Americans Are Designing Asia’s Future

The scale model diorama at Forest City in southern Malaysia, the largest private real estate development in the world. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

One of the many critical details of 21st century change, learned during a decade of global reporting, is that Asia is the dominant continent of the century. Another thing is that development patterns in Asia’s big cities, the glittering metropolises along the Pacific Rim, are different than they are in the West. And the third essential feature of 21st century change is the big role American architecture, engineering, and planning firms are playing in designing Asia’s future, which is to say designing the century.

Asia’s urban design strategy is forming in an arc of big Pacific Rim cities from Seoul south to Jakarta. Within the arc are Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore. I’ve reported extensively in almost all of them, most recently in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

The design fosters economic development principles and values that stresses density, public transit, coastal protection, resource reclamation, walkability, energy efficiency, and land and water conservation. The really interesting and important feature that links the cities and the new buildings, transit lines, river reclamation projects, park construction, energy efficient housing and other infrastructure is this: Five big American global architecture and design firms are doing a significant share of the master planning, design work, engineering, and construction management.

The world’s greenest city, Singapore is a showcase of sustainability. Much of it is designed by U.S. firms. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

In Malaysia, for instance, two new Kuala Lumpur automated transit lines (over 100 kilometers and $11 billion in investment) and a $1.2 billion river restoration project were designed and engineered in large part by AECOM. AECOM also is involved in the design and engineering for a $14 billion, 688-kilometer fast rail line that crosses the Malaysian peninsula.

River of Life project in Kuala Lumpur is restoring the health of the Klang River and fostering shoreline development. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

The master plan for Forest City, in southern Malaysia, perhaps the largest private mixed-use real estate development in the world, was prepared by Sasaki, a Boston-based architecture and design consultancy. Sasaki prepared the Beijing Olympics master plan, and was involved in designing a number of its installations. Skidmore Owings and Merrill (Chicago), KPF (New York), and the SWA Group (Pasadena) also have a lot of big transformative projects in architecture, design and master planning in Asia.

What’s so compelling is that Americans are designing urban spaces that are, in large part, a repudiation of the auto-oriented, land wasting, resource-consuming, sprawling land use and metropolitan development patterns of America’s 20th century, which were first introduced in GM’s Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. And in really stark contrast to the reluctance to invest in infrastructure that describes America’s experience over the last three decades or so, Asian nations are pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into the civic equipment that helps make nations and urban centers work. Though the May 9 election trimmed Malaysia’s infrastructure spending there are still over $60 billion in projects that are either under way or about to get started. Vietnam, Thailand, China, Indonesia, Korea and India also have enormous infrastructure development programs.

Forest City, in southern Malaysia, is the largest private real estate development in the world. Its masterplan was developed by Sasaki, a Boston-based firm. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

AECOM’s revenue in its Asian Pacific operations totaled $1.3 billion last year. They also are heavily involved in India Prime Minister Modi’s project to build what he calls “smart cities” between Delhi and Mumbai.

One more signal thought. American design firms are involved in master planning, designing, and engineering installations in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the $1 trillion, 70-country project to establish new trade routes from Beijing and Shanghai to Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia. In doing so China is completely reworking the global trade and transport system, a system that the United States basically developed and helped to manage over the last 70 years. The White House-sponsored tariffs and trade stresses are pushing China to quicken its plan to develop and dominate new supply and customer markets, which are steadily expanding China’s sphere of influence and accelerating its global trade goals. American architects and planners are playing a big role in shaping what those new Belt and Road installations look like, and how they will perform.

— Keith Schneider

New MRT1 automated metro line in Kuala Lumpur, designed with the help of AECOM, a U.S. firm. (Photo/Keith Schneider

Malaysia. Where’s Malaysia?

A mammoth figure guards the entrance to one of the Batu Caves, a Hindu shrine in Kuala Lumpur. (Photo/Keith Schneider

KUALA LUMPUR — I had no idea what to expect from Malaysia when I accepted an assignment from Mongabay to report on the consequences of a prodigious wave of infrastructure development that is remaking this country’s economy and geography. What I’ve found is a nation contending, like so many others, with political disruption, but fully competent to develop the new muscles and bones to support the contemporary needs of this century.

