When I was starting my PhD, back in 2011, a friend asked “So where are these eco-cities then?” I was a bit stumped. What was it that I was actually studying? Something that didn’t really exist? Would I just be doing a kind of journalistic work, delivering easy critiques of inflated rhetorical claims? Anyway, I soon realised that the more interesting questions lay elsewhere. But I’ve remained keen to find out more about urban developments using this sort of terminology to describe themselves.

Relatedly, I noticed some of the newer local train maps in Kuala Lumpur include a station named ‘Eco City’ or ‘KL Eco City’, sometimes followed by ‘(Coming Soon)’. So, of course, I went to investigate.

It turns out this is a new high-rise development, accommodating a new shopping centre, offices, and residential towers. It’s being delivered by a public-private sector partnership between Kuala Lumpur City Hall and KP Setia (a large Malaysian company, and one of the main backers of the redevelopment of Battersea Power Station in London).

The shopping centre has been open for just under a year, and is still filling up its retail units. But when the connector bridges are open, it will be the third in a row of three shopping centres, making it possible to walk all the way from MidValley to Abdullah Hukum train stations without stepping into the non-air conditioned world outside.

There didn’t seem to be anything evidently ‘eco’ about it at first glance.  The official website casually refers to the new residential blocks as ‘sustainable’ – but that’s about it.  After a little more internet searching, a few more credentials emerged. A press release-style article in the national Star newspaper describes its underlying philosophy of “Live Learn Work Play in an urban setting”, and its aim “to be the country’s first integrated Green development targeting both the Malaysian Green Building Index (GBI) and US-based Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certifications.” It is certainly well connected to public transport – but also to the multi-laned road/motorway system running all around it. Unsurprisingly, its promoters don’t dwell on the fact that the Haji Abdullah Hukum kampung (‘village’) was flattened to make space for it.

Kampung Haji Abdullah Hukum in 2007 (Photo credit: Two hundred percent, CC BY-SA 3.0)

So how should we think about this ‘eco-city’ development? KL Eco-City may not presage a new transformative era of urban sustainability (if anything, it catalyses the structural forces that continue to lead us in the opposite direction). But I think it’s easy to overlook the immense difficulties of getting anything built in the real world – particularly a huge complex such as this. An optimist might argue that it could have been worse: at least they are applying for green building accreditation and investing in public transport.

What interests me, though, is what it says about the trajectory of the ‘eco-city’ concept (and at this stage I would humbly refer you to my recent book chapter on the topic, which is full of further references). The big picture is that an originally radical idea has gradually been compromised as it has entered mainstream thinking and practice around urban development. What you’re left with is little more than the eco-city as real-estate marketing strategy (increasingly only associated with large developments in East Asia): a way of using green credentials to facilitate planning permissions, help shape an urban ‘brand’, add to public acceptability and market value. But what’s fascinating about the KL example is that it barely even tries to promote its green credentials as evidence of its eco-city status.  The eco-city as an almost entirely ‘empty’ label.

And yet this linear story, of a hopeful idea being gradually absorbed into ‘business as usual’, isn’t the only one we can tell. I’d see the eco-city as having always been defined by a multiplicity of heterogeneous practices. Rather than searching for the eco-city as a fully formed urban place, and evaluating what we find against utopian criteria, we can see it as one of many loose labels which come and go, but at least facilitate different types of experimentation and innovation. Some of this innovation may be very modest in its aims; much of what emerges may barely differ from what would happen anyway. It’s not just the case that the hopeful, grass-roots vision of the eco-city has been usurped by the corporate megaproject, but rather than all sorts of varied eco-urban goals and activities continue to co-exist, whether or not they use the eco-city label, or even use the spatial framing of the ‘city’.

In this particular case, it seems a real shame that the KL Eco-City project has (so far) made no obvious attempt to take advantage of one key asset. I think the Klang River, which runs directly beside it, could easily be turned into a more pedestrian- and wildlife-friendly environment – even given the risk (I imagine) of regular flooding. Still, it seems that a group of local residents (the ‘Friends of Sungai Mid Valley’) regularly cleans up the area.

Perhaps we might argue that this clearing-up activity shouldn’t be left to volunteers. But perhaps this group has sprung into action precisely because the river environment has been further degraded by the KL Eco-City development; perhaps both these activities draw on a growing, broader sensibility that cities can be more environmentally friendly. Clearly, the power relationship between the Friends of Sungai Mid Valley and the combined forces of an international property developer and KL City Hall isn’t a symmetrical one. But I think it’s more generative to start by thinking of all this as dynamically interconnected, rather than only in oppositional ‘good guy/bad guy’ terms.

Section of the Klang River, running beside KL Eco City

Kuala Lumpur, 1 August 2019