Economics Science & technology Society

[2917] Urban life will not go away with WFH and digital technology

Last week, I participated in a discussion panel on urban poverty and urbanization. Over the course of the session, a fellow discussant highlighted the potential of working-from-home phenomenon in reducing the need for urban centers.

I am unsure if I could agree with the suggestion.

First off, such decentralization is possible. It is not out of this world. The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted discussions on living away from cities. We could work from everywhere now. Some have even thought perhaps it is time to go rural altogether. There is a logic behind it.

Beyond the panel, there is a rethinking about high-density area. As it goes, maybe we should spread it out a little to make our society more resilient against future outbreaks. WFH is one of the ways that could be achieved. We can work remotely, and therefore we do not need a place in the city. Ditch the city, the slogan might sound.

If pandemic is the only thing to worry about, sure. Decentralizing the population into many smaller low-density towns would be the way forward.

But cities are not just about working culture, and pandemic is not the only thing that concerns us.

If I remember my lesson back in university, there is such a thing as agglomeration. If enough companies—and indeed people—gathered together, they would enjoy some kind of economies of scale in more than one way.

In terms of services, the more people there are in a place, the cheaper it is to deliver those services. This is relevant to both public and private services. Think of mass transit, or better city trains. Super-expensive to build and operate. Having it in Kuala Lumpur might make sense with its 2 million-4 million people depending on the definition used to define the city along with its satellites. Less so in smaller cities such as Kuantan that does not even hit one million population mark. Malacca Town with its low population city has a monorail, but we all know it is a bad, expensive joke.

And it is not just mass transit. Think about utilities. Think of roads or better in these days of interconnectivity, fiber optics network. It is cheaper to lay the cable for city use, like in Kuching, than in the interior of Sarawak. Indeed, communication tower is generally the preferred cheaper method of expanding internet services into rural areas.

There are plenty of examples across many sectors. Cost consideration alone make cities capable of providing services rural areas struggle to provide.

Large population is also a theme central to growth theory. As one growth theory puts it, beyond capital accumulation and technological progress, population growth is really the ultimate driver of growth. With population, comes new ideas. Edmund Phelps long ago wrote the following that pretty much summarizes mainstream growth theory:

One can hardly imagine, I think, how poor we would be today were it not for the rapid population growth of the past to which we owe the enormous number of technological advances enjoyed today… If I could re-do the history of the world, halving population size each year from the beginning of time on some random basis, I would not do it for fear of losing Mozart in the process. [Edmund Phelps. Population Increase. Canadian Journal of Economics. August 1968. Page 511-512]

To put it simply, technological progress itself is a function of population growth.

Good stuff tend to be created when people congregate in a place. New observation, innovation, idea exchange and all that happen more often among large population located in a dense area than in a sparsely populated space. The residents of large cities also make sophisticated demands arising from urban life. Without these demands, nobody would think of the solution and no progress would be made.

There might be an optimal population size. But for Malaysian cities, I think we could make it denser. I prefer denser cities not just because of the factors mentioned above and more, but also because the toll sprawls exert on the environment. Big cities tend to share resources better.

Finally, it is true that the pandemic lockdown has proven that we have the technology to work from home.

But it also proves we do not enjoy being stuck at home.

We do not just live within the space of our four walls. It is the culture, the connections and the values that matter as well. We yearn society. I yearn the city.

Many options available in the cities are available on the internet not because online services are taking over those services previously provided physically. Rather, the internet accommodates the provision of those services. It does not make cities irrelevant. Ultimately, those very services are made possible by cities.

Photography Travels

[2167] Of Melbourne makes it to my top ten list

Melbourne roared with a blue electric spark. Its ambient noise greeted me. Together, they reminded me of my experience of watching a special effect-laced movie at the cinema. Subwoofer noise always feels like an invisible force running through my chest. Waves produced by Melbourne’s trams running along its streets had the same force; the tremor jolted my ribcage.

That was the scene as I stepped out of the Southern Cross Station, a transportation hub for the city. The train line from Sydney ends here. After a 12-hour ride, I was more than eager to get out to see, feel, smell and taste Melbourne. This is a city that some have argued as one of the most livable in the world. There I was, an inspector all ready to test the veracity of that idea.

