The Penang South Reclamation (PSR) and the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) have received much attention in the past week.
Penangites, as well as those who are not from Penang, have voiced their concern as well as support for these two projects. Personally, I believe the PSR and PTMP hold the key to unlock Penang’s sustainable future.
When I use the word “sustainable” I don’t mean it as ecological or environmental preservation as how it is used by some NGOs. I understand “sustainable development” as the progression from the interactions of the economy, the society, and the physical environment.
The key word is “interactions.” A meaningful interaction involves exchanges, not stagnation or status quo.
In other words, the economy, society, and environment cannot remain the same in the process of achieving sustainable development. Sole focus on any of the three without the other two is not sustainable development.
If one only advocates for the preservation of present capital flow, that is mere capitalism and not sustainable development, as changes to capital flow are forbidden.
If one only advocates for the preservation of present society, that is traditionalism and not sustainable development, as changes are barred from society.
If one only advocates for the preservation of the natural environment, that is environmentalism and not sustainable development, as changes are not allowed on the environment.
Many of the NGOs that claim to champion sustainable development are actually advocating nothing more than environmentalism. Both are very different concepts.
Sustainable development necessarily involves the exchanges of impact on the economy, society, and natural environment out of the interactions among the three. Environmentalism wants zero impact on the natural environment.
With the sustainable development framework in mind, we can now see that much of the criticism levelled at the PSR and PTMP has mistakenly assumed that the economy can develop sustainably without the impact on either the society or the natural environment or both, and vice versa.
Seoul case study
Seoul was honoured by Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority and Centre for Liveable Cities in 2018 for having created a liveable, vibrant and sustainable urban environment.
One of Seoul’s landmark sustainable development project is the restoration of the Cheonggyecheon (Cheonggye stream), which is globally hailed as an outstanding urban rejuvenation undertaking for its demolition of an elevated expressway for the development of an artificial stream.
The Cheonggyecheon restoration has increased overall biodiversity by 639% (involving plants, fish, bird, insect, mammals, and amphibians), reduced surrounding temperature by 3-5 degrees Celsius, increased wind speed by 2-7%, increased bus and subway ridership by 15% and 3% respectively, contributed up to US$1.9 million of tourist spending, and increased business and economic activities.
This remarkable urban transformation would not have been achieved if the government gave in to the pressure from the vocal environmentalist and merchant groups when the proposal was tabled.
A coalition of NGOs called “Citizens’ Coalition for Correct Cheonggyecheon Restoration” which consisted of Green Korea United, Korea Environmental Federation, and Green Transportation Movement opposed the project for its environmental impact. Some 800,000 workers and other street vendors along the Cheonggyecheon also aggressively objected against the project. Together with other civil society groups, they called for its cancellation.
Not dissimilar with the current NGOs in Penang that oppose the PSR and PTMP on the ground of environmental and social impact.
The Cheonggyecheon restoration also would not have been feasible if the government did not take up the heavy financial burden to build a massive road network and the expansive subway infrastructure.
Seoul’s coffer was emptied for the construction of various urban highways, bridges, tunnels, and more than 100 underpasses in the 1960s to 1990s. More than 60% of the KRW 877.1 billion cost for the first two subway lines had to be paid through bond and bank loans. Currently, there are nine subway lines with more stations and tracks being constructed.
When the Cheonggye highway was demolished in 2003, there was already a good road network to disperse car movement and an extensive subway system to provide an alternative to commuters. In fact, there are four subway stations along the Cheonggyecheon served by subway line 1, 2, 3 and 5 (Gwanghwamun, City Hall, Jonggak, and Jongno 3 sam-ga).
The availability of a comprehensive dispersal road network to divert cars away and a convenient subway system for pedestrians made the elevated expressway unnecessary and rendered the Cheonggyecheon restoration project feasible.
The exchanges of impact between the economy, society, and the natural environment constitute Cheonggyecheon’s sustainable development.
If Seoul government had abandoned their plans and adhered to the NGOs’ demand to preserve the natural environment and the then existing trade, the city wouldn’t have the now famous Cheonggyecheon.
There won’t even be water flowing down the Cheonggye stream for the most part of the year. This is why every day 120,000 tonnes of treated water are electrically pumped from subway stations and the Han River into the stream. The maintenance cost is KRW8 billion per year.
The environment was not preserved but developed upon. This is how sustainable development actually works.
I’m not saying that the PSR and PTMP are like the Cheonggyecheon restoration. Each city and project are unique. What I’m highlighting is to give an actual example of what sustainable development is.
Sustainable development is not the preservation of the natural environment. It is the overall progression affected by the exchanges of impact between the economy, the society, and the environment.
Unlike Seoul, Penang island doesn’t have an expressway. The nearest major road that resembles one is the Lebuhraya Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu, but it has too many intersections to make it an actual expressway.
Penang needs better road network and this is why the PTMP consists of plans for new roads besides proposal for public transports. The present Penang government is taking a major step to transform the state into a smart urban city with new land space, comprehensive road network, and public transport infrastructure.
This is the reason for the PSR and PTMP. The former provides the required funds and multipurpose land space, the latter with the road network and public transport. These are the key to unlock Penang’s sustainable future.
Being a sustainable development project, there will be exchanges of impact between the economy, the society, and the natural environment. After all, this is what sustainable development entails.
Unfortunately, like the Cheonggyecheon restoration initiative, the objection raised by NGOs has created much confusion in the public with some being led to believe that sustainable development is environmentalism.
Joshua Woo Sze Zeng is a former municipal councillor with Seberang Perai Municipal Council.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.