People here are suspicious of their leaders. But the questions about corruption and competence of Malaysia’s political leadership are infinitely easier to answer than those being asked in the United States about America’s ruling class. The notion that the U.S. is exceptional isn’t a ruse. It’s just changed radically in the last several decades. We’re such a rich nation. But we don’t deploy our wealth to enhance civic well-being. The U.S. is exceptional now for the miserable way our political system has crumbled, our public schools and infrastructure have deteriorated, our sense of confidence and purpose have weakened.

The American century likely ended on 9/11. The Asian century began soon after. It’s more than apparent in Malaysia.

For a journalist who’s spent a decade reporting on ecological and economic transformation around the world, I have one overriding observation about Malaysia. Malaysia is different than China, India, Mongolia, the Philippines and several more countries that are determined to achieve western-level measures of growth. Malaysia did not wreck its land, water, air, and marine environments getting there.

A rendering of the 70-acre Exchange development, with its 106-story centerpiece, which is under construction in Kuala Lumpur. The development is meant to be the country’s new finance center. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Clean rivers still flow here. Half of the country’s tropical forest cover is intact and will remain so under commitments Malaysian leaders made in the 2015 Paris Climate Accord. Near shore marine environments have not been ruined by mining disasters, as they were in the Phillippines, or soiled in tides of fetid urban wastewater, as they have been in India and China.
Continue reading “Malaysia. Where’s Malaysia?”

From Malaysia, Expressions of Concern For A Roiled U.S.

The mosque dominates central Kuantan on Malaysia’s east coast. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

KUANTAN, Malaysia — Has there ever been a more disturbing time to be an American? Not in my life. And most certainly not in the 10 years that I’ve reported from outside the United States.

On the way by train and auto from Penang on the west coast to this industrial city on Malaysia’s east coast, I had a number of conversations with Malaysians about conditions in the U.S. Malay people are a guarded lot. Polite. Friendly. Helpful. But not open and inviting like people in the West can often be.

Let me tell you. Donald Trump is as much a focus of interest in this peninsula nation as he is in much of America. The view here is a mix of bafflement, scorn, and pity. Sam Heung, a gold jewelry merchant from Penang who engaged me in a long conversation about American politics described how “Donald Trump is turning the United States into a laughing stock.”

A university student I met by the name of Dinesh remarked at how spiteful and small-minded American democracy has become. “How did so many Americans choose this man?” he asked. “He makes no sense.”

On the day we spent touring Penang, our driver expressed concern. “Your country seems like it is in trouble,” he said.

China’s influence in Penang, a west coast island, is strong, as it is in all of Malaysia. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

A teacher from Penang, her name is Eeli, who earned a doctorate from Cambridge University and thought she’d apply for a post doctoral position in the United States, told me she’s thinking differently now. “I’m afraid,” she said, explaining that her black hijab, which covered her head and framed her round face, made her a target. “I have a friend who had a bad experience in New York,” said Eeli. “She was attacked because she stood out.”

That Malaysians pay close attention to events in Washington and the United States is no surprise. This small country of 32 million residents, set at the very end of the Southeast Asia peninsula, and a neighbor to Singapore and Indonesia, has episodically fallen under the influence of the world’s bigger and richer countries. Continue reading “From Malaysia, Expressions of Concern For A Roiled U.S.”

Our Covered Wagon Stopped in Utah

Near Sugarhouse in Salt Lake City a magnificent park lies at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

SALT LAKE CITY — Almost all of Utah’s 3 million residents — some 80 percent — live within ten miles or so of the Wasatch Front, which extends north to south for about 100 miles in the state’s northeast region. At the center lies Salt Lake City, a surprising city of 180,000 that is as modern, pleasant, and well situated as any in America. Near the city are magnificent trails that wind up into the mountains, which are drained by cold streams full of trout. Beyond the first ridge line are taller peaks and ski resorts that keep Park City hopping.

