Breathing new life into cities
Ang Hui Hsien 
Petaling Jaya’s Section 13 is an example of a gentrified neighbourhood that faced pressure because it was nearer to the city

THE word “gentrification” has been cropping up more often in recent times as it highlights what is happening in a number of our townships and cities.

Gentrification essentially describes the upgrading of an urban area – usually a lower-class district or slum – into one that fits into middle-class standards.

Viewed as a natural evolution of neighbourhoods and a necessity even, it breathes new life into old and tired localities while also providing businesses with more opportunities.

On the flip side, it has raised concerns pertaining to the displacement of local residents, congestion and the driving up of house prices, with some quarters also pointing out the possible elimination of the culture and characteristics unique to the location (see sidebar).

“Let’s look at the word gentrification. The word itself has a negative connotation as it essentially means someone coming in and getting the local residents out for redevelopment,” explains Malaysian Institute of Planners president Ihsan Zainal Mokhtar.

Part of any redevelopment should include some very affordable housing, says Ihsan

He tells FocusM redevelopment does not always occur for the purpose of improving a neighbourhood as it can sometimes be the only option for areas that are downtrodden and in a bad state.

However, Property PriceTag CEO Cha-ly Koh highlights the scarcity of gentrification and brownfield developments in Malaysia, with very few developers having attempted to redevelop strata-title developments.


Urbanisation factor

While there are many factors encouraging gentrification, Ihsan says public transportation is not one of them, although he acknowledges its role as a catalyst to the growth of a city.

“An efficient public transportation system is a necessity for a growing city because without one, it would encourage the city to be congested. People will be in their private vehicles instead of taking public transportation,” he points out.

Hence, Ihsan explains gentrification is not a direct result of public transportation but is due to the growth of the city and more often than not, affects older neighbourhoods that are near the city centre.

“It is quite normal in any city, especially in older cities like Kuala Lumpur and Penang, because they get populated as a result of urbanisation,” he says.

According to Property PriceTag’s book entitled The Secret Atlas of Greater KL, the urbanisation of KL was spurred by better construction technology and increased housing pressure.

“By the end of the decade [1990s], most areas in the Klang Valley had already been urbanised, with only selected pockets of forest reserve, government institutions and royal grounds spared from development.”

“With urban growth pressures, the boundaries of Greater KL have moved far beyond the muddy river confluence where it all began,” it states.

With urbanisation comes gentrification, and Koh names development pressures as a factor for the latter. “As the city experience scarcity of land close to job centres, older areas are favoured to provide accommodation for the new generation of home seekers.”


In with the new

Despite being a natural evolution of cities, the notion of upgrading an area comes with several negative connotations – primarily the driving out of the neighbourhood’s long-time residents and businesses that are unable to keep up with rising living costs.

One of the newer businesses to have emerged in older neighbourhoods are cafes, which The Secret Atlas of Greater KL describes as a culture that has become the new lifestyle status symbol among the city’s young and affluent.

“This group is willing to spend more than RM10 on a cup of latte – equivalent to a meal or more for an average office worker in Greater KL.

“Sprouting cafes are not only a trend but a sign of an upcoming demographic change in the neighbourhood, which could affect the property landscape,” it notes.

While she agrees higher property prices and rental rates could adversely affect living costs which could, in turn, drive out older or lower-range businesses, Koh says there are successful examples of gentrification as demonstrated by cities overseas.

“Cities like Hong Kong have a rich experience with gentrification and regulations on retaining older businesses in gentrified areas can be achieved, if managed properly. Hong Kong has both positive and negative experiences,” she points out.

Koh also addresses congestion concerns, pointing out that the height and density of buildings are not at play but rather, is dependent on the number of car parks made available.

When it comes to gentrifying and redeveloping an area, Malaysian Institute of Planners’ Ihsan believes it is inevitable but also stresses the importance of considering the businesses of the local people and the overall interests of the city.

“You cannot expect a city to be static. Cities are like organisms themselves. They grow and change and they have to reinvent themselves so it’s quite normal,” he explains. 

Authorities are urged to play an active role in managing gentrification policies

Putting people first

Compared to the past, Ihsan observes there has been a change in the way planners approach and adopt gentrification and redevelopment today.

“The philosophy last time was the centre was supposed to be purely commercial and office, but the authorities and planners realised over the years that it’s better for the people to be in the centre. That way, the centre would be alive and it’ll also allow less commuting,” he says.

Rather than getting rid of the people staying in the area, Ihsan strongly believes they should be given the freedom to choose whether to remain where they are or move out to another neighbourhood.

“In a way, having people deep in the city centre is an asset so I think the fact that you want to completely clear people off an area – that philosophy has changed,” he points out.

However, he also admits it can be quite the quandary for long-time residents of a gentrified neighbourhood who want to upgrade to a new home in the same area but cannot afford to do so due to the increased prices.

“Part of any redevelopment should include some very affordable housing, and these should not be associated with those square boxes that people like to call low-cost.

“It’s the responsibility of the developers, architects and planners to ensure houses can have a nice environment and still be affordable,” he says.

In fact, Property PriceTag’s Koh reveals one of the strongest reasons for gentrification is to provide more affordable homes for the younger generation.

