A civic outcry in Malaysia forces a Chinese builder to live up to its eco-friendly tag

Has Country Garden’s work to repair its missteps been sufficient? Researchers who have studied the project closely have mixed assessments.

Serina Abdul Rahman wears a number of hats as an area resident; a highly regarded conservation scientist at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, a Singapore-based think tank; and co-founder of Kelab Alami, an environmental education group supported by Country Garden. “Forest City does try to offset the damage that they’ve done to the environment by supporting the local community around them,” Abdul Rahman said in an email. “Those are the people most affected by the development. This level of engagement has not occurred in the community before.”

Joseph Marcel R. Williams, a graduate student in planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, studied Forest City and prepared a paper two years ago that reached this conclusion: “The sheer time scale of the development — estimated at 30 years — poses the greatest long-term risks. Intuitively, marine ecosystems can sustain stresses for limited periods of time and recover, but nowhere near the time needed to construct new islands housing several hundred thousand people.”

“It’s probably safe to say that Forest City has contributed to the loss of important habitat and presents some serious financial risks to the region if it is abandoned or unfinished,” Williams added in an email to Mongabay. “[Megaprojects] often over-promise economic benefits while operating outside of traditional planning and democratic processes. In this case, it appears the sultan of Johor has strong involvement and has helped shepherd the project past environmental review and regulation that might have easily stalled other such initiatives. ”

The scale model diorama of Forest City displays an ambitious urban development strategy that Country Gardens views as a model of sustainability, and that critics assert is a threat to Malaysian stability and the marine environment. Image by Keith Schneider for Mongabay.

 A Big, Big Idea

Governments plan on paper. Film directors prepare on storyboards. Architects design on computers.

Developers are different. They build dioramas: finely detailed, three-dimensional scale models of how a project will look when it’s finished. The bigger the diorama, the more certain developers are that they will succeed.

One of the most expansive dioramas in Asia occupies some 930 square meters (10,000 square feet) of floor space in the sales center at Forest City, displaying scale-model buildings taller than a man.

The diorama is big because Forest City is big, and not just in area, numbers of residences and projected population. Its Chinese developer is set on proving Forest City as a dense, walkable, clean, environmentally sensitive urban design for the 21st century.

It’s an urban development vision reminiscent of the Futurama diorama built by General Motors for the 1939 World’s Fair. The giant GM scale model, seen by an estimated 10 million people, was the first public display of ribbons of elevated highways and clusters of tall downtown office towers surrounded by retail centers and office parks in leafy residential suburbs. Futurama, in effect, was the template for suburban sprawl: the auto-oriented, energy-gulping, expensive civilization that GM and its industrial allies envisioned as the dominant metropolitan design for the last half of the 20th century.

Forest City, say its developer and master planner, could have a similarly outsized influence this century. With 16,000 residential apartments built and sold since construction started on the first island three years ago, Forest City is already the largest private mixed-use real-estate project ever undertaken in Malaysia.

If market conditions and demand persist as they do now, when the new city is finished in the mid-2030s it will encompass three more man-made islands and be a $100 billion oceanfront urban center with 200,000 more residences, perhaps 200,000 jobs, thousands of offices, hundreds of retailers, dozens of manufacturers, hotels, schools, parks and healthcare facilities.

Some 700,000 people will live there, about the same number of residents as Seattle. Country Garden projects that residents and workers will get around on foot, bicycle or a network of electric trams. The developer is seeking Greenmark certification for Forest City, a rigorous measure of sustainability, efficiency and pollution abatement awarded by Singapore’s Building and Construction Authority. Most striking is that Forest City’s four islands will total 13.9 square kilometers (5.4 square miles). Seattle’s city boundary encompasses 218 square kilometers (84 square miles). And the company asserts, in a critical difference for mainland development, that it did not need to move any homeowners out of the way.

Ng Zhu Hann, Country Garden’s head of strategy, sees Forest City as an opportunity for Malaysia. Image by Keith Schneider for Mongabay.

“So far we have invested $2.5 billion in this project,” said Ng Zhu Hann, Country Garden’s head of strategy. “We are one of the five key national strategy gateway projects in Malaysia. We are a private company building a city development. When we are finished Malaysia will be pleased by what we did here.”

That depends on whom you ask. Forest City’s almost unfathomable size and ambition have prompted considerable attention and critique in and outside Malaysia.

“Being impressed by the scale and ambition of Malaysia’s Forest City mega-project is a completely natural response,” Steve McCoy, a sustainability consultant in Kuala Lumpur, said in an email. “The sheer audacity to first build four artificial islands where there were none, and then build a city for about 700,000 people on top of them, is as good an articulation as any, of the way we have become adept at molding our environment to the shapes of our imagination. And it lends itself nicely to our culturally-conditioned belief in a never-ending process of growth and human progress!

“However the claims to be a ‘eco-smart city of the future … where urbanism and sustainability form an equilibrium’ or that the project is ‘set to trigger great changes on how development projects will be carried out throughout the world in the future’ do not bear up to scrutiny, in my view.”

Environmentalists and fishermen, meanwhile, have expressed urgent concerns about the consequences of island construction on the marine ecology. The critique is buttressed by the early hubris that Country Garden exhibited in trying to launch in 2014 without public notice. Marine scientists in the region also anticipate significant environmental consequences.

“There definitely will be impacts from the scale of the reclamation,” Chou Loke Ming, a marine biologist at the National University of Singapore, said in an email. “Since it is a narrow waterway with a political boundary that separates Malaysia and Singapore, transboundary impacts can be expected.”

Competing developers worry about the effect of Forest City’s ample supply of space for apartments, stores, hotels and offices on softening real-estate prices in southern Malaysia. Economists at Bank Negara Malaysia, the nation’s central bank, issued similar concerns when they warned last November of the largest oversupply of residential property in the country in a decade. The highest number of unsold units was in Johor.

The 283-room Forest City Phoenix Hotel opened nearly two years ago and has stayed busy with guests. Image by Keith Schneider for Mongabay.

Other concerns are unique. China’s authorities were so unnerved by the number of their citizens buying apartments in Malaysia and elsewhere that the government last year put a $50,000 annual cap on how much buyers could spend outside the country. That’s less than a third of the cost of a two-bed, two-bath Forest City residence, but enough for a down payment and regular mortgage installments.

Malaysian national leaders had a different set of objections. During the national election campaign that ended on May 9, then-opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad, now the prime minister, used Forest City to tear at the scab of lingering Malay-Chinese cultural resentment.

He said the sale of offshore land development rights to a Chinese company could expand China’s growing sphere of influence in Malaysia.

In August, Mahathir emphatically clarified his opposition. He announced his determination to ban foreign buyers from investing in Forest City residences. “One thing is certain, that city that is going to be built cannot be sold to foreigners,” Mahathir told a news conference in Kuala Lumpur. “We are not going to give visas for people to come and live here. Our objection is because it was built for foreigners, not built for Malaysians. Most Malaysians are unable to buy those flats.”

Country Gardens responded that it had received all of the approvals from the state and national governments to build Forest City. The Mahathir administration also appeared startled by the prime minister’s proposal.

Banning foreign buyers is “still undecided,” said Zuraida Kamaruddin, the minister for housing and local government. “We must assess (the situation) and then provide the prime minister with a report,” she told the Malay Mail.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

South Africa Today – Environment

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

You may republish this article, so long as you credit the authors and Mongabay, and do not change the text. Please include a link back to the original article.