Monday, August 6, 2012

A big ghetto for low cost housing in the making?

The revelations by the Auditor General (AG) in his 2010 Report that Lim Guan Eng’s administration failed to build even a single low-cost house since taking over the state government came as a huge shock to many Penangites and Malaysians.
After the shocking revelations, Lim Guan Eng in denying the accusations that the Penang Pakatan Rakyat (PR) government has never launched affordable housing projects for the poor, revealing that a total of 11,596 medium- and low-cost units have been approved since 2008.

Lim’s political secretary Zairil Khir Johari further added the state government has announced an additional 18,000 units to be built in every corner of the state, including 1,320 units to be located in a 6.9 acre plot of land along Jalan SP Chelliah in the heart of George Town to cater for the housing needs in the city.

In the May issue of Buletin Mutiara, in which 51 photos of Lim Guan Eng appeared in the 28 pages of the newsletter, it was reported in Mandarin that in the second phase of affordable housing plan, the state government has allocated total 77 acres of lands for the low medium cost housing project.

In this article, I am not interested in arguing who is guilty of spinning and twisting the facts about low-cost housing issues in Penang. I am more concern about the massive high-rise development that continued to pose an ongoing problem resulting in increases in land and housing prices and
continuing urban sprawl.

In this article I would like to question the planning authority about it's efforts in focusing on
satisfying the public demands quantitatively without proper planning and careful consideration.  I am interested in whether in the process of meeting these demands, did the planning authority ever take into consideration the  harmful environmental side effects that might emerged.

With all the effort to defeat the CAT principle by the dead CAT state government, I only have very limited information available  to do a proper analysis., but that will not deter us from questioning the state government about the low cost housing issues in Penang.

Before I start deliberate on the issues on hand, let us look into the concept of sustainable development and carrying capacity.

Environmentally sound and sustainable development (ESSD) is a concept which aims at harmony between economy and environment, maintaining environmental quality while economic growth is pursued. Within this scheme, Agenda 21 seeks to look beyond conventional ways of addressing economics which has been responsible for many of the changes, or lack of, in society. The concept of ESSD suggests that the environment has  a limit after which human activities, such as urban development, cannot be sustained.
Such activities therefore, should be controlled within the carrying capacity of the
environment. In other words, ESSD emphasizes the need for the environmental
carrying capacity to be fundamentally maintained while economic growth progresses.
To accomplish sustainable urban environment and maintain its quality, strategic
goals and objectives are needed.

Carrying capacity. Ecologists generally consider carrying capacity to be the maximum number of individuals that can be supported in an environment without the area experiencing decreases in the ability to support future generations within that area (Chung, 1988). Planners usually define carrying capacity as the ability of the natural or artificial system that can absorb the population growth or physical development without considerable degradation or damage (Schneider et al., 1978). Carrying capacity is also said to be the ability of natural and man-made systems to support the demands of various uses, and subsequently it refers to inherent limits in the systems beyond which instability,
degradation, or irreversible damage occurs (Godschalk and Parker, 1975). As a social  science concept focusing on humans, carrying capacity can be defined as a scale of  economy that the natural system of an area can sustain (Seoul Development Institute, 1999).
In the just concluded Penang Forum 5, local NGOs have passed several resolutions with a call for local authorities to review the new high density policy which allows for a maximum density of 87 units per acre. This reflect growing concern on urban carrying capacity, the maximum  level of human activities—e.g. population growth, land use, physical development,  etc.—which can be sustained by the urban environment without causing serious degradation and irreversible damage.

The concept of urban carrying capacity is based upon the assumption  (Kozlowski, 1990) that there is certain environmental thresholds which when exceeded can cause serious and irreversible damage to the natural environment.  This carrying capacity approach can be useful when the thresholds are identified ahead of time.  The determination of the capacity of a system is fairly straightforward when managing such urban facilities as water supply, sewage treatment, and transportation (Oh, 1998).

Let us look into the low cost housing project with a total of 1,320 units at a 6.9 acre plot of land along Jalan SP Chelliah in the heart of George Town. 
The development density of the project is 1320/6.9 or 191 units per acre which is far beyond the maximum density of 87 unit per acre as planned by the authority.
On what basis Lim Guan Eng administration allows such an exorbitant development density?
Komtar assemblyperson Ng Wei Aik said that this is a state initiative to provide more quality, affordable housing on the island.

If we look at the 18,000 units to be built on 77 acres of land for the second phase low cost housing projects. The average development density is 18000/77 or  234 units per acre. This is absolutely outrageous. 

The MPPP councillor heading the building and planning panel, Felix Ooi  said that we have seen previous planning and building of LMC units by the BN – which are of poor quality. Public housing must address the need to improve the quality of housing and how to sustain the environment. It should not be about low-cost or pricing only.