Restaurants are good. At Christmas the Mormon Temple grounds downtown are a festival of light. The business district is alive with foot traffic day and night. And the city has a decent NBA team, the Jazz, that this year boasts Donovan Mitchell, a University of Louisville first rounder who may be the rookie of the year in 2018.

To say that I’ve enjoyed it here is an understatement. It’s a western correspondent’s dream base. The airport is 20 minutes away, and flights anywhere in the West are two hours distant. At 85 mph, 600 mile drives to Montana or New Mexico are less than 8 hours away on clear highways, all of which are saluted by magnificent mountain ranges and expanses of tumbleweed desert.

The stories here also are compelling in ways that the East can’t really match. Because of the scale of the landscape west of the Mississippi, the tales to be told also are outsize. I’ve hustled to tell as many as I can. Almost every one has a political dimension that starts either in political Washington, or here in Salt Lake City. I’ve tried to keep the Los Angeles Times in front of other news organizations.

Salt Lake City, capital of Utah. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

A multi-billion dollar pipeline that is designed to draw billions of gallons of water annually from Lake Powell to slake the overly abundant thirst of an ambitious southwest Utah desert city. The White House effort to help the West’s struggling coal mines. The president’s attack on the Antiquities Act and his decision to shrink the boundaries of two big national monuments in Southeast Utah. The historically foolish and economically irrelevant administration gambit to lease public lands onshore and off for oil and gas development. The attack on the Endangered Species Act. A nuclear engineers’s dream of licensing an advanced reactor that could revive the U.S. commercial nuclear sector.
Continue reading “Our Covered Wagon Stopped in Utah”

Gina Lopez: What Determined Activism Looks Like

Former Philippines Environment Secretary Gina Lopez during one of her helicopter tours of mine sites. Photo/Keith Schneider

QUEZON CITY, Philippines — On June 20, 2016 Rodrigo Duterte, the newly elected president of the Philippines, asked Gina Lopez to join him in Davao City for an extended conversation about the condition of his country’s land and water.

It turned out to be an eventful encounter. The glib, rough talking, 71-year-old strongman former mayor of Davao City sought help from a 62-year-of woman known inside her wealthy family as the renegade daughter, and outside as an incorruptible foundation director and maverick environmentalist. As head of her family’s ABS-CBN Foundation Lopez led one national campaign to ban open-pit mining. She organized another to clean up a portion of the filthy Pasig River that flows through Manila just to prove it could be done.

When the meeting concluded Duterte extended Lopez an invitation to direct the weak and corruptible Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources. She accepted. On July 1, the day after Duterte’s inauguration and with his enthusiastic support, Lopez launched environmental compliance audits of the country’s 41 big hard rock mineral mines that eventually resulted in shutdown or suspension orders against 26 mines. She reviewed government approvals for 339 proposed mines and issued show cause orders to cancel 75 of them. In the last week of April the DENR banned new open-pit mines. The order came seven years after Costa Rica banned new open pit mines, and a month after El Salvador banned all mining.

And all the while during her 10 months in the post Lopez planted bamboo to clear the nation’s waters of pollution, and invested in environmental restoration projects that produced new jobs for indigenous communities. Lopez also started a joint police-military-prosecution task force that curtailed illegal logging and jailed offenders.

Rarely has an environmental officer in any nation so aggressively challenged the industrial community. Not surprisingly Philippine business interests mounted a ferocious counter attack within the Congress and the Duterte administration, which includes several cabinet members close to the mining industry. Two of the nation’s biggest newspapers, owned by mining companies, editorialized against Lopez and her enforcement measures.

The Sierra Madre mountain range in northern Luzon island is a target of 50 mine proposals. Photo/Keith Schneider

Lopez In Office 10 Months
A skilled organizer, Lopez proved to be tenacious. She countered with frequent tours of towns affected by polluting mines, and inspected dozens of mine sites by helicopter. Her exploits were covered in the media and on Lopez’s Facebook page that kept hundreds of thousands of Filipinos informed about the value of the closure orders. Continue reading “Gina Lopez: What Determined Activism Looks Like”