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LIFE IN THE LIMINAL ZONE of Kuala Lumpur

This is what the cities of the future look like.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia- I don’t know why I’m attracted to these places.

They are ugly, grungy, unwalkable, commercially under-provisioned, lacking in people and social life, and at first glance appear to be in every way a city wantonly embracing dystopia.

I don’t know why I’m attracted to the liminal zones on the outskirts of big, rapidly expanding Asian cities — the transitionary area where the urban core extends out to swallow up the small towns and villages that were not long ago were as far removed from a city as a place can be.

When I look out from the balcony of my apartment in Kuala Lumpur this is what I see:

Expressways, inter-city and commuter rail lines, new high-rises, construction sites making more new high-rises, a couple clutches of middle class villas on a hillside, and pockets of the old villages of yesterday — sitting out there conspicuously, like smudges of dirt on an otherwise clean window, just waiting to be wiped away.

The building that my apartment is in is directly surrounded on three sides by massive expressways, with the forth side having a massive expressway hardly a couple hundred meters away. Running next to the expressway on the eastern side are six sets of railway tracks. The place is a 18-story island completely cut off from the rest of the world by the seas of transportation …

The odd irony of the things which enable fast and efficient movement being the very things which inhibit it here.

Anyaman Residence, where I’m currently staying in Kuala Lumpur. 

While I’ve spent a huge chunk of the past five years in such liminal zones, I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s a curiosity of nature, kind of like a tree that somehow grows on a rocky cliff face. You stand there looking at it, going “How the hell did that get there?”

And you can’t just drive right up onto or off of the expressways that hem the place in on all sides …

Getting to the place that I’m staying in requires a complicated maneuver where you need to jump on and off of multiple expressways as you circle around the place to get to the entrance — ultimately driving past the place two and sometimes three times before actually getting there.

It’s a lot like that children’s game where you have to maneuver a little ball through a maze that’s inside of a plastic disc. You have to go one way just to go another way and then back the other way again until you finally arrive at the center.

Notice how the Uber driver starts his trip right across the “street” from me but has to drive back and forth in the wrong directions in order to get to where I’m staying.

It’s an irritating comedy watching Uber drivers trying to get to this place. They drive past me once, they drive past me twice, 25% of the time they give up, occasionally it takes them 45 minutes to what otherwise should be a five minute trip.

I tried to walk out of my apartment complex the other day.

Big mistake.

My walk started out with a tramp through a construction site, then a walk along a narrow dirt path that dropped off on one side into oblivion, continued on a pedestrian overpass over a six-lane expressway, a walk through a soggy dirt lot, a scurry under an unsavory dark underpass that was littered with the corpses of rusted old cars, a jump across a polluted stream, a walk through a high-rise community that had the look of a government project area, and terminated at a high fence topped with barbed wire which separated me from a expressway that was so big and packed with cars that it would have been suicidal to attempt walking across.

If I had walked a little way to the north I would have found myself inside of a traditional Malay village that has cows walking around in the streets that exists in bold opposition to the new high-rises that are growing up all around it.

Yeah, this is where I’m staying this month in Kuala Lumpur.

But I have no complaints.

I’m staying right in the heart of one of the topics that I write about: the new urbanization.

The new urbanization is not sprawl in the traditional sense. It’s actually a reaction to sprawl.

Sprawl was a phenomenon of the ’90s and ’00s, where hundreds and hundreds of millions of people rushed to the big cities of their countries, turning historic cities into megalopolises, ringing them with untold tiers of urbanization which descended in complexity the farther out from the core you got.

When I look down from my balcony, this is what I see: a part of the village that was here before that hasn’t yet been wiped away. 

In this era, the cities of emerging markets became social and economic crisis zones, becoming overtly overcrowded as many times more people than they were designed for packed themselves in, competing for the same resources that drizzled out from a single, centrally located tap. This is what gave us the slums of India, the favelas of Brazil, the factory-landias of China.

But many cities responded to this model relatively quickly — as there was a big economic and political incentive behind doing so.

Rather than building out gradually from the center, developing as they go, pushing the slums farther and farther out, big cities all over Asia began developing along a multi-core urban model, which would see an array of new planned-cities built around a historic core.

These new developments are often designed to be self-reliant urban entities, with their own commercial areas, entertainment facilities, residential neighborhoods, and, most importantly, economic engines — cities in their own right.

Cow that walks the streets of the “village” across an expressway from my apartment complex.

These new, planned cities often have certain themes or functions that they specialize in. Sometimes they are made to be new administrative centers, and local or national governments are moved out to them; sometimes they are designed to be areas for high-tech research, and universities and tech parks are built there; sometimes they are designed to be special economic zones, and thickest of factories grow up from them; sometimes their focus is on logistics, and new transportation hubs and the entities that benefit from being near them are created.

This is just a way of reimagining a city as a cluster of cities, where many of the core functions of “downtown” are delegated to new cities which are built around their peripheries.

Basically, in the 21st century, historic urban cores are obsolete — they can no longer do it all themselves.

But we shouldn’t mistake these outer rings of planned cities as being built for incoming migrants and new urbanites. They’re not. Rather, their function is often to encourage existing urban dwellers to migrate out from the historic core to these new areas which cater to their middle and upper class tastes with premium housing at affordable prices, some of the best shopping facilities, and jobs at companies that have been lured out by tax incentives.

This ring of new urban cores actually act as a defensive barrier against sprawl and unplanned development. These new cities essentially extend the reach of a metropolitan area out many times larger than it currently needs to be (often encompassing areas that are thousands of square kilometers in area), and establishes everything on the inside of the ring as prime development land.

So that the first view of a city that new urban migrants come into isn’t a slum area on the outskirts of a sprawled-out historic core, but a shinning new city where there is no place for them. They must move into the core, where the housing and municipal services are already established or into the liminal zone that is being rapidly developed.

In the massive amount of space between the established urban core and the new cities you get what I suppose could be called urban-burbs — urbanized suburbs (if such a terms can be brutalized in such a way). These “urban-burbs” fill the function of a suburb but look like cities — think high and mid rises. It’s kind of like Ebenezer Howard’s garden city concept, but rather than separating the satellite cities from the historic urban core with green space you separate them with housing blocks.

While this multi-core city scheme isn’t always executed to perfection — more often than not it’s completely buggered by the governments and developers trying to establish them — this is what is happening all around Asia, and, if China can be used as an example, it ultimately works to varying degrees.

While these liminal zones look ugly and dystopian today, tomorrow they will be established urban terrain. The spaces in the middle — the empty lots and villages you see in these photos — will all be gone. In their place will be residential towers, malls, and the stuff of the city.

When I look out from my balcony in the far, far distance is Putrajaya and Cyberjaya, two planned developments that set the southern flanks of the Kuala Lumpur metropolitan realm.

The cities of the future are not cities, they are city clusters.

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Filed under: Malaysia, Travel Diary, Urbanization

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 83 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3211 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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