Melbourne reminds me of San Francisco because of the trams and the wires that run above the streets. I was impressed with such system when I wandered the streets of San Francisco but Melbourne changed my mind. So pervasive it is that I think it badly affects the aesthetic of the city. The wires annoy me to no end.

Some rights reserved. By Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams.

A street in Melbourne. Observe the wires.

I did learn to accept the wires as part of the city identity later.

Living in Sydney, I have always heard talks of how this city of Opera House and Harbour Bridge is better than that city in Victoria. There is a healthy rivalry between the two cities. I was there to contribute to that rivalry.

I boarded a train to Melbourne. I figured, I would like to see the Australian countryside. To my surprise, it looked very much like those in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and other states to the west up to South Dakota, like the North American prairie. Slightly hillier but I cannot forget how those fields of long golden dry grass dominated the Midwest.

Some rights reserved. By Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams.

A typical view of the grassland.

I told a stranger who sat beside me just that. Maybe, the comparison is an overkill. The grassland is really cultivated land. The grassland in those U.S. states are natural.

She appeared above 50 of age and she was visiting her daughter at the University of Melbourne. She boarded the train at Gunning, which is a really small town in between Sydney and Melbourne. When the train stopped the town’s simple platform, she was the only person waiting.

It was through her that I learned a little bit more about Melbourne before I opened up Wikipedia days later after I returned to Sydney.

She talked of the origin of the Hume Highway, the major highway that connects Melbourne and Sydney. Hamilton Hume and his partner William Hovell led an expedition searching for the water source of New South Wales’ rivers. My impression is that the expedition is something similar to the United States’ own much-celebrated Lewis and Clark Expedition, which contributed to the western expansion of the young United States of America.

She also told me stories of bushrangers. I asked her, “What were the bushrangers?”

“Bad guy cowboys, as you would call them.”

She opined that Sydney is more of a go-go city. It is the financial center of Australia after all. Sydney gives out a picture of no nonsense, by Australian standard. Melbourne in contrast is more relaxed. After being there, I concur when her.

The buildings there are more elaborate in its facade compared to ones in Sydney. In Sydney, the buildings would be sleek; function over form. In Melbourne, the concern for form is observable. The library, for instance, is just magnificent inside and outside.

Some rights reserved. By Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams.

The library in the evening.

There are statues with pillars supporting a typical roman roof. The reading room in particular is impressive, although I thought it is incomparable to that in New York, or even the intimidating Graduate Library in Ann Arbor.

Some rights reserved. By Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams.

The library’s reading room.

Some buildings, like those belonging to RMIT University, do look a tad too artistic.

Walking the city is an easy task. It is a typical grid system, better planned than Sydney is. If one loses his way, just look for Swanson or Flinders Streets. If you do not dig walking, the tram system is a good alternative, although the ticketing system is a mess. Just hop on and don’t pay for the ticket. And no, I am only half kidding. The ticketing system is a joke.

The roads are wider than Sydney’s, or than most cities that I have lived or visited, with the exception of Putrajaya in Malaysia. I rather think Putrajaya has boulevards, not streets. That makes Melbourne a less stressful city. There is more space in between blocks, providing a picture of abundance instead of scarcity. I do not know if the streets are wide because of the trams; did the wide streets come first, or did the trams simply were incorporated into the city plan early on?

Less people walked the streets too. In Sydney during comparable period, a sea of people would assault visitors’ sense. Not in Melbourne, no sir. It was only during Australia Day that the crowd went out in full force.

Melbourne’s park enhances that feeling of openness. I do like it. More to it, the sense of openness feels natural, unlike that in the all-pretentious Putrajaya.

One that Melbourne lacks is a noticeable skyline. If I were to be presented with pictures of Melbournian skyline, I would have trouble recognizing it. Even Kuala Lumpur has more impressive skyline than that of Melbourne. Sydney definitely beats Melbourne here with its Harbour Bridge and Opera House. I think Melbourne’s skyline is comparable to that of Atlanta, which itself has nothing much though Melbourne is probably twice or thrice larger than Atlanta in terms of its downtown.

Some rights reserved. By Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams.

Melbourne’s skyline.

The Federation Square is a disappointment. I heard a lot of it and I thought it was more hype than substance.