“Badly-planned gentrification policies could drive out any lower income groups. Well-managed ones could inject life, attention and placemaking in the neighbourhood,” she says.

Citing the Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) movement in the US which denotes opposition against relocating something considered undesirable to a neighbourhood, Koh says, “It has caused a severe housing crisis in most established cities, driving the lower and middle income people out of the city or far away from job centres.

“The additional travel and time costs could have significant negative social impacts to young families, causing a vast disparity in wealth.”

In spite of this, she notes no two cities or neighbourhoods are the same and points out gentrification should be evaluated in the context of housing dynamics.

Koh also dismissed the link between gentrification and speculation, where investors snap up older homes in a gentrified neighbourhood, refurbish them and sell them at a higher price.

“I suspect the arbitrage for this exercise would be low considering the high transaction costs [such as stamp duty, legal and renovation fees]. I believe this has only been attempted with high-end individually-titled homes currently,” she points out.


Role of authorities

Ihsan believes that although it would be very tempting for the long-time neighbourhood traders to sell their shops at the inflated price, the authorities should play a role in encouraging and incentivising them to stay on.

“The authorities and government must work hand-in-hand with city planners according to legislation and not leave it to market forces.

“Pure market forces are looking at it as an opportunity but the government should be concerned with the people as you do not want to have a thriving metropolis without the people that makes a city in the first place,” he reasons, noting the responsibility of an area’s planning still falls on the authorities’ shoulders instead of on the landowners.

Ihsan lists Section 12 and 13 in Petaling Jaya as an example of neighbourhoods that were exposed to gentrification as they faced stronger pressures to do so because they are nearer to the city.

Both areas fall under the purview of Petaling Jaya City Council, whose role a spokesperson clarifies is restricted to “evaluating and giving out approvals for development and redevelopment proposals based on their feasibility and adherence to requirements”.

“Covering a 97.2km² [9,720ha] area with an estimated current population of 700,000 people, Petaling Jaya is too compact. Parts of it are currently undergoing redevelopments, although even these are slow-moving due to the lack of available land,” he reveals.

Emphasising that it can be a positive move if done right, Koh says a well-managed gentrification exercise entails better planning and enforcement.

“Inclusive strategies that retain the characteristics of neighbourhoods [think living heritage in Penang] should not only be carefully planned but strictly enforced.

“New life to areas should be encouraged but the balance of old and new can only be enforced by local authorities’ issuance of licences and other business-related regulations ie there should be a cap on the number of cafes allowed on one street, etc,” she says.

Preserving the local heritage

MALAYSIAN Institute of Planners president Ihsan Zainal Mokhtar believes efforts to protect the heritage of an area should make up a huge part in the gentrification of a city.

He cites George Town – a Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) World Heritage Site – in Penang as a successful example of a city which has managed to leverage on its status to boost its tourism industry without losing its unique charm.

“George Town is a very beautiful place, and the authorities have managed to convince long-time businesses such as barbers and ironmongers to continue to ply their trade there. Its tourism industry has been a boon for their business and it’s good for property prices as well,” he points out.

He believes the same should be done for Kampung Baru, a Malay enclave close to the KL city centre which is famed for its efforts in resisting development in order to preserve its ethnic Malay culture.

“There’s a school of thought that says let’s make Kampung Baru just as glamorous or expensive as the rest of KL but I’m of the view that instead of redeveloping it into high-rise and commercial centres and office blocks, redevelop it to maintain its character and the people there.

“This is possible, because it’s done in Beijing and in many cities where you actually allow the very uniqueness or heritage of the locality to be maintained,” he says.

Stressing there should be nothing to be embarrassed about having a kampung as a heritage, Ihsan says this does not mean unplanned development should be allowed but states it is possible to build proper roads while maintaining a village’s architecture.

Property PriceTag CEO Cha-ly Koh cautions, however, that the related parties must be aware of the high costs and need for sustainability that comes with granting a building heritage status and maintaining it.

“It is important to support the preservation of the building with an equally sustainable business. Unless the architecture is an artefact that has a continuous ticket income, making all buildings a conservation building might not be sustainable,” she notes. 

Gentrification of global cities

VERY much a global phenomenon, gentrification is widely-acknowledged to have brought on both positive and negative effects for different cities such as renewing the vibrancy of one neighbourhood while displacing the residents of another due to rising property prices.

This was observed in Lisbon, Portugal where medieval Mouraria transformed from a run-down neighbourhood to a dining hub with beautiful hilltop views after it underwent renovation in 2009.

However, residents in other parts of Lisbon have spoken up against the gentrification of the capital city, pointing out that increasing tourism coupled with the lack of regulations for short-term rentals has caused rent prices to balloon to unaffordable levels.

As a result, many of the local tenants have been facing eviction by their landlords for defaulting on their rents.

Similarly, property prices in the Argentinian district of Palermo in Buenos Aires have skyrocketed to beyond the average person’s income after it gained a reputation as a tourist attraction, forcing many locals to either move out of the area or cramp with others in shoebox homes.

On the other hand, its neighbour Villa Crespo has flourished over the years and still managed to retain a strong Jewish influence with a thriving Jewish community, several synagogues and Hebrew schools located here.

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 278.