Urban Growth Limit (UGL): Negotiating between ‘sprawl’ and ‘compact’ urban forms

The 2006 National Urbanisation Policy (NUP) of Malaysia comprises 30 specific policies to be referred in order to plan, develop and manage the urban environment.  Of which, one of the policies that is NUP4 has stated as “Urban Growth Limit (UGL) is determined based on its carrying capacity for all towns in the country”.[1] Since NUP is a product after thousands of consultation among all levels of authorities and stakeholders in the field of urban planning and development, thus we can presume that many Malaysians, planners in particular, suppose that implementation of NUP could contribute to reduce numerous existing major urban problems such as, rapid rate of urbanization that overly encroaching agricultural land and environmental sensitive areas, traffic congestion, Carbon emission, under utilization of land or space and weakening social interaction.[2] [3] [4] It is believed that most of the above-mentioned urban problems are associated to the ‘sprawl’ pattern of the present urban form.  Therefore, it is obvious that one of the rationales of that particular policy (NUP4 of UGL) is anticipated to deal with the issue of urban sprawl.  Additionally and more importantly, we believe that it is deliberated to make Malaysian towns or cities more compact.

At this juncture, at the back of our minds, however, is the question of, at present, how sprawl Malaysian cities are?  If they are really seriously sprawling, what steps that need to be taken to rectify the ‘mistake’?  Is UGL one of the solutions to it?  Furthermore, how to transform sprawled cities into confined or compacted cities?  More importantly, we need to understand how compact is compact?  Alongside with that, taking into account of the unique Malaysian social cultural backgrounds, what is the level of compactness that is acceptable to the most Malaysians?  State otherwise, how compact Malaysians want their cities to be?

The term of compact city has really strike the chart of the town planning debate in Malaysia nowadays.  In a recent Datuk Dr Goh writing, he has claimed that the concept of compact settlements was conceptualized in the early 1970s as “a means to minimise the use of resources”.[5] Whereas Brueckner studied critics of urban sprawl from the lens of urban economics has defined that sprawl is an “imbalance between urban spatial expansion and underlying population growth”.[6] Based on Brueckner definition of urban sprawl, and as many claimed Malaysian cities are sprawled, thus, a simple compilation of data to compare the levels of ‘imbalance’ between Malaysian cities and American cities are showed in Tables 1a and 1b.

The tables show the population and spatial growth rates of three Malaysia’s largest urban areas (Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Johor Bahru) and two American metropolitan areas (Chicago and Cleveland).  Although the growth rates are taken from different periods, which is from about 1990~2010 and 1970~1990 respectively, however there are all of the period of about 20 years.  It seems that the population and built-up growth rates of Malaysia’s cities are not that far off-track as compared to the really imbalance grow of both the American cities.

Table 1a: Population and spatial growth rates of Malaysia’s largest urban areas[7]

Growth Rate (%) The Greater Kuala Lumpur Area




Johor Bahru Area


Population 3.55% 1.88% 4.85%
Built-up Area 4.95% 3.54% 7.50%
Population Density -1.34% -1.60% -2.46%

Table 1b: Population and spatial growth rates of American cities[8]

Growth Rate (%) Chicago Metropolitan Area


Cleveland Metropolitan Area


Population 4% -8%
Spatial Size 46% 33%

About the issue of altering the urban form from sprawl to compact, we might need to return to Kelbaugh (1989) on the concept of Pedestrian Pockets[9], Krier et al (1992) on the Urban Quarters[10] and Calthorpe (1993) on the Transit-Oriented Development (TOD)[11].  They might give us some lights.  In particular Krier’s idea – “the ‘reconstruction of the city’. … He suggests a return to the urban quarter instead of land-use zoning.  Krier strongly argues that we need to work towards pre-automobile cities, regenerate pedestrian plazas and squares, practice mixed-use buildings and streets, encourages piece-meal infill, and build low-rise buildings.”[12]

Since the past few decades, interestingly, we have a chance to observe ‘European towns’ growing into ‘American cities’ in Malaysia.  Today, we might like to thank the pressure of climate change and the issue of environmental sustainability that allow us to re-think our urban planning, development and management strategies.  Malaysians need to search for a creative route to plan, develop and manage their cities.  Can UGL become one of the approaches to alter Malaysian cities’ form?  Although we do not have the answer right now, however, a clear policy direction certainly has to be urgently made in order to guide the urban development moving towards the Vision 2020.  In that sense, the question of which route remains unclear – the sprawl (private automobile-oriented), the compact (public transport-oriented), or the mixed one (integrated private-public multimodal mobility strategy)?  So, what do you reckon?


Rokibah Abdul Latif

Wong Seng Fatt [13]

Department of Town and Country Planning, Peninsular Malaysia

Ministry of Housing and Local Government, Malaysia

[1] Federal Department of Town and Country Planning Peninsular Malaysia 2006, National Urbanisation Policy. Kuala Lumpur: Federal Department of Town and Country Planning Peninsular Malaysia. p.40.

[2] Federal Department of Town and Country Planning Peninsular Malaysia 2006, pp.12~27.

[3] Brueckner, Jan K 2001, ‘Urban sprawl: Lessons from urban economics’. Brookings-Wharton papers on urban affairs: 2001, p.65.

[4] Rokibah Abdul Latif 2011, ‘Isu perbandaran dan konsep pembangunan bandar di bawah RMK-10’. Pulau Pinang: Seminar Pelaksanaan Dasar Perbandaran Negara (DPN) Teras 6: Urustadbir bandar yang efektif, Disember 7, pp.1-1~1-2.

[5] Goh, B L 2012, ‘Compact cities– the future of urban living’. theSun (Tuesday), Janaury 3, p.12.

[6] Brueckner, Jan K 2001, p.65.

[7] The World Bank 2011, ‘Smart cities’. Malaysia Economic Monitor, Nov.2011, pp.68-70.

[8] Brueckner, Jan K 2001, p.65.

[9] Kelbaugh, D (ed.) 1989, The pedestrian pocket book: A new suburban design strategy. New York: Princeton Architectural Press in association with the University of Washington.

[10] Krier, L, Porphyrios, D, Economakis, R E and Watkin, D 1992, Leon Krier: Architecture and urban design 1967-1992. London: St. Martins Press.

[11] Calthorpe, P 1993, The next American metropolis: Ecology, community, and the American dream. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

[12] Wong, S F 2011, Walkability and community identity in the city centre of Kuala Lumpur. (PhD thesis: unpublished), p.43.

[13] Correspondence Address: National Urbanization Policy Unit, National Physical Plan Division, Department of Town and Country Planning Peninsular Malaysia, Level 17, Wisma Tun Sambanthan, Jalan Sultan Sulaiman 50000 Kuala Lumpur.  Email: sfwong@townplan.gov.my

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