Design Anthology, Asia Edition
The Park Divide
A flâneur is an urban explorer — a connoisseur of the street. In our rotating column, guests share their musings, observations and critiques of the urban environment in cities around the world. In this issue, culture writer Sheau Yun Lim reflects on how Kuala Lumpur’s lake parks are a metaphor for subtle social divisions
Desa ParkCity, an affluent upper-middle class suburb in Kuala Lumpur, is infamous for its purebred dogs. In a predominantly Muslim country where many consider dogs to be haram, the sight is a rare one. Bathed in the golden evening light, short-haired chihuahuas, Siberian huskies and dappled dachshunds brave the heat to promenade with their humans around Desa ParkCity’s central architectural feature: a landscaped park built around a large lake.
Lakes have become almost compulsory as a feature of the new townships emerging around Greater Kuala Lumpur. Being able to walk around a park with a lake has become synonymous with what it means to have public space and access to nature. But these idyllic backgrounds belie the industrial history of Kuala Lumpur: these lakes were mining ponds in the 19th and 20th centuries when the city was built around tin. These pockmarks of colonial extraction now herald the beginnings of the enclave as a mode of development.
There is a strange recursion at play here. The mine was a hole in the ground where migrant labourers, predominantly southern Chinese, flocked to earn a living, building settlements and economies around them. Abandoned once tin resources were depleted, the craters were remade for the contemporary industry of development, where they were turned into urban centres by migrant labourers from Bangladesh, Nepal or Indonesia. Once labourers moved out, residents moved back in. The workflow continues.
Like most developments with lake parks, Desa ParkCity was built right next to a mall. The transition between walking for exercise and walking for shopping is seamless, with the concrete pathways for dogs and their owners giving way to the paved, open-air boulevards of Plaza Arkadia, with its strip of post-walk dinner options. Public parks are not exempt from a similar commercial imperative: the Danau Kota lake park, a public space in the working-class neighbourhood of Setapak, is located right beside Setapak Central Mall.
Yet the vibrant crowds at Danau Kota feel discernibly different from their reserved counterparts at Desa ParkCity. At the former, there are no matching athleisure sets or beerdrinkers on the veranda; like other public places, Danau Kota is subject to rules of decency, and revealing clothing is frowned upon. The park is for families, where young mothers bring their children to tire them out and retirees go for their daily walk. On particularly hot days, children play barefoot under water fountains, clambering on top of the cones that rise from the ground. At seven p.m., just as most of the working set is braving rush-hour traffic to get home, a security guard locks the park up behind a chain-link fence. Instead of dispersing to the mall, most families decide to go home.
Access to public space in Malaysia is shaped by the complicated factors of race, class and geography. The fences that guard the parks of Danau Kota may be visible, but the invisible fences around those in wealthier areas such as Desa ParkCity are no less tangible, perhaps most clearly represented by the common sight of purebred dogs, a marker of a proud, wealthy enclave.