Norliza specialises in promoting sustainable development and providing innovative planning solutions that contribute towards the quality of life of local communities.
Trained in urban planning, Norliza founded AJM Planning and Urban Design Group Sdn Bhd 26 years ago, and her experience covers a wide spectrum of the planning discipline, both locally and globally. She has served as secretary general of the Eastern Organisation of Planning and Human Settlement, as well as president of the Malaysian Institute of Planners.
Currently, she wears the hat of chief executive at Urbanice Malaysia. Established in June 2016 under the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (KPKT), Urbanice Malaysia serves as a centre of excellence to create better cities in Malaysia. It promotes sustainable and climate-responsive urban development through knowledge sharing, urban innovations, partnership programmes and multi-stakeholder engagements.
Norliza shares her thoughts with Construction+ on what it takes to build sustainable cities and communities—one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and key focus of the New Urban Agenda (NUA) (see sidebar for more information).
How are we approaching the SDGs in Malaysia?
At the federal level, we have the Economic Planning Unit (under the Ministry of Economic Affairs) coordinating with all the agencies and ministries to look at the implementation and coordination of the SDGs at a policy level. I believe we will see much more of this in the 12th Malaysia Plan as a lot of discussions are on the table.
On our side, we know that policy change is not easy and takes some time. That’s why at Urbanice, our focus is more on the bottom-up approach. Last year, we did roadshows to create awareness about SDGs and the NUA. From there, we looked at which local authority is willing to work with us; currently we are working with Shah Alam and Alor Gajah, as well as with the local authorities in Sabah.
We have a ‘3+1 approach’. We help the local authorities to map out what they have done currently to see where they are and what they have done so far. We then sit down with them to establish and realign their vision and priorities. Then we work with them to prepare a roadmap to help them be more focused on how to achieve their targeted SDGs.
The ‘+1’ is to encourage one or more of these local authorities to go for the voluntary local reporting (VLR) at the United Nations. With the VLR, our local authorities can measure and be accountable for their progress and achievements. We have working links with international organisations, such as United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) and Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), which are ready to assist our local authorities if they choose to do the VLR.
Apart from working with these local authorities, what other initiatives is Urbanice Malaysia focusing on this year?
At Urbanice, we do applied research and projects that roll out policies. We are assisting the Ministry to develop the Cities 4.0 policy, which will bring the Smart City Framework to a more holistic level.
Under Cities 4.0, we started an Urban Innovation Hub (UIH) to initially focus on three major areas i.e., Urban Mobility; Urban Systems and Services; and Urban Housing and Communities, and where we work with different tech vendors to test different solutions that can assist cities overcome some of their problems. We have an e-mobility project that we are piloting in Penang and Putrajaya. And we’re trying to see where we can pilot kinetic walkways to reap energy from people walking. We are also installing solar panels for renewable energy at the Sentul Murni public housing area, to generate revenue that can be used to pay for the maintenance and upkeep of the residence’s common area power consumption.
We are rolling out some programmes under the National Community Policy by KPKT. We have started community hubs at PPR Beringin and PPR Taman Dagang. We discuss with the local communities to find out what they need and what they want, for example, a space for tuition, reading area or a toy library, and we built them a centre using recycled cabins that are repurposed accordingly. At Taman Dagang, we are introducing urban farming, solar panels and rainwater harvesting, and we hope the community hub will also be a learning centre on sustainable features of a building.
In our second phase, we plan to introduce technologies that can generate income for the communities, which includes equipment that converts food waste to food pellets, or cooking oil to diesel oil. However, we will only proceed if the community agrees to the proposals. We are thankful for the kind donations received thus far, and we hope to raise more funds so that we can provide residents some seed money and grants to start these local economy community projects.
Why is community engagement so important?
I foresee that our future work will have a lot to do with communities as cities are about people and their rights to the city. We cannot just roll out a law or policy and expect people to change. The programmes we do are geared towards educating communities on the importance of being responsible towards the environment.
When we talk about smart cities, we need to have smart communities and these are communities that are well informed, have access to technologies and are empowered to make decisions. This will give them a sense of belonging and will make them more responsible—that’s what the sustainability agenda is about.
For example, you cannot reduce waste if communities don’t do it, so they need to find a reason to do it. For a long time, there was no reason to do it—someone will just pick up their rubbish for them. (In Selangor, we produce almost 7,000 tonnes of rubbish a day. If we don’t reduce our rubbish, we will end up with more landfill than development land!) We have to help people really understand what limited resources we have and how to be more resource efficient.
What about multi-stakeholder engagement?
We want to create more champions of sustainable cities, to encourage people to localise the SDGs and think of the NUA as a way forward to solve the problems we are facing.
I always tell my team that we should never do a programme alone. We have to think of multiple outcomes and engage with multiple stakeholders. By bringing in other stakeholders, hopefully they will not only benefit from it, but also be inspired to replicate it and develop the idea or initiatives even further.
