A cyclist passes small businesses in Kampung Baru. Reuters/Olivia Harris

Kampung Baru, a rustic hamlet in the middle of the Malaysian capital, has staved off development for decades. Can it continue to hold out?

It’s easy to forget you’re in the middle of a metropolis of millions when walking the streets of Kampung Baru. Despite the fact that the world’s tallest twin structures, the Petronas Towers, hover over this Malay settlement in Kuala Lumpur, the atmosphere is serene. Banana and palm trees skirt one and two-story wooden homes. An occasional car or motorcycle passes by.

Kampung Baru, formed by British colonial authorities in 1900, comprises seven villages over about 300 acres. Its prime location—it’s the sole remaining large tract of developable land in the city’s center—makes it a developer’s dream. Its worth is estimated at more than $1 billion.

Malaysia’s government has not had much luck in its decades-long quest to develop the enclave. Much of the land has been passed down through Malay families for generations and divided among descendants, yielding a whopping 1,355 lots owned by 5,300 people. This, as well as the fact that the British designated Kampung Baru a Malay Agricultural Settlement, which allowed a local board to govern it, has made buying and building on the land difficult.

Malay-style low-rise wooden houses line the streets of the settlement. (Brian Whipple)

Despite these challenges, early last year the government issued the Kampung Baru Detailed Development Master Plan. The 20-year vision includes the construction of 1,900 hotel rooms, 30 million square feet of office space, and 17,500 residential units. More than 10 percent of the area would remain green, with the addition of parks and water features.

Though officials say they plan to preserve the settlement’s Malay heritage through the conservation of a number of buildings and the construction of a Malay arts and crafts center, the architectural sketches of what Kampung Baru would resemble post-development look like another world. Shiny skyscrapers—one with a Ferris wheel on top—and sleek pedestrian areas reminiscent of New York City’s High Line replace meandering streets and small shops.

Manhattan’s High Line is one inspiration for the planned development of Kampung Baru. (Perbadanan Pembangunan Kampong Bharu (PKB) / Kampong Bharu Development Corporation)

The development plan originally called for buying up the land en masse, but this came up against unwilling landowners. The government is now trying a more subtle tactic, encouraging landowners to join together in coalitions to sell or develop their land. The official word is that around 40 percent of landowners are signing on, but many Kampung Baru residents say they’re not on board.

“We won’t sell at any price,” Hashimah, a retired bank employee, told Agence France-Presse. Sugar cane drink seller Bakri told local website Coconuts KL, “I feel very angry… It’s never about the people. It’s always about the money.” Hashimah and Bakri, like other Kampung Baru residents, also stressed the need for development and improvement of existing housing and infrastructure. “Why not build more housing for the people?,” asked Bakri. “Why build so many luxury condominiums?”

A skyscraper planned for Kampung Baru features two 70-story towers with a Ferris wheel on top. (Perbadanan Pembangunan Kampong Bharu (PKB) / Kampong Bharu Development Corporation)

Construction has in fact already begun on a number of infrastructure projects and buildings, including condos. Kampung Baru Development Corporation chairman Datuk Affendi Zahari described the coming changes to the Malaysian newspaper The Star as a wakeup call for residents. “We are putting in the infrastructure to bring the investors in and hope that the landowners will also see the merits and choose to develop their land,” he said. “Trust me, you do not want to get left behind.”

With large networks of families physically as well as emotionally settled in the enclave, as well as unsure that they can afford housing in other parts of the increasingly expensive city, the fight for Kampung Baru may be just beginning.

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