Planning Cultural Values Part II

Early on in the mission statement of the Ninth Malaysia Plan is the line "There is a danger of the country possessing first-class infrastructure but third-class mentality." As I started to talk about yesterday before the weather intervened, Malaysia's plan for developing a first-class mentality puts some hefty pressure on the country's urban planners. The challenge: plan to encourage a culture of knowledge acquisition.

As the Ninth Malaysia Plan illustrates, the country has grown a great deal over the past fifteen years or so. The government's commitment to education is, indeed, apparent -- the numbers suggest admirable. Secondary school attendance rates jumped 17 percentage points, while the country's Ministry of Education managed to slightly decrease the number of students per classroom and improve the teacher-to-student ratio. The importance of education and the growth of knowledge-based industries is evident throughout the mission statement (which is admittedly all that I had time to read...it's a solid overview, and the plan is rather long).

Of course, the government is using a set of religious principles called Islam Hadhari, which "emphasises development, consistent with the tenets of Islam with focus on enhancing the quality of life through the mastery of knowledge and the development of the individual and the nation; the implementation of a dynamic economic, trading and financial system; and the promotion of integrated and balanced development that creates knowledgeable and pious people who hold to noble values and are honest, trustworthy, and are prepared to take on global challenges."

Even still, while having a state-sponsored religion will make it easier for a government to direct cultural values, the idea of creating physical plans -- street grids, public spaces, civic amenities -- that literally attempt to re-organize the priorities of the people who live in a city is a pretty fascinating concept. While in the case of Malaysia it is easiest to see this taking shape in the bustling capital, Kuala Lumpur, the way that the Ninth Malaysia Plan describes its goals (or "Thrusts," as they are referred to in the doc) the most interesting cultural planning could likely take place in the countryside. The Second Thrust, which aims to raise the country to a "first-class mentality," specifys that "a special focus on raising the standard of schools
in the rural areas."

One of the big stories in the planning and architecture circles of late has been the emergence of very large-scale eco-cities, like the one planned for Chongming island just northeast of Shanghai or the flashier dueling proposals of Sir Norman Foster and that Koolhaas character in the deserts of the United Arab Emirates. These gargantuan developments make no secret of their chief ambition: to make people live in an environmentally-friendly way. These examples represent values-based urban planning at its zenith, and I bring them up simply to show the potential for what can happen when a rapidly developing nations sets its sights on accelerating growth by using city planning to directly improve society. If gleaming, compact Knowledge Accumulation Villages designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Jean Nouvel start popping up in the Malaysian countryside at some point in the next few years, don't act surprised.

The National Mission (Ninth Malaysia Plan)

China's eco-city faces growth challenge (BBC)

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