Our Malaysia 100 Year City programme, for example, brought in 11 local universities to think of solutions for our future cities (see Student Feature on Kuching). This will be an annual programme that I hope will achieve something big in the end.
As an urban planner, what would you do if you could hit the reset button on a city like Kuala Lumpur?
As a town planner in Malaysia, frankly it is very challenging and as much as I have been involved to date, it is still not easy to get the plan you would ideally want to happen. In Kuala Lumpur, we just need to get all the stakeholders to agree on what’s best for Kuala Lumpur.
It is not that we don’t have good plans and ideas, but I think we are too restricted in how we do things. For example, when we look at traffic problems in the city, it’s either City Hall’s or the developer’s problem. But it takes more than one policy or one department to solve the congestion issue. We need to relook at some of the planning policies, public transport policies, parking policies, car automobile policies, energy policies, carbon policies, etc.
In Singapore, for example, car parks are managed by the Land Transport Authority because they look at car parks and public transportation as part of its supporting infrastructure. But in Malaysia, car park requirements are regulated by the local authorities, and the integration of its supply with the rolling out of public transit is somewhat missing.
If there is a chance to really look at KL, it’s the opportunity to bring the whole ecosystem together and work in a more integrated and cohesive manner. Integration is core—you have to take away the silo policies and mentality. There should be no segregation of responsibilities. We need partnerships and collaboration to get the best outcome.
When our team was working on the KL City Plan, we had about 60 engagements with the people in KL. While some started with negativity, at the end of the day, as we listened to them, everyone was very responsive and cooperative. I do think the people of KL are a mature and well-informed society that knows what they want, so the opportunity to work with them is definitely there.
What is one improvement you would like to see?
I would like our city to be more walkable. In Kuala Lumpur, it can be very stressful and strenuous even for able-bodied people to walk in the city, as there are often no assisted means, such as ramps, escalators and lifts.
Making the city walkable is one of the most challenging things to do because you have to create space for people to walk, and a lot of the spaces in our cities belong to someone. We need to learn to compromise and share spaces, have more small parks and green spaces, and make the city an enjoyable space to explore and live in. In developed cities, private spaces are being allowed through block connectors, providing sheltered and comfortable environment for the public to walk through and making the city more permeable.
What role does technology play in the cities of tomorrow?
Cities are going through very dynamic changes almost every other day. That’s why I think with smart technologies, we should be able to respond faster and to be more adaptive to these changes.
Despite having set up e-government more than 20 years ago with the development of Putrajaya, Malaysia has not been very fast in terms of adopting new technologies in cities’ solutions. Some countries that have started later than us, such as Vietnam and Myanmar, or even Dubai, have leapfrogged over us to fully embrace digitalisation and emerging new technologies.
We need to have open data that allows us better understanding of the issues we face and encourage public participation for solutions. And we need to focus on innovative action-based research that will encourage citizens and industries to find solutions for public problems. For example, in South Korea, a lot of money is being spent on research—that’s why they are very fast in adapting to new needs and demands.
If we are serious about being smart and sustainable, we need to really understand what our local issues are and use technology to assist us. Malaysia is generally a low- to middle-income nation, so the solutions should be for the masses, not just the top 20 per cent. I think communication technology is one that has helped bridge the gap between rural, sub-urban and urban communities. And once we are able to enhance the speed and coverage in the entire country, then the rural-urban areas can be more balanced, knowledge-wise, and opportunities for local industries at village areas can be enhanced with fintech and e-commerce in place today.
Your firm, AJM Planning and Urban Design Group, was involved in the comprehensive development plan for Iskandar Malaysia. What smart city elements in the plan are you most proud of?
I’m proud that we proposed the Iskandar Malaysia Urban Observatory—a data centre that is managed by the Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA) for strategic planning of the region through evidence-based spatial planning to guide future growth and development. This platform allows for the sharing of data and information among all the agencies and stakeholders in Johor and can act as an urban statistics centre. Hopefully this can also assist in good decision-making as the agencies can use the data to predict various needs for the region such as housing demand, improved water security and planning for public transportation, among others.
I’m also glad that we planned for the cleaning and rehabilitation of Sungai Seget. Sungai Seget is a short river, and the catchment is small, so it’s not too difficult compared to other river cleaning projects elsewhere. Sometimes you have to do the low-lying fruits that are just as impactful.
We have also incorporated a public transit system, the bus rapid transit (BRT) being the main system for the region. This is currently being further developed and we are very hopeful it will take off soon, because it will be a real showcase for Malaysia on how an integrated bus system that is less expensive than LRT and MRT lines can be just as effective in addressing local traffic issues.
I am very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to lead the formulation of Iskandar Malaysia Comprehensive Development Plan 1 and 2, and I believe positioning southern Johor as a new economic region has led to much development and progress in the state now. I don’t think we can ever stop development and urbanisation, but we must ensure that the development is responsible and sustainable.