwin

The international mission of the RTPI is “to play our part in achieving a more sustainable world through spatial planning and through capacity building”. We took part in World Town Planning Day (WTPD), which is marked every year on 8 November, as part of the RTPI Centenary celebrations. We supported the WTPD Online Conference which was organised by a committee of representatives of planning organisations from around the world and chaired by Judith Eversley, the former RTPI International Officer. It connected planners around the clock and around the world and provided a wide variety of presentations and discussions on the theme of “Equality in the City: Making Cities Socially Cohesive”.

World Town Planning Day in Malaysia 

Two other Centenary events in Malaysia were linked to World Town Planning Day to help promote our international mission. Richard Summers, RTPI Past President (2011) and Phil Godwin, Past Chairman of the RTPI East of England Region (2012), ran a Malaysian group participation in the WTPD Online Conference with the Malaysian Institute of Planners and the University of Malaya and a Conference on “International Planning and Equity in Urban Development” with the Malaysian Federal Department of Town and Country Planning (JPBD). Both events were held in Kuala Lumpur amidst brilliant sunshine alternating with torrential rain !  

Social Urbanism Logo Strip 041214

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Image 1: Merdeka Square and the Padang (note puddles)
Image 2: 
Old Railway Station, Kuala Lumpur

The Malaysian planners were interested to discuss how to focus their planning system on “social urbanism” … a concept that originated in Medellín, Colombia, as “the human face of planning”. The Malaysian planning system includes a National Physical Plan, Structure Plans and Local Plans based originally on the British Town & Country Planning Act 1947. The theme of World Town Planning Day reflected the theme of the United Nations Habitat seventh World Urban Forum which was held in Medellín earlier this year and which explored “Urban Equity in Development - Cities for Life”. The congruence between these themes was ideal for discussing “social urbanism” in Malaysia.

International Online Conference – Kuala Lumpur

The group participation in the World Town Planning Day International Online Conference was organised by the Malaysian Institute of Planners and hosted by the University of Malaya. Between 30 and 40 professional planners, planning lecturers and planning students attended from 0900 to 1800 during the day in the specially equipped online conference room at the university. The theme of the online conference was “Equality in the City: Making Cities Socially Cohesive”. Participants could listen to the presentations and discussions and see the PowerPoint slides and then post questions in the “chat box” on their screens.


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Image 3: Online Conference at University of Malaya
Image 4: Dinner with Malaysian Institute of Planners

In Kuala Lumpur, we used each “technical pause” in the online conference to have our own discussion about the implications of the preceding session for planning and “social urbanism” in Malaysia. These discussions were led by Richard Summers and Phil Godwin (RTPI) together with Nazri Noordin, President of the Malaysian Institute of Planners, and Madam Faizah Ahmad, Associate Professor of Urban & Regional Planning at the University. During the midday break, Richard Summers moderated the next international session from a separate room. 

The World Town Planning Day “online conference” took up the call of the World Urban Forum Declaration for “urban plans … that are solidly grounded in the … principles of equity, justice and human rights.” It examined how to make cities socially cohesive for people and communities by making cities sufficiently inclusive to meet the needs of marginalised groups and by overcoming barriers to grassroots engagement in planning. 

Key points in the World Town Planning Day online conference sessions during the Hong Kong – Kuala Lumpur time zone day included …

  • planning must be “culturally relevant” through effective community engagement and inter-disciplinary working amongst development professionals
  • cities can be socially cohesive through knowledge transfer, good governance and good regulation to enhance social equity and reduce social exclusion
  • cities can be socially cohesive by making planning inclusive to “give voice” to local residents so they can improve the “liveability” of their local areas

“Expert Lecture” on “International Planning and Equity in Urban Development”

Richard Summers spoke at the “Expert Lecture” for World Town Planning Day on “International Planning and Equity in Urban Development” on behalf of the RTPI at the invitation of the Malaysian Federal Department of Town and Country Planning (JPBD). The event was attended by about 120 planners from JPBD, the Malaysian Institute of Planners and the University of Malaya. It was introduced by Madam Sanisah binti Shafie, Chief Assistant Director at JPBD, assisted by Mr Abbas Wahab, Senior Principal Assistant Director at JPBD and it was held in the Wisma Tun Sambanthan Auditorium at the JPBD offices in Kuala Lumpur. 

Madam Sanisah explained that the purpose of the Expert Lecture series is to educate planners from the public and private sectors and to exchange ideas on key planning issues through discussion. She outlined the new concept of “social urbanism” in Malaysia as the “social aspect of planning” that will incorporate continuing “inclusive planning” in the new National Physical Plan. Richard Summers noted that the term “social urbanism” is not normally used in planning policy, practice and education in Britain but the principles have been developed over many years and the nearest equivalents are “spatial planning” and “sustainable development”.  


