Balancing Urbanisation and Environmentalism

Dr Koh found that some members of the local community around Forest City had views that challenge overwhelmingly negative local and international media coverage of the development.

Located across 1,386 hectares of reclaimed land in Iskandar Malaysia, Johor is Chinese developer Country Garden’s RM410 billion Forest City development. It is a prime example of China’s pervading influence in overseas property development projects, as well as the Asian giant’s impact on urban development in destination countries.

Launched in 2014, the mixed-use development is set to be constructed across four man-made islands over a span of two decades and is expected to fuel the economy by generating jobs and housing 700,000 new residents in the planned eco-smart city.

The Forest City project’s massive scale of development piqued the interest of Dr Koh Sin Yee, Senior Lecturer in Global Studies at Monash University Malaysia’s School of Arts and Social Sciences, who chanced upon the development when pursuing a research project in migration studies a few years ago.

“I was looking at people who were living cross-border lives and purchasing homes and properties across the border. The project seemed tremendous in terms of its scale of development, and the numbers of people and money flowing through it. I began researching and writing on this project over the years before a few others. Professor Hyun Bang Shin from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and Dr Yimin Zhao from Renmin University of China, whom I knew from the LSE, suggested that we put together a research proposal,” says Dr Koh.

Dr Koh’s collaborative research project with Prof Shin and Dr Zhao, titled ‘The Urban Spectre of Global China: Mechanisms, Consequences, and Alternatives for Urban Futures’, commenced in February last year under a grant by the British Academy’s Tackling the UK’s International Challenges 2018 program.

Chinese might

The scale and speed of development are really what sets the Chinese developers apart from the others. “When it comes to technologies, especially in construction methods, obviously they are used to large-scale and fast-paced development projects. They have the knowledge and expertise to deliver that, which the Malaysian construction industry could learn from,” says Dr Koh.

Unfortunately, the efficiency of Chinese developers may also pose a threat to local construction and real estate players in destination cities, who may argue that the former is unnecessary competition and that local players can deliver the same job, albeit at a slower pace.

Local communities’ voices

Another finding that Koh found to be interesting was the views of some members of the local community that challenges overwhelmingly negative local and international media coverage of Forest City, ranging from issues of property overhang to the adverse environmental impact of the project.

Dr Koh hopes that the research findings would be useful in consideration of future foreign investments that drive urban development in destination cities.

“We must understand the nature of how these large-scale urban developments happen and their possible consequences. With this better understanding, we hope that in the future, destination cities will not blindly rush into such urban developments. Although these projects bring positive consequences, there are also negative ones such as the environmental impacts, which are irreversible,” she says.

She maintains that it is the responsibility of local policymakers and authorities to ensure the sustainability and inclusive nature of such development projects, as businesses primarily concern themselves with maximising profits.

“We need to understand that development is not solely about GDP or economic growth, but also about finding the balance between modernisation and not compromising on matters such as the environmental impacts and the needs of the local communities,” concludes Dr Koh.