Exporting (sub)urbanism: Kuala Lumpur and the communist world

by Stephen Smith

Adam Martin at William Easterly’s development blog Aid Watch has a post up warning about the tendency among developing nations to adopt Western styles wholesale, even if such styles are not even efficient in their countries of origin. He posits this as a sort of developmental Whiggishness, and cites education policy and intellectual property law as possible examples of the trend. We here at Market Urbanism, by virtue of language and location, tend to focus on urbanism in North America and Europe, but I thought this would be a good opportunity to discuss the state of urbanism in developing countries.

The starkest example of misplaced developmental Whiggishness in planning I can think of is the city of Kuala Lumpur. The city was practically brand new when it was made capital of the Federal Malay States in 1895, and as a British protectorate, the Crown sent New Zealand planner Charles Reade to the Malaysian capital in 1921 to head its planning department. Schooled in the methods of the nascent Garden City movement in the UK, Reade made a name for himself by spreading the sprawling, proto-suburban style throughout Australia and New Zealand before his posting in British Malaya. Under Reade’s aegis, Kuala Lumpur became a test case for the movement’s applicability outside of the industrialized West.

Housing estate in Malaysia

Unlike in the West, where dense, built-up urban cores relegated Garden City developments to small new towns and the outskirts of large cities, Kuala Lumpur offered an opportunity to build a metropolis from scratch as a Garden City. Charles Reade eagerly set to work building sprawling, low-density housing estates alongside wide roads which anticipated widespread private vehicle ownership. Residential, commercial, and industrial areas were segregated and separated by grassy, undeveloped parkbelts, characteristic of the Garden City style.

Following independence, a nationalist Malaysian government used a hybrid Japanese/American industrial policy (under the inauspicious moniker of “five-year plans”) to foster a domestically-oriented automobile industry, fulfilling Reade’s prophesy of Kuala Lumpur as an auto-oriented city. With two state-owned car manufacturers – Proton established in the ’80s and Perodua in the ’90s – middle-class car ownership became a national prerogative. In addition to bankrolling the two auto companies, the government subsidized gasoline and civil servants’ car loans, and embarked on an ambitious road-building scheme.

Beyond the British-style town planning of the 1920s and the hybrid American/Japanese industrial policy of the 1980s, Kuala Lumpur also began instituting American-style restrictions on density. Private minibuses were regulated out of existence and public bus service has not adapted to changing land use patterns.  In addition to height and density limitations, developers are faced with sprawl-promoting minimum parking requirements to the point where Kuala Lumpur’s downtown has twice as many parking spaces as not only its middle-income Asian counterparts, but also wealthy Asian cities like Singapore and Tokyo.

Kuala Lumpur may be the most blatant example of poorly-advised adoption of Western land use policy, but other cities around Asia exhibit similar anti-urban tendencies. Bangkok, Jakarta, and Manila are also “parking requirement enthusiasts,” and urban transportation scholar Paul Barter believes that similar dynamics may be at play in South Asian cities. The state of apartment buildings in Mumbai, 60% of which had controlled rents as late as 2006, makes the South Bronx look like the Upper East Side. The late Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach once said that artificially low rents were more destructive to Hanoi’s housing stock than American bombing.

Bucharest, post-Ceaushima

Outside of the immediate region, the communist world has adopted, to its detriment, many Western planning tendencies. Communist planners pursued the urban planning theories of Le Corbusier, the eminent Swiss architect and designer, with particular zeal, turning what to the West was a passing fad into the communist world’s sole planning style. While the French never seriously considered Le Corbusier’s plan to demolish most buildings within central Paris’ Right Bank and replace them with towers and parks with highways along the Seine, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceau?escu implemented his ideas quite faithfully in Bucharest, once known as the “Little Paris of the East” for its architecture. He razed vast swathes of the oldest, densest parts of the city and replaced them with towering apartment blocks, vast open spaces, and massive roads. In keeping with the Vietnamese foreign minister’s bombing theme, locals have dubbed Ceau?escu’s planning disaster “Ceaushima.”

Other communist cities, like Moscow and Pyongyang, built their typically-communist tower blocks on the outskirts of town, wherever there was open land. This resulted in a peculiar situation where density rises as one gets farther away from the city center, making mass transit difficult to implement. And while communist regimes didn’t envision widespread car ownership, their sense of grandiosity and love of military parades led to the construction of wide boulevards that discourage walkability and are now choked with cars. Like Le Corbusier, the communists despised the sort of petty commerce and consumerism that bustling streets and alleyways exude, so the isolated residential towers that dot the urban landscape of former communist countries have little in the way of ground-level retail. While Le Corbusier’s urban planning legacy in the West is limited to a dwindling number of decrepit high-rise public housing projects, the damage in communist countries, where all housing was public housing, is much longer-lasting.

In some ways, pro-sprawl urban planning has done more damage to countries like Malaysia and Romania than to the West. Unlike the Anglosphere and Europe, which already had relatively dense and developed urban cores before sprawl set in, developing countries are still in the process of urbanizing, so their older, denser cores do not have the capacity to hold much of the population. Some cities, like Kuala Lumpur or Pyongyang, had almost no pre-planning development; others, like Bucharest, had their historic centers redeveloped into Corbusian wastelands. The US had its freeway revolts and Western planning professionals have started to reconsider forced suburbanization, but the developing world is still waiting for its Jane Jacobs.

Academic references

  1. Garnaut, Christine. “Chronicles from the far east: the garden city model of planning in the Federated Malay States, 1920-1929.” [source]
  2. Mohamad, Jamilah and Amin T. Kiggundu. “The rise of the private car in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.” [source]
  3. Barter, Paul A. “Transport, urban structure and ‘lock-in’ in the Kuala Lumpur Metropolitan Area.” [source]
  4. Renaud, Bertrand. “The urban dimension of the North Korean economy: a speculative analysis.” [source]
  5. Richards, Simon. “The anti-social urbanism of Le Corbusier.” [source]