Let us deliberate on the determining factors of carrying capacity.
1) Energy
In order to assess the carrying capacity in terms of energy, how much energy needs to be consumed for supporting urban activities should be understood.  Currently however, such a standard is not available due to the difficulty in generalization. So how does the CAT state government go about it? Only GOD know! I seriously don't think that Lim Guan Eng has the intelligent capacity to understand.

2) Green Areas
Green spaces are parks and gardens that exist inside a city — spaces to play, exercise or enjoy the day. These spaces contribute to the quality of life of the people of a city by increasing air quality, reducing the heat island effect, and improving the health of people in the community, among other benefits. The quantity of green space that exists in a city is measured against its population.
The World Health Organization (WHO), in its concern for public health, produced a document on the subject stating that every city should have a minimum of 9 m2 of green space per person. An optimal amount would sit between 10 and 15 m2 per person.
1 acre is equal to 4046.86 square meter. 77 acres is equal to 311608.22 square meter. Let assume each units having 3 persons, 18000 units will have 54000 persons. Even without any building, the 77 acres of lands can only provide  311608.22 /54000 or 5.77  m2 of green space per person.

In all cases, site coverage should not be more  than 75%.  Site coverage is the percentage
of the site area covered by buildings. So if  site coverage is 70%, you only left with 0.3X311608.22  or 28044.72square meter of green space. The available green space will be 28044.72/54000 or 0.05 m2 per person. In most like scenario, the planning authority will give a high plot ratio, then the site coverage can be reduce to 45%. The available green space will be 5.77X0.55 or 3.17 m2 per person. Is this a quality and livable example set by Lim Guan Eng? Oh My God!

3) Roads 
For assessing the carrying capacity for roads, a minimum level of service (LOS) of roads should be
determined. LOS ranges from A, the best condition of traffic flow, to F, the worst condition. In general, the difference between E and F is considered to be critical.
The traffic volume which roads can accommodate with level E is then calculated using Traffic Software Integrated System (TSIS). Environmental impacts of air pollutants caused by the traffic are analyzed.  As the minimum standard of air quality for the analysis, 0.14ppm/hour of NO2 concentration is employed.  If the NO2 concentration caused by traffic exceeds the standard, traffic volume is adjusted in order to comply with the environmental standard, and development density is determined accordingly.
In this Bolehland, do we employed such a method to do our traffic and pollution evaluation? The answer is a definite no! So on what basis we decide to squeeze the population into a sardine packed space without proper public transportation? How on earth are we going to manage shared space to improve the road safety and vitality of minor roads and junctions within the street hierarchy, particularly ones with high levels of traffic by encouraging negotiation of shared areas between different road users?  How on earth are we going to manage traffic flow in limited road space that left little room for maneuvering ?

3) Water supply
What is the minimum level of water supply to assess the carrying capacity ? The amount of water produced by current water supply facilities was determined by the primary constraint factor (the facility that has the minimum capacity) among the pipeline networks, water purification plants, distribution reservoirs, and intake stations. Sustainable development density in the study area based on the amount of water supply was then determined. Did the planning authority ever take this into consideration? 

4) Sewage treatment
The target level of sewage treatment should be set to 100%. The allowable volume of sewage should be identified under the capacity of current sewage facilities. Environmental impacts on water quality from treated sewage and untreated runoff should be then assessed.
What should be the minimum level of water quality for the sewage treatment area , which represents the level of drinkable water processed by normal purifying methods? . If the total amount of pollutants discharged in the water was more than the minimum level of water
quality, the allowable volume of sewage should be adjusted in order to comply with environmental standards, and development density should be determined accordingly.
When our politicians competing to outdo each other did they ever take this into consideration?

5)Waste treatment
The target level of waste treatment should be set to 100%. The capacity of current waste treatment facilities relied heavily on  landfill. Dioxin is produced during the waste treatment process and its environmental impacts should be observed. If dioxin concentration by waste treatment does not satisfy the environmental standard, development density should be calculated after adjusting the amount of waste for achieving the standard. 

When our politicians ignore urban carrying capacity of the study area which  was determined mainly by roads, water supply, green areas, sewage treatment, energy factors and etc,  the public inevitable will have concern for the possible harmful effects and deterioration to the urban environment. How can Pakatan Rakyat sycophant blind supporters expect us to adopt partisan stand without looking into the real issues that affect our life?

Increasing  the  plot ratio and development density unscrupulously  is  definitely  not  the  prescription  for  meeting  the  housing  demand  for  the increasing population. In all cases the ability for plot ratios or development density to  be maximised will depend  on the local context;
including built form, character,  plot sizes and existing or potential public transport capacity.

If we want to achieve livable city status, we need to seriously take into consideration the carrying capacity of the environment. Merely supporting Lim Guan Eng, who has proven to be the most incompetent Chief Minister we ever have, will not bring about changes and quality of life. 

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