Main Feature

Nov-Dec 2017 | Urban Portraits: Kuala Lumpur
by Dr Zalina Shari & Hans Lim


Kuala Lumpur (KL) began as a little town and started to expand in 1875, in both physical size and population,
due to the economic boom and the immigration of foreign workers, especially from China. As of 2016, 7.2
million lived in the Greater KL, or the Klang Valley, of which 1.73 million lived in the KL city core that covers an
area of 243 square kilometres, giving it a high population density of inhabitants per square kilometre.

KL’s heterogeneous populace includes the country’s three major ethnic groups: the Malays (46 per cent), the
Chinese (43 per cent) and the Indians (10 per cent). This cultural and ethnic diversity is also reflected in the
diversity of urban forms. KL’s vibrant multi-ethnic and multicultural society has provided the stimulus to guide
urban design initiatives to create a distinct city identity, which has enabled people to identify more closely with
the city and one another, thus fostering a sense of community and social harmony.

Open space development of KL started in the late 1880s, when the British residents started to introduce the
ubiquitous padang (green lawn) and parks as part of the urban fabric. Padang is one of the most significant
formal green open spaces that reflects a historical and cultural value of KL city and its people. This civic centre
and historical landmark serves as a stage to cultural events, formal civic functions, and national festivities
or spaces for memorial and contemplation. After the country’s independence in 1957, a new genre of open
spaces, based on the requirements of a newly independent nation with a multiracial society, was invented to
reflect Malaysia’s national identity.

During the economic boom of the 1970s and 1980s, the development of open spaces was geared towards
providing social facilities to enhance national unity and provide a better living environment in the KL city. In
line with the aspiration to use the country’s green heritage to provide recreation and promote tourism, many
parks and new open spaces have been developed within the KL urban centre over the past six decades.
Squares and plazas have become a part of public, institutional, administrative, as well as religious and cultural
buildings. Street markets have been developed as urban public spaces that act as social, informal commercial
and cultural areas, and contribute to the sense of place of the KL city. Pedestrian marketplaces and sidewalks
are examples of some of the attempts that have been carried out to resolve the conflict between vehicles and
pedestrians in KL.

Recently, incidental spaces such as pocket parks have either been introduced or revitalised to weave the
urban fabric and provide breathing spaces in the city. Pocket parks are passive in nature while others such as
plazas and street markets are more dynamic and mark major nodal activity areas where there is a confluence of
people. Places where informal cultural performances can take place add to the richness of city living by bringing
life back onto the streets. Leftover spaces that are considered unutilised, unnoticed or meaningless by a large
segment of the community (such as setback between buildings, gap sites, under flyovers and small vacant lots)
have also been utilised by ordinary Malaysians for their informal use in everyday situations.

Generally, the evolution of open spaces in KL bears some parallel to the ideas and implementation of open
spaces in other civilisations and societies around the world, being the product of amalgamation of ideas
borrowed and modified throughout our urban history. They are the product of cross-culture; some are an
introduction of Western culture while others are a product of more complex evolution and experimentation.
They are formed by confining buildings, technical facilities and greeneries, which also determine their spatial
arrangement. Together, these open spaces are important in providing identity, structure and landscape amenity
to the city. They are, therefore, the central components in KL image formation and the various types should
remain as the city infrastructure.

The most important role of public open spaces that range from a single street to an urban park is to strike
a balance between cultural and social needs in the city. Since the inner areas in KL city are mostly places
where people are involved in the hustle and bustle of activities, the need for enhancing social interaction is
most noticeable in the congested urban areas. Open spaces and green areas are important parts of outdoor
experience and enjoyment of the city inhabitants. Additionally, public open spaces allow the city inhabitants to
read and experience the city’s environment with ease. They permit the users to orientate themselves and hence,
find their way around in the city.

The rapid development of KL, however, has left a city that is, in many respects, disjointed and lacking in
visual and physical coherence. Consequently, there has been a decrease in the legibility of the city structure
together with a certain loss of historical continuum and sense of identity. One of the major deficiencies is the
lack of pedestrian linkages. Although there has been a gradual improvement in the provision of pedestrian
linkages in newer buildings, the shortcomings of earlier development remain. Not many older buildings (except
colonial shophouses) provide pedestrians with proper protection from the sun and rain.

In summary, public urban open spaces in KL can be categorised into five typologies based on their physical
elements and function, namely: 1) recreational public parks; 2) civic open spaces—padang, square and plaza;
3) street markets; 4) sidewalks; and 5) small incidental and leftover spaces—pocket parks and spaces under
flyovers. In the following pages, some examples of urban open spaces that have strong heritage values, are
authentic and with local spirit, are highlighted.

Civic Spaces: 
Dataran Merdeka (or Merdeka Square)
Square of Masjid Jamek
Medan Pasar (formerly known as Old Market Square)

Small Spaces: 
Spaces Under Flyovers: Flyover of Penchala Link at Jalan Sungai Penchala
Pocket Parks: Laman StandarChartered KL

Perdana Botanical Garden (formerly known as Perdana Lake Garden)

Street Markets: 
Flea Market at Petaling Street

Along Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman

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