The treasure in trees

Lush big shady trees

Stories by ANDREW SIA

Good landscaping can drive up property prices, attract foreign investors and create an earthly paradise. Yet our streets are often left unadorned and blazingly hot.

DON’T we all love those blissful advertisements of the latest posh housing project? They always feature idyllic images of children cycling or running carefree over lush lawns and under shady trees. Ah, if only we could all afford RM500,000 houses….

“Good landscaping has become a luxury commodity that people have to pay for,” says Kamariyah Kamsah, who recently retired from lecturing on landscaping at Universiti Teknologi MARA.

A tale of two sections: (Above and below) Two areas in the same neighbourhood show how much of a difference landscaping can make in creating a pleasant environment to live in. — Photos by Andrew Sia/The Star

“The high-end projects help to highlight the value of landscaping. However, I believe it should not just be for the elite, but for ordinary people too.”

While her own home in the middle class area of Subang Jaya, Selangor, is an oasis of greenery, it’s a different story outside.

“There are no walking paths or shade for my children to walk to school. So I end up driving my kids to school, even though it’s so near.”

She believes that soothing landscaping should be part of our daily living, not just something that can only be enjoyed after you’ve driven to a faraway park.

“When you go to the shops, bus stops or car parks in Singapore, it’s often like walking through a shady garden,” observes Kamariyah.

Well-known landscape architect Seksan, who has been in the business since the 1980s, says, “For me, paradise should be here on earth, in our streets and backyards.”

We are sitting at a mamak shop in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, and he says, “Look at this street we are in now, it’s unbearably hot. If this was Paris, there would be a row of trees here.”

The problem is one of a national mindset.

“We are too car dominated. The paradigm has not shifted. As a landscape architect, I work with engineers, building architects, developers and government planners. Do you know what are the first lines they put in our design blueprints? It’s the highways and roads. Not public transport or pedestrian walkways or gathering places.

“We have big flyovers and highways. It’s elitist, as these cater to those who can afford cars, not people who walk or who ride bicyles and motorbikes.”

This could be the newest gap between the have’s and have not’s, a sort of “landscape divide” between the people who can, and cannot, afford lush green surroundings.

“The best landscape architects are all working for developers who are selling to the elite group,” says Seksan.

“By right, we should be working on low cost housing, streetscapes and other public landscaping projects, funded by the government.”

National benefits

Splendid projects such as Setia Eco-Park (Shah Alam), Seri Tanjung Pinang (Penang), Sierramas (Sungai Buloh, Selangor) and Lake Edge (Puchong, Selangor) have, pardon the pun, implanted garden living ideals (a Google search of these projects reveals the developers’ alluring visions of paradise).

Trees get stressed when the ground around them is cemented over after planting.

When this writer first wrote about the lush landscaping of Desa Park City in Kepong, KL, back in 2003, a terrace house there cost about RM400,000. Prices have since shot up to RM1.3mil. In comparison, Bandar Utama in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, has a more strategic location but less lush landscaping – and classified ads show that houses there have only increased in value from under RM500,000 to over RM800,000 in the same period.

Greenery certainly seems to bring in the green stuff….

The developers know this. Michael Lip, of MLA Landscape Architects, began his work way back in 1983: “Back then, we would be very lucky to get even RM10,000 as a project’s landscaping budget. Nowadays, the budgets are in the millions.”

If nice trees, shrubs and waterways can be so valuable for private housing projects, they must certainly be important for the whole nation. Shouldn’t we think of the comfort and well-being of all citizens as – as the Mastercard slogan puts it – priceless?

Beyond that, there’s the idea of attracting investments, of course.

During a visit to Singapore’s National Parks two years ago, this writer was briefed on the country’s rationale for creating a “Garden in the City”. And it was not just about sights for tourists. Rather, it was for investors to see how well-maintained the island state is and to draw in highly-skilled professionals who would want to work and live in attractive environments.

“All the countries of South-East Asia are now competing to upgrade their urban landscapes,” says Dr Francis Ng, the former deputy director-general of the Forest Research Institute Malaysia.

Cement over her little patch of heaven? Never! Kamariyah Kamsah’s single-storey terrace house is a small green paradise.

“In our region, planned urban landscaping began in Singapore in the 1970s. Then Jakarta, KL and Bangkok followed because they could see the effect.”

Ng notes that Malaysian landscaping has improved, but not enough.

“In those days, the lallang would be left growing by the roadsides. Nowadays, it’s cut. But we can do better, as our neighbours have progressed much faster.

“If you go to Singapore and Bangkok, their trees are healthier and better shaped than ours, they look like people have regularly pruned, fertilised and watered them.”

“When I am in Singapore,” says Kamariyah, “I love it, as I can just walk and walk and walk. I go from Orchard Road to the Esplanade and there’s lots of shade and also interesting details in the shrubs. That’s why I used to take my students there on walking study tours.”

