KL's back lanes get creative makeover

In the back lane of a neighbourhood in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, where one would expect to see bare concrete and wasted space, a surprise awaits - a charming little garden.

Started six months ago, the project is the brainchild of renowned landscape architect Ng Sek San, 53, who has created a community garden complete with shady trees, a small lawn and an old school swing in the lane at the back of his house.

Since then, his neighbours have chipped in by planting shrubs in the garden.

"Back lanes always seem to be an underdog space that no one knows what to do with - and there are thousands of them in the country," Mr Ng told The Straits Times in an interview recently.

"(This garden) inspires people to turn existing spaces into community-based projects, which promote inclusiveness within the society."

Another architect, Ms Foo Hui Ping, 32, is devising her own back-lane project in her neighbourhood in Petaling Jaya, encouraging people to find ways to use these spaces by, say, hosting community meals or sporting activities.

Elsewhere in Kuala Lumpur and its suburbs, activists are leaving packets of seedlings at bus stops for commuters to take away. Also, members of the #BetterKL group, set up in 2011, are leaving questionnaires asking how to make the city better, which commuters can fill out while waiting for their bus.

These projects by architects, designers and activists aim to educate the public about how to utilise and interact within the city's shared spaces.

The grassroots initiatives are run independently but they have a common goal: to improve the quality of life in a city whose landscape is increasingly being dominated by high-rise buildings and mass rapid transit projects.

Rapid development has caused public spaces such as parks to shrink as they make way for commercial and residential buildings.

In addition, urban dwellers have become more dependent on cars, and many prefer air-conditioned shopping malls to parks for social activities.

Ms Foo believes unused spaces can provide "safer routes for pedestrians and cyclists, while giving them a new way of looking at the city. Driving in a car, they miss the details that characterise the city".

The government does plan to increase parkland in Kuala Lumpur, which now forms 5 per cent of its total land area, raising the ratio to 8 per cent or 2,445ha by 2020.

However, experts such as Dr Nor Akmar Abdul Aziz, a greenspace management researcher at Universiti Putra Malaysia, are unsure if the target can be reached.

"As it is, lack of funding for green space development and management stands out as a major weakness in executing such plans," she told The Straits Times.

Thus, architects and public space activists are taking matters into their own hands.

Ms Goh Sze Ying, 30, who heads #BetterKL, said the local authorities had not stopped the group from setting up pop-up art installations in public spaces. The next challenge is to convince local councils and the Land Public Transport Commission, which regulates public transport in the country, to openly support and participate in such projects.

"We want to try to get the authorities' approval for some of our projects and bridge the gap between policymakers and grassroots initiators, so city planning can be improved from the start," said Ms Goh.

As for Mr Ng, he has secured the green light from power provider Tenaga Nasional for his next project - to turn a 3.2ha plot surrounding a power station in Bangsar into a park. He is optimistic that the city council will grant him approval.

"We are not endangering lives," he said. "This is about changing our consciousness of the land we live in."


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