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FUTURE LONDON | Village in the City: A view from Kuala Lumpur




‘Kuala Lumpur is undergoing significant transformation, with emerging stark juxtapositions of new and residual realities.’

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The area of Kampung Baru in central Kuala Lumpur was established by Colonial British authorities in the late nineteenth century as a ‘Malay Agricultural Settlement’ – a riverside area strategically removed from many of the economic activities that fuelled the city’s early growth.  JACOB BIELECKI explores the neighbourhood and documents the complexities and contradictions of urban development that the area encapsulates.

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Kampung Baru’s vernacular architecture and human scale has largely remained a village within a city, with colourful low-rise wooden detached houses, kitchens and cafes spilling out onto the streets, and rich social life. Ethnic Malay families from several villages were relocated here and given exclusive land rights to maintain a ‘village life.’ Due to complex land rights, entitlements and inheritance laws, many parcels in this neighbourhood have remained untouched by outside hands for more than a century.  While the ‘kampung’ (‘village’) symbolises elements of a shared cultural heritage among ethnic Malays (who make up about 46% of the city’s population), the appearance of and lifestyle associated with Kampung Baru today are seemingly at odds with a city that aggressively grows around it.

The multi-generational households and families that still own land in Kampung Baru find themselves sitting on some of the most lucrative real estate in the country. The neighbourhood borders Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC), home to the famous Petronas Towers, gleaming Class A office buildings and luxury condominiums. Land speculation in Kuala Lumpur, as in many other ASEAN capitals today, is fierce. Several government-driven plans to redevelop Kampung Baru have sluggishly moved forward. A development of 600 private condominiums on land once occupied by dozens homes and businesses is currently underway – at the time of my visit, it appeared a few parcels were still being settled.

Change is certainly on the way for Kampung Baru, perhaps whether the land controlling families like it or not. Similar to many other rapidly growing cities in newly industrialised countries, Kuala Lumpur is undergoing significant transformation, with emerging stark juxtapositions of new and residual realities. The Land Acquisition Act of 1960 allows state authorities to legally take control of land for public or private development in the interest of ‘economic development of Malaysia.’ Residents have supposedly been assured that they will not be forced out of Kampung Baru, though, like many others elsewhere, they may very well be bought out for non-negotiable sums. The latest government sponsored 20-year area plan, announced last month, calls for a dramatic regeneration of the area, including a proposed residential population increase from 18,000 to 77,000, building 17,500 residential high rise units, and creating more than 46,000 jobs in a new mixed-use city within a city. In one of Kuala Lumpur’s least changed neighbourhoods, a bastion of traditional architectural and social heritage, it seems inevitable that the ‘outside world’ will inevitably come knocking, and likely in a very big way.

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All images courtesy of Jacob Bielecki.