Malaysian cities do have delightfully verdant parks, of course, such as KL’s expansive Lake Gardens, the Permaisuri Lake Gardens (southern KL), the Shah Alam Lake Gardens and the Penang Botanic Gardens. But these are mainly used only on weekends, while the streets of our residential and commercial neighbourhoods that we traverse daily can often be blazing concrete furnaces.

Zuraidah Sainan has been the landscaping department director of the PJ Municipal (now City) Council (MBPJ) since 1998.

Good urban landscaping requires not just planning but also expertise, reckons Zuraidah Sainan. “Cars get priorty over trees here,” sighs Zuraidah.

“People tend to compare PJ’s landscaping with Singapore’s and that makes me feel very frustrated. When people ask me, kenapa tak hijau(why not green?), I reply, macam mana nak hijau (how to be green) when not enough space is provided for planting?

As an example, she points to her own department’s office right next to heavy traffic on the Damansara-Puchong Highway (LDP).

“Before the highway, there was 2m of land between the road and my office and a 3m-wide road median. We had such lovely trees. When they widened the road for the LDP, all of it was chopped down,” laments Zuraidah.

Similarly, lovely yellow flame of the forest trees were lost when Old Klang Road was widened to build the New Pantai Expressway (NPE).

Mohd Zailani Jamil, president of the Malaysian Society of Arborists (tree care specialists), says: “If you want a better urban environment, you have to provide the space during planning. On the road from Changi airport, you can see the lush raintrees canopies. See how much ground has been given to the trees to grow.”

And that was planned well ahead; the book, Singapore, City of Gardens, explains that, while most roads leading away from airports around the world are drab affairs, the city had made it a point to welcome visitors with a luxuriant garden adorning the highway into the city, lined with huge raintrees, angsanas, red and yellow flame of the forest trees plus mahogany and fruit trees.

Malaysian Society of Arborists (MSA) secretary-general, Azhar Abdullah, adds that one reason that trees in the Klang Valley are not very shady is that the ground around them is cemented over after planting.

“The trees won’t get enough water. That’s why after a few years, the trees often look stressed.”

Instead, he recommends that pavements should have gaps and spaces so that rainwater can seep into the earth to nourish trees. This will also reduce the volume of water rushing into drains during storms and help control flash floods. “All this has to be properly provided for at the planning stage,” he notes.

Zuraidah says that nowadays her department prefers to plant trees in open areas and parks as “it’s too difficult” to do it along road shoulders.

“A green city needs political will. Singapore planned it properly from the beginning. They have provided wide road medians and shoulders to really green their city, whereas here JKR (the Public Works Department) does not provide that in our roads.
Soothing landscapes like the lovely Shah Alam Lake Gardens should be part of our daily experiences not just something that can only be enjoyed after you’ve made a special trip out from your neighbourhood.
“When I want to plant trees in front of shops, developers will object, saying the shops’ signboards will be blocked. They say land is too scarce to be used for trees. Yet, it can be done in Singapore which has less land than Malaysia. Their greening policy is strictly enforced.”

Nevertheless, Zuraidah sees some changes with the current Selangor State Government.

“Before this I kena bergaduh dalam mesyuarat (argue in meetings) just to get the 10% green space (mandated for every new development). Some people felt that greenery was not so important.

“Now we have managed to get the Kota Damansara community forest back. When the state government is all for greening, that makes my work easier.”

MBPJ wants to improve upon the long-standing requirement of 10% open green space by following the “best planning practices” of the National Physical Plan, which can see up to 20% of residential areas being open greens, along with a 2m-wide zone around projects for planting.

However, some businessmen are reluctant to follow this policy.

“We had a meeting in July and some developers said they only want to pay not more than RM100,000 as compensation (for not providing green areas),” says Zuraidah. “I would prefer that they provide the land, not the money. Things are still under discussion.”

Green pride

Even if councils suddenly began greening our surrounds enthusiastically, how long will the trees and plants last?

“Good landscape is about maintenance, maintenance, maintenance not just about planting,” underlines Kamariyah.

“For trees, often you can only tell if the job is well done years later. That’s when you see whether the tree is growing well, unlike buildings where you can see the flaws upon completion. The laws and guidelines are all there (on paper). So why are the trees not growing well?”

Landscape architect Michael Lip points out that local authorities require developers to complete the landscaping to get a CF (certificate of fitness). But when developers of landed property hand over the public areas like parks and road sides to the local authorities after the project is completed, they are often not adequately maintained.

“As consultants, we will continue landscape maintenance for several months after construction. That is the best time to see our work. After it’s handed over to the local authorities, it goes downhill. They may do grass cutting, but they don’t fertilise the trees.

“Some developers have spent millions on landscaping. So some of them, like SP Setia, will have their own back up landscaping maintenance team even after handing over to local authorities.”

Lip suggests that what the local authorities pay out to contractors for landscaping be instead channelled back to the developers to do their own maintainance, as the developers obviously have a greater interest in enhancing their own projects.

