A Wild Idea: Malaysia’s Forest City

By Jody McCutcheon

The larger the development, the greater the risk–for developer and environment alike. That hasn’t stopped green architectural projects from growing in ambition and scope. Forest City is a perfect example of both of these ideas.


Designed by Massachusetts-based architects Sasaki Associates and located in the Iskandar Development Region on Malaysia‘s southern tip, Forest City is being constructed in the Straits of Johor, between Malaysia and Singapore, on four manmade islands. Sasaki has teamed up with developer and project owner Country Garden PacificView to bring the project to fruition. The development will span 1,386 hectares and cost somewhere between US$40 and $60 billion, depending on whose numbers you believe. It’s expected to take two decades to complete.


In theory, Forest City sounds super. Envisioned as an economic hub linking Singapore and Malaysia, it will manifest as a mixed-use, green-friendly development populated by financial buildings, biotech research facilities, creative industries, retail stores, premium hospitals and gated communities that include four high-rise condos and luxury villas. The hope is that Forest City will provide an estimated 220,000 new jobs by 2035.


The community’s live/work lifestyle will be enhanced by an ease of travel facilitated by its compact layout. People will have transportation options. There will be cars, of course, but these will be de-emphasized, with public transit and a light rail transit (LRT) system as alternate options, and car-free avenues in residential areas. The majority of inhabitants will live within a five-to-ten minute walk of public transportation. Furthermore, various travel modes will connect Forest City to the outside world, including an extensive ferry network, an LRT system linking to Singapore and Malaysia’s high-speed rail line to Kuala Lumpur.


The key to Forest City is a symbiosis the master plan seeks to create between development and natural environment. Playing with 31.4 linear kilometres of coastline, Sasaki aspires to recreate the region’s natural coastal ecosystems. Especially important are its crucial features, a 250-hectare seagrass preserve and mangrove habitats that help improve regional water quality. Both house a great deal of indigenous marine wildlife. Focused as it is on waterfront geography, Forest City’s developers vow to protect the local fishing industry.


The development will also host the world’s largest green roof system, a pedestrian-oriented rooftop network of interconnected parks and gardens linking the entire community. Serving up vehicle-free recreational opportunities for the public, the green roof will also offer native habitat zones and serve as a storm-water cleanser and filter. Other sustainable features of Forest City include rainwater collection, solar power and ocean current technology, the latter of which converts ocean currents to usable power.


But success in these kinds of large-scale green architectural projects has historically been hit-and-miss. For every Vauban, there’s a Masdar. Time will tell, of course, what category Forest City falls into, but for now the project isn’t without its warning flags. Political wrangling over environmental problems and economics has already caused delays.


For instance, local fishing communities are upset about potential disturbances to their livelihood from the marine-centric construction, while Singapore authorities worry that large-scale dredging will affect water flows and silting through the channel around Forest City. Additionally, the sand that’s imported to increase landmass in the channels may result in a loss of coastal habitat and seagrass colonies. These concerns directly oppose the developers’ stated commitment to protecting the fishing industry and recreating the surrounding marine environment.


Economic concerns also exist, with the Malaysian government recently having granted Forest City duty-free status and offered corporate incentives to lure investors and tourists. Will these actions erode the local tax base and, by extension, public infrastructure?


According to Sasaki Associates, primary developer and owner Country Garden PacificView will fund Forest City’s public infrastructure. Multiple email queries to Country Garden PacificView seeking confirmation of this, and whether they have any contingencies in place for environmental concerns, have gone unanswered. Considering that Country Garden PacificView is majority-owned by China’s richest woman, Yang Huiyan, and backed by the Sultan of Johor, a regional hereditary ruler, one must wonder whether their interests are motivated more by environmental protection or finances.

These are some of the questions that need answers before a verdict can be given on Forest City’s chance for success. Prioritizing the environment and ensuring proper funding will give Forest City an opportunity to be as great as its conceivers think it can be. Big risk has the potential for big reward, but also for big disappointment.

Jody McCutcheon

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