Making cities more livable and loveable

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How do you improve urban living in South East Asia’s cities? We met Sze Y Goh, Community & Partnership Lead at #BetterCities, and discovered how they’re joining forces with designers, urban planners and thinkers, businesses, policymakers, artists, students and city dwellers.

When and how did the #BetterCities project get started?

The initiative was started in Kuala Lumpur, in late 2011 by a multi-disciplinary creative outfit, PopDigital. Our team drafted a Manifesto for a better Kuala Lumpur to highlight issues we wanted to tackle and things we could do together.

Back then, the initiative was named #betterKL. The idea of prefixing a hashtag was to keep it open and easily adoptable by other groups and projects of similar aspirations in the city. What began as a modest bottom-up approach to contribute to a better city grew into a network of community-centered collaborations beyond Kuala Lumpur, culminating in the recent launch of #BetterCities. The initiative currently has projects in Kuala Lumpur, George Town (Penang) and Singapore.

What are the biggest challenges facing urban areas in Southeast Asia over the next decades? How important do you think it is to think about sustainability now?

Whilst urban development is growing at an aggressive rate in Southeast Asian cities, urban design and planning are still done piece-meal: adhoc, myopic and underregulated. In the long run, the organic growth explosion in our cities will have a less than ideal impact on the quality of life of the city dwellers: economically and socially.

One of the biggest challenges in Southeast Asian cities is connectivity – urban mobility, urban public transportation, alternative means to fuel-powered vehicles. Another area of concern is the creation of creative cities in this region with a dynamic urban population. Cities in this region must rise to the challenge of ensuring urban infrastructure and amenities develop at the same time as creativity and human talent/resource.

In your experience, what role should creativity take in tackling these issues?

Creative thinking encourages openness without compromising effective problem-solving. In my experience, creativity must play a role in affecting both the design process and the results. A lot of times, creativity in the design process encourages the creator or producer to look at a problem from a user’s perspective, often resulting in a new look at old problems.

What is the best way to start a grassroots initiative? How do you get people to join in and participate?

One must first be passionate about the issues or causes one wants to champion. We believe that if opportunities arise for people to interact, network, and work together, they will in turn be inspired to take ownership of issues they feel passionate about.

As such, we work hard to research issues that are meaningful and relevant. We usually collaborate closely with community experts and enthusiasts, along with social media, to increase awareness of issues/problems. Our methodologies and reports are shared on our blog. By sharing the steps that can be taken, we hope solutions can be replicated or further improved.

What have been some of the most impactful initiatives you’ve been involved in at #BetterCities?

We created an ongoing public talk series highlighting ideas, insights and individuals contributing to a better Kuala Lumpur. It’s an open platform for discussing issues around urban living, environment and engagement. We curated nine talks on diverse urban themes – for instance, how to start neighbourhood projects, looking at local mapping projects and how architecture influences place-making.

We also design and produce projects that respond to shared, public spaces and quality of time/life in a city. For instance, While We Wait consists of pop-up installations and projects devised to address and interact with commuters' idle time while they wait for their bus to arrive. In one, we transformed a bus stop into a seed bomb dispenser to create awareness about green pockets and urban gardening.

This June, we are launching a pilot week-long urban action workshop, Urban Residency. Participants are selected and will work with mentors to build and design projects based on a Challenge Brief. The outcomes will benefit the local community in a selected site within the city. Urban Residency is devised to be low-tech and quick, challenging the idea that all urban projects are very expensive, and take a long time to be implemented.

With all these projects, #BetterCities hopes to promote a tactical and creative approach to urban planning.  

To browse a selection of images reflecting city life, click here

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