While Zuraidah maintains that she can’t make PJ greener due to “lack of space”, a check around the city shows that there are still many road shoulders and dividers which could do with a lot more landscaping love.

It seems that local authorities have their own problems. For one, lower government salaries often lead to an exodus of the best staff.

“Many of my good staff have found better jobs elsewhere,” says Zuraidah. “That’s why our landscape design is done by outside companies.”

She also admits that the productivity of her staff is not very high and so she prefers to outsource maintenance work to contractors.

Pening (exasperating) to jaga (monitor) my staff. Whereas contractors are on call 24 hours a day and can be fired if they don’t work. If a storm blows down even one tree at 2am, they have to go.”

Ng notes, “Many people say that Malaysia lacks a maintenance culture. One problem is that civil servants are frequently transferred, and then nobody is responsible.

“The work may become secondary while getting transferred and promoted is the primary aim. If any problems arise, they will just give the excuse that, ‘oh I don’t know, this was done by my predecessor.’

“How do we change things? I prefer not to use bureaucratic auditing methods as political pressure can find ways around such things. I prefer to motivate a culture of excellence.”

One of his suggestions is to put people in charge who will see long term projects through, and then be recognised for the good work they have done.

“All our public parks should have signboards saying which department is responsible, and the names of the supervisors, designers and directors. Then they will feel, ‘Ah, this is my baby’. There will be a greater sense of pride in the work.”

Trees are too much trouble?

MSA president Zailani spent 11 years as head of the Klang Municipal Council’s landscaping department. When asked about his greatest challenge in greening the town, he replies: “It was the public! Local councils can plant trees, but people don’t seem to want them and so they find ways to destroy the trees.”

Zuraidah explains, “Many residents don’t want trees. Every so often people will complain and ask us to cut down trees. They say they can’t sweep up leaves. Or that the tree is dangerous.”

If real danger is posed, Zuraidah says her department will cut the trees and plant new ones. But if members of the public cut down trees without permission, MBPJ can impose a “compensation fee” of up to RM5,000.

“We have fined a few people. If the tree is in front of your house, you will be the main suspect.”

In fact, anybody in PJ who wants a tree planted in front of their house can call MBPJ at 03-7804 8906.

“The public are also encouraged to adopt and take care of trees. Some residents’ groups like the Friends of Kota Damansara Forest Park and Friends of Kelana Jaya Lake Gardens have been pro-active in adopting their neighbourhood parks.

“But generally the response has been lukewarm,” says Zuraidah. “PJ people want us to do things but are not very willing to help.”

Under the Greener KL Project, DBKL aims to plant 30,000 trees annually until 2020.

However, Mohd Haffiz Rahalim, one of the two arborists with DBKL, says that many city folk want trees chopped down and he receives complaints every day about trees being “too large”, ants entering houses, leaves getting stuck in gutters and roots damaging drains.

“Most of the time, when we attend to the grouses, we find that they are not as serious as they sound.”

When these sorts of problems crop up, not every tree must be destroyed and there are other ways to overcome the complaints –“But it’s always hard to convince the residents.”

All this is ironic because in terms of long-term financial self-interest, well-landscaped residential areas fetch higher property prices, as seen in the example of Desa Park City and other high-end projects.

As for shops, Zailani says a common complaint is that businesses fear trees blocking their shops’ signboards but, “People must just give us some time. Once the trees are tall and big, they won’t block the signboards,” he points out.

Large trees can be very positive for business. For one, customers will obviously find it more pleasant to park and walk under the shade. And in the shops opposite Tesco Kepong, KL, this writer sees how numerous coffeeshops have literally doubled their square feet count of business space by setting up tables under lush tree canopies.

So why don’t we have better public landscaping?

While private property developments have high price tags reflecting the value of their green paradises, public landscaping is free for all to enjoy. And perhaps that is the problem with our consumer culture: we know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

This is where Zailani uses methods from the International Society of Arboriculture to value a tree for its health, environmental and social benefits (such as beauty, leisure, shade and tourism). For example, he shows me how a famous tall tree in Raub, Pahang, has been valued at RM380,000.

“This is not the timber value, of course,” he smiles.

Landscape architect Seksan says the deeper problem is one of mindset, where people see trees as a threat, rather than as a lifegivers.

“People say they are lazy to sweep up leaves, or don’t want ants and all that. But without trees, where do we get our oxygen from? Is this why we have health problems in cities? Education is very important.”

Kamariyah reiterates, “You have to love a tree for it to grow properly. In the old days, it was more natural. Now that we are more urbanised, we may forget what nature is all about. Education is important.”

She attended school in Singapore in the 1960s, she says, explaining, “I learnt how to love a tree in school. Our PE (physical education) class was a gardening class. We learnt how to take care of and water the plants.

“When I was in Nagoya, Japan, I saw how they decorated a school hall. Every student brought their own potted plant from home. The plants were like pets. I would love to see something like that here.

“Our schools should plant trees not just to beautify the compound, but so that students will learn to love the trees.”


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