Saturday, June 2, 2012

Kampongs for Cities 

Dear reader, I'm relaunching my blog with this new title.

I think this title captures what I have been working on the last ten years. Kuala Lumpur, where I was born, is a bustling city full of people – mainly of course with people we don’t know. A kampong is a traditional Malay village, and my father came from one. Like many of his contemporaries he moved to Kuala Lumpur in the 1950’s because that is where he could find a job. Kuala Lumpur like many other cities in the world has grown tremendously. I remember when its population was less than 200,000. Now, just over 40 years later, it’s there are about 1.6 million within the city's boundaries; add in the surrounding urban areas that make up the Klang valley, it is more than 7 million.

The city has been good to many people who move to cities – that is where progress is concentrated. Even in squalid slums in the cities of poor countries, the urban poor are much better off than the poor in the countryside. Yet, many urban migrants still long for the country life. The most famous cartoonist in Malaysia is Lat, who made his name with his semi-autobiographical cartoons about growing up in his village, his studies in a provincial town, and work in the big city, and there is no mistaking his fondness of kampong life, and this is something he shares with many of his compatriots.

Urbanization appears to be strongly linked with progress and modernization; the advantages overwhelm the drawbacks: more people, of their own free will, move from country to town than the other way around. As this global trend continues, more houses have to be built: some of empty land in and around cities has to be developed; some of the existing areas which are inefficiently used, or dilapidated, ramshackle and in need of improvement have to be redeveloped. It can be said that the a million cities, or its equivalent, will be needed this century. In particular, new housing will be needed – very many of them and at a price that even poor people can afford.

Otherwise the slums that dominate many cities will continue to grow. But the new houses should also be able to do more than meet human needs, in the basic physical sense of providing shelter, safety and comfort. They should also meet our social needs. I'm suggesting that new urban housing should have some of the features of what living in kampongs used to be like.

If indeed urbanization is inevitable, is it possible to make cities better by making them more conducive to communal life? In particular, can architecture and town-planning make a difference? My hopeful answer is, of course, yes. In new “Honeycomb” neighbourhoods, small groups of houses are arranged around communal courtyards. I will try to show that this arrangement can be used from suburban houses to high rise flats.

There are many aspects that we can look at when we compare life in the city and country, but the differences are largest when we look at children. Growing up in a city for my children is nothing like how my father or Lat grew up. Although progress has made us wealthier, healthier and more educated (let’s not glamorize poverty), but there is something about kampong life that is palpably better than what we have now in cities. Just some of the reasons for this is the green open spaces, the lack of over-concern about safety, and the sense of community that is found in places where people know each other. All these combine to make the kampong an environment where children have most opportunity to play outdoors, independently.

The central thesis of this blog will be that it is possible to recreate some of the features of kampong life for everyone, but especially for children. In the next post. we'll first look at a project that is just about to complete.

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