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Image 5: Malaysian and British planners meet
Image 6: Lunch at the JPBD Conference

The need for “social urbanism” originated in the lack of social engagement in development in many South American countries. It was articulated by the Mayor of Medellín, Colombia, in 2003 who made the radical declaration that “our most beautiful buildings must be in our poorest areas.” The concept is aligned with one of the RTPI’s Centenary publications on “The Worldwide Value of Planning” which picks up some global challenges for planning such as rapid urbanisation, poverty and inequality, environmental pollution, climate change and economic recession and recovery. 

The first part of the conference on “Planning Systems Worldwide” concluded that different national planning systems apply global principles locally. Key points in the first plenary Question & Answer session included …

  • The flexibility of planning guidance is a strength that enables local people and politicians to interpret national principles to meet local needs and circumstances.
  • Councillors should have enough authority to interpret national planning guidelines in the local context through the cycle of the “Three Big Ps”: Planners, Politicians and People. 
  • Planners and politicians must avoid unintended consequences when setting and interpreting the law and there must be scope for local flexibility and local interpretation.
  • Foreign migrant workers should be included in local public consultations on plans and planning applications just like indigenous local people … as part of “social urbanism”. 

The second part of the conference on “Equity in Development” examined “social urbanism” as the social equity dimension of sustainable urban development. “Sustainable development” aims to balance economic, social and environmental interests in each particular situation. “Spatial planning” includes strategies to manage the geography of urban and rural activities, services and linkages and helps to achieve “sustainable development”. The priorities for developing “social urbanism” in Malaysia may be to review the scope, objectives and methods of the present planning system in comparison with other planning systems around the world to reflect Malaysian needs and circumstances.

Key points in the second plenary Question & Answer session included …

  • Professional planners should work in the wider public interest and not just to meet the requirements of their public or private sector clients. 
  • Defining settlement boundaries is a nightmare! (laughter) Any living city will need to grow beyond its existing boundaries in some form in the future. 
  • Transport has an important linking role in balancing the economic, social and environmental elements of sustainable development. 
  • “Social cohesion” would best be assessed by opinion surveys to ask about people’s sense of community well-being alongside local indices of multiple deprivation.
  • Programmes similar to support for foreign migrant communities may also be needed to help minority indigenous communities to take part in planning consultations.
  • The special role of planners is to enable disadvantaged individuals and communities to take part effectively in local community consultation to help achieve “social urbanism”.

JPBD conference conclusions

Madam Sanisah declared the conference had been a great success. She asked how planners and politicians could balance the economic, social and environmental elements of sustainable development if economic growth had to be promoted first in order to secure the other two elements later. Richard Summers replied that there would be a question of “opportunity costs” if there was an over-emphasis on economic growth in the short term. The long-term effects on the community and the environment could outweigh the short term benefits. 

Madam Sanisah commented that there is a current focus on land use planning in Malaysian planning law because of the compartmentalised responsibilities of government departments and because there is no equivalent to “spatial planning” in Malay. Richard Summers suggested that an alternative might be “integrated planning”. Madam Sanisah concluded that “social urbanism” is a journey that has started with the Malaysian celebrations for World Town Planning Day and will continue through the Habitat III Conference to be held in Quito, Ecuador, in 2016 and the ninth World Urban Forum to be held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 2018.

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Image 7: Putrajaya new town, new bridge (note rain clouds)
Image 8: Petronas Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur

Richard Summers BA (Hons) MRTPI, is a Past President of the RTPI (2011), a Past Chairman of the RTPI International Committee (2012 to 2013), a continuing member of the committee (2014) and a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire (from 2013). He has spoken at various international conferences in Wuhan, China (2013), Bogota, Colombia (2012), Boston, USA (2011) and Nicosia, Cyprus (2011). He studied at the University of Manchester and has worked in the USA (early 1970s) and in the Baltic States (early 1990s) as well as in England.

Phil Godwin MRTPI, is a Past Chairman of the RTPI East of England Region (2012) and a Lecturer in Urban Design and Professional Practice in the Faculty of the Built Environment at the Infrastructure University of Kuala Lumpur (IUKL). He facilitated the arrangements for the World Town Planning Day events in Malaysia with the Malaysian Institute of Planners, the University of Malaya and the Federal Department of Town and Country Planning (JPBD). He was previously Conservation & Design Manager at North Norfolk District Council in England.