Modernizing “Kampung” toward Sustainability


Kampung: the origin

Talking about Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, we often hear of the word “kampung”. It means “village” in Melayu culture, a self-contained district or community within a town or a city that holds unique characteristics that eventually distinguishes itself from the common village. A kampung lives and gives livelihood to its own people. The presence of its original culture has become the root of its community, even when it dwells in the same grounds with societies from different backgrounds. For example, Kampung Arab, Kampung Cina, and Kampung Melayu each holds their respective original culture, portrayed in their spatial planning; religious buildings, communal spaces; and the organization of their societies. Prof. Johan Silas, urban expert and practitioner, stated that a village, with its historical values, becomes the embryo of every urban development that leads to what is becoming of a city.

Modern development of urban living has somehow changed the way we see kampung, shifting from a living space of those unable to cope with dramatic and rapid evolution of a city, to those who are left behind. Urban kampung has now been identified closer to a slum with bad living condition. This, however, doesn’t change the fact that kampung is still a part of our city, where the natives were born and grew. Even with a loss of cultural heritage, seemingly bleak future, they are in our deepest core of urban living.

Fragmented problem solving

In the wake of green and sustainability, we realized that some are lost during our modernization. Kampung is one of them. Singapore has done far enough to deplete all kampungs, replacing them with modern urban living environment. What used to shape Singapore’s landscape are now gone. It’s hard to say that its modern society has a better social interaction, better community engagement. The only traces left are maybe as found around City Hall. They managed to freeze the lost culture in the state of statues. Their neighbor countries, Indonesia and Malaysia try to sustain kampungs, while they still exist. They are trying to bring back its valuable presence but unfortunately not in the best way.

Let’s take a look at some cases. Kampung Naga in Indonesia is one example of how the government tries to preserve the cultural heritage. The whole kampung is dedicated to keep its way of life, the way they were with no technology, no electricity, and ultimately, no connection to the outside world. KampungBaru in Malaysia serves a similar purpose. Located just next to the heart of Kuala Lumpur, the whole areais never touched by city development, due to political agreement during colonial period. After decades, a gap in social, economy, and culture remains between the dedicated kampung and its neighbor, which the government finally states as a heritage area.

Prof. Lilianny Arifin, an urban environment academician and researcher at Petra Christian University, said that these efforts are just actually freezing their time with no direction towards a modern life. By proceeding with these efforts, a deeper problem could occur, where these preserved kampungs are becoming ancient societies living in modern world, thus creating an alienating gap between them and their neighbor. This only means that they are going to similar destiny as the urban kampungs, where they would eventually be seen as left-behind society.

In other area, different methods are used. Efforts are done to help kampung dwellers to have a better understanding of modern living. Some kampungs are encouraged to be productive to self-suffice its own daily needs by bringing back the agriculture heritage to every house. Other case, kampungs are taught to manage waste to have a more economical value. While the result is showing, new problem surfaces: the worsening of living space. House lawns are now used as a place for productions. Front yards are now becoming mini-stores. The open space left are only at those narrow alleys, resulting in a lack of communal area for social activities and a worse environment condition: worse air quality, worse lighting condition.

Forward with sustainable holistic approach

The problem with our current kampung state is deep, not only on certain aspects. Prof. Lilianny said, “If we are to sustain kampungs, we have to enable them to coexist with modern living.” She explains further that if we are to bring sustainability, we have to inject comprehensive aspects from green movement, historical value, and even sociology. It appears that we can reach sustainability only upon combining every effort done as a one-new-holistic approach.

Singapore, via its Kampung Admiralty, is trying to rediscover what is lost. The design of this new mixed-use building is very much inspired by the way of life of their ancestors. Khaw Boon Wan, Minister of National Development of Singapore, envisaged Kampung Admiralty to foster greater community bonding and reignite the kampung spirit of yesteryear by marrying the modern mixed-use complex with culture heritage of kampung. No more exclusivity of social-class, age, or professions as they all blend together in this new concept.

Using the modern vertical development, it separates the amenities to three-tier co-location and then injecting kampung culture to its spatial planning. Ground tier as retail space and community plaza, mid tier as hawker center and medical center, and top tier as residential area and community park. Starting with the top, incorporating green technology, the residential towers are designed to have sufficient daylighting and better natural ventilation. And to bring back the bond between people and nature, the parks are placed surrounding the apartment towers, providing biodiversity, visual relief for residents, and also act as buffer to reduce noise and heat impact. There are also herb gardens for the resident to reenact the culture of farming and being part of world’s agriculture heritage. Going to lower-tier, it is meant to replicate former front yards where people could have social interaction with their neighbors, also represent the economy activities like they had in the past.

Looking forward to the future, Kampung Admiralty also promotes a more sustainable way of living by facilitating more bicycles in alternative to cars, pneumatic waste conveyance system, the use of bioswales to water the greeneries, and also the use of solar panels in its tower rooftops.

If done right, this new concept could really be our answer and this could be well adopted to a wider area, even across nations. Kampung as the embodiment of Southeast Asian culture is worth preserving. But beyond that, it is worth modernizing. The success of this effort to bring rediscover kampung in modern days might set Southeast Asia’s future urban development, with its own distinctive and proud characteristics. ( – RO)

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