But that does not matter so much. Melbourne is still a great city. Visiting there is fun and I can imagine living there and having fun.

Talking about fun, I love the street shows. I do not know if it was a one-off event or it is just the city though. The city was hosting the Australian Open when I was there. The Open, which is a Grand Slam, is a major global sporting event.

More importantly, the food scene is great. Getting starved here seems unthinkable. I thoroughly enjoyed my food in Melbourne. I love the beach too, although Sydney has much better beaches.

All those fun has its cost. The wallet can take a hit there in Melbourne. My casual observation is that it is more expensive living here than in Sydney. This is considering that a friend from New York who came to Sydney some weeks ago complained that Sydney is more expensive than New York. How about that?

That aside (and that weird turning “hook-turn” method employed), I love Melbourne. Melbourne easily qualifies into my top ten favorite cities list.


[2119] Of the horrible Putrajaya

Some time in May 2009, overlooking the sparse city of Putrajaya from the Shangri-La Hotel perched on top of a hill, a respected former top Malaysian diplomat rhetorically asked me, “is it not a great view”?

I somehow had the courage to respond, “I am unimpressed by it”.

In truth, as a person with amateurish interest in architecture, I am impressed by the buildings. It is the concept of Putrajaya that I find as unappealing.

The worst of all bads is the fact that the establishment of Putrajaya as a federal administrative center of Malaysia creates a distance between the federal government and the center of the country that is Kuala Lumpur. It is true that not all and in fact a majority of Malaysians do not live in Kuala Lumpur but with a population of approximately 1.6 million, it is by far the largest and the most influential city in the country. That number does not include satellite cities such as Petaling Jaya.

Compared to the relative emptiness of Putrajaya and its surrounding, there is a cultural and even political disconnect between the center of Malaysia and Putrajaya. Given weak democratic culture that exists in Malaysia, that does not help.

A more concrete factor that makes me dislike the city is the way it is designed. It is so vast that it is clear that motor vehicles are essential to it. Putrajaya may try to mimic Washington D.C. but that city on the Potomac is friendly to pedestrians. I have been there and I enjoy walking there.

The heat makes it all the more unappealing. Apart from dealing with the government, there is really no reason to be there. Another city that falls in the same class as Putrajaya is Canberra here in Australia. Judging from conversation with friends here, Canberra is as unexciting as Putrajaya.

It is, as if, Putrajaya was planned for giants with everything placed so far apart. And that is the ironic thing because despite being a planned city unlike Kuala Lumpur with its spaghetti-like streets, parking is a real issue in Putrajaya.

There are parking spaces but those spaces are located so unstrategically that many simply park by the roadside closest to the building of interest. The best example is probably around where the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Higher Education, Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Youth and Sports are. It was a disaster over there the last time I visited the horrible place six or seven months ago. It was as bad as the situation at KL Sentral. KL Sentral has legitimate excuse to supply: it is still under development. The same cannot be said about Putrajaya.

I could imagine how loudly civil servants and visitors will grumble when they read this:

PUTRAJAYA, Nov 30 (Bernama) — Putrajaya Corporation (PJC) will impose parking charges at the Precinct 1 government complexes and the Diplomatic Precinct’s car parks from Tuesday.

The areas have the capacity of 386 parking bays at the Perdana Putra Complex, Laman Perdana, B Complex and C Complex at Precinct 1, and 559 bays at the Diplomatic Precinct, it said in a statement.

PJC said this would enable adequate parking bays for the public and avoid traffic congestion. [Putrajaya Parking Charges Start from Tuesday. Bernama. November 30 2009]

Do not get me wrong. I support charging fee to solve parking problem but the city is badly designed, even when it was designed with motor vehicles in mind. In fact, somebody must have forgotten that he or she or they designed the city with motor vehicles in mind.

The vehicles have to be parked somewhere. It is as if all those parking spaces are placed as an afterthought. This problem should not have arisen in the first place, if the city pride itself as a planned city.

But perhaps, it is a matter of implementation. Putrajaya was supposed to have its own spanking intracity rail system. That went kaput during the Asian Financial Crisis. Buses are taking over now but I do not know now efficient they are. I have never tried it.

I do not intend to try it either. I plan to avoid Putrajaya like a plague. It is not in my favorite cities list.