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Sunday, November 11, 2012

The great green zone sell-off in Kota Kinabalu

In their rush to urbanise this seaside city, they are pushing ahead with plans to turn the last few remaining untouched parkland-like areas in the city into a concrete jungle.
KOTA KINABALU: On the web page of the Prime Minister’s Office a screensaver pop-up says: “Think Green” and “Save The Environment”. A banner at the top of the page above the photographs of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak and his cabinet reads: ‘”1 Malaysia” People, First Performance Now’.
So far, so good. Your leaders are concerned. Their reassuring sentiments are in keeping with the global trends of conscientious living and respect for the surroundings.
Is anyone following their advice?
Over here in Sabah, they’re not so interested. It’s a passing fad. Environmental armageddon be damned. Balanced development for a better quality of life is not yet a priority here even if the prime minister and his cabinet endorse it.
The Sabah Environmental Protection Association (Sepa) is besides itself with rage over the  vapid response by the government to environmental offences.
They show how hills have been levelled, protected forests razed and marine ecosystems destroyed without so much as a slap on the wrist by enforcement authorities.
They’ve complained loudly, exposed projects as inherently hare-brained, launched campaigns and filed legal suits to stop the rot but the property development juggernaut is ploughing ahead and some are concerned about the direction local authorities are taking them.
City authorities want growth and the city has grown by leaps and bounds over the last two decades, fed mainly by immigrants. But after initially sprawling outward, the focus now seems to be to allow the takeover of precious green areas within the city.
Property prices are high, developers are making urgent demands and the local authorities are shortsighted.
In their rush to urbanise this seaside city, they are pushing ahead with plans to turn the last few remaining untouched parkland-like areas in the city into a concrete jungle.
Among those to be carved up by the developers’ bulldozers is the iconic Signal Hill overlooking the city’s seafront, much to the chagrin of its well-heeled residents. A 13-storey condominium has been approved on the hill notorious for landslips.
Some of the properties there date back to the time of British colonial rule and among them is the Istana and the stately British governor’s residence which is now owned by the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank and houses its branch manager.
Hills are going
Elsewhere within the city limits, hills are also being targeted for levelling. Some that only a decade or so ago were designated ‘green areas’ by Kota Kinabalu City Hall have seen a flurry of activity by surveyors placing markers and workers drilling for soil samples.
According to some, expensive high-rise condominium blocks are set to be built by some well-connected businessmen on what is now a forested hill and a haven for birds, insects and some small wildlife.
But the haphazard urban planning that is eroding the quality of life in what used to be a naturally scenic seaside town is not limited to the largish green zones that have lost their protection.
Children’s playgrounds in housing layouts have not been spared. Many are now the sites of public or private buildings in violation of local authorities’ regulations.
The city’s once idyllic Tanjong Aru Beach has also not been spared. An iron-girder and glass-clad structure now takes up most of the main beachfront. Many of its famed casuarina or ‘aru’ trees that fringe the beach have been chopped down.
A once bewitching place to watch some great sunsets has been taken over by garish restaurants, throbbing music, ugly banners and a near slum-like hawker stalls complete with rivulets of dirty water and its resident population of highly invigorated rats.
The iron bars over the drains that presumably are there to prevent strollers from stepping in are bent at a dangerous angle in some places and threaten to impale the unwary. All this is guarded by an automated gate at the entrance to the beachfront parking lot and as you exit you pay for the privilege at the parking toll booth.
“If all this was put up to beautify this beach, its more like a facelift for Halloween,” joked an expatriate living close by. The beach development is just a stone’s throw from some expensive condominiums across the road and about 500 meters from a 5-star hotel.
Other long-time residents lament that the city is losing its character due to poor planning. They say mistakes have been compounded by more mistakes and they are suspicious that town planners do not have a clue about how to develop the city into a pleasant place to live.
They point to the bizarre, monster-size replicas of fish, prawns, flower, fruits and and similar objects as City Hall’s way of decorating roundabouts and other strategic places to give character to the city.
“They look like toys strewn around by children. They don’t reflect anything about this state or city or have any decorative value or even make people think, opined a local artist.
“It’s becoming like any other city and that’s a pity because KK has its own identity that has been painstakingly built up since the time of the colonial government,” commented Richard Nelson Sokial, an architect who helped found a pressure group hoping to preserve the remaining vestiges of Sabah’s ‘character’.
Dubious re-zonings
The group, Heritage Sabah, among others hopes to act as a check on the destruction of the state’s legacy through dubious re-zoning of areas to accommodate big business and property developers.
Buildings and structures dating back to Sabah’s pre-independence days are on their radar.
Members of the NGO, all ordinary city residents, have moved to thwart an attempt by local authorities to erect a multi-storey shopping centre cum car park just a few meters from the city’s century-old Atkinson Clock Tower. The area is a gazetted heritage site.
Over in Kudat, about three hours drive from here, a bitumen road leading to a promontory heralded as the ‘Tip of North Borneo’ has unnecessarily disfigured a splendid beach beside it.
It’s no better at the hill overlooking the northern most tip of Borneo island. A huge concrete parking lot radiating waves of heat seems to detract from the beauty of the spot.
The ‘beautification’ blunders don’t end there. Many are still enraged by the idiocy of local authorities who chopped down a magnificent, century-old tree in the centre of an interior town to make way for a public toilet.
The incident was carried prominently in local newspapers and elicited remarks of regret from senior government figures. The tree is now history and the public toilet has been sited elsewhere.
Meanwhile, local authorities are attempting a kind of very clever two-step to avoid criticism and to show that they too are concerned about dwindling green spots in this seaside city. Earlier this year they launched a costly tree planting programme.

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