Asian Property Review asks Michael Grove, principal of Sasaki Associates, the masterplanner and architect of Forest City, all the hard questions. Michael comes with an impeccable background – recent projects include work throughout mainland China, including the development of a masterplan for the Shishan District of Suzhou. Suzhou is home to historical gardens and museums dedicated to ancient Chinese culture which attract 38 million domestic tourists each year. Michael was also involved in the planning and urban design for the Olympic Green in Beijing, the principal venue for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Photography courtesy of Sasaki Associates.
A controversial island-based metropolis in Malaysia, Forest City will combine residential and commercial buildings – with high rises and green parks intermingling, looking out towards the ocean and the surrounding marine Seagrass Preserve. APR: What is the design inspiration for Forest City? Grove: In simple terms, Forest City is inspired by a vision of what a 21st century city could be with respect to its relationship with its environment. This approach meant that integrating the specific ecological context of a coastal location in southern Malaysia needed to play a critical role in the design of the city. Coastal features of the region – mangroves, protected reefs and coves, and seagrass beds – provide habitat and buoy the coastline’s natural resiliency. We wanted Forest City to achieve similar results – a strategy for a new city derived from the natural world, rather than an attempt to conquer it. By placing the Seagrass Preserve at the centre of the four islands, it creates a visual focus for the city similar to how many other world-class cities focus on their waterfronts to establish their visual identity. But at Forest City, the focus on ecological conservation is meant to be much stronger, allowing people to form a deeper connection with Malaysia’s unique coastal ecosystems.
“From a physical planning perspective, rising sea levels were the primary factor guiding Forest City’s design approach. “
APR: What are some of its most outstanding and unique features? Grove: The project is still in its infancy, so many planned features are still to be realized as the city matures. Some of the most innovative attributes, however, include convenient transit links to Singapore, pedestrian-dominated streets and plazas, a seamless blend of buildings and landscapes.
Since the beginning of the project, we understood that the opportunity to build on reclaimed land comes with great responsibility. The master plan sought to ensure that the development will contribute to a robust and sustainable ecosystem. From a physical planning perspective, rising sea levels were the primary factor guiding Forest City’s design approach.
Edge conditions are designed to absorb the impact of increasingly powerful storms, as well as to provide landscapes with the necessary space to evolve as waters rise over time. Four per cent of the total land area at Forest City is dedicated to a gradually ascending coastal zone that allows for shifts in the landscape as the high tide line rises over the next century.
Beyond the edge, Forest City’s future success also relies on an efficient transportation system that promotes a compact and walkable urban environment. Density and civic uses are organized around transit centres, ensuring that over 80% of the development is situated within a 10-minute walk of public transportation.
The system is organized with a multi-layered approach designed to prioritize pedestrian connections. Infrastructure related to vehicular traffic is located at the ground level, while a contiguous landscape creates public space adjacent to transit stations at the top level of the infrastructure podium. This approach envisions a new paradigm for the public realm – a 4 million sq m contiguous rooftop landscape that links all development parcels, accommodates stormwater, reestablishes native habitats, filters runoff, and provides recreational opportunities in an entirely automobile-free experience.
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APR: Why build four reclaimed islands when the development could have been built on the Johor mainland? What are the benefits of reclaimed islands? Was there a real need to reclaim land? Grove: The short answer is yes, the development could have been built on the Johor mainland. As the physical planners and designers, we had no control over this political and economic decision, which was a given when we began work on the project, as reclamation efforts were already underway. To be completely honest, we had a bit of a philosophical struggle when deciding whether or not to contribute to the project.
Ultimately, we came to believe that this was the right approach, assuming Forest City is developed as envisioned. First, we have already witnessed the type of development happening on the mainland new Johor. Many of these developments are typical suburban sprawl – a low density, automobiledominated approach which adds carbon to the atmosphere and decreased the amount of forests or agricultural lands in the region.
The hope is that, if we could shift the development pendulum so that a high-density yet compact city was located in an area that was linked in an extremely convenient fashion to Singapore, the demand for lower density development around Johor might be reduced. This would potentially free up land for reforestation, or protect agriculture, coastal mangroves, or other sensitive environments.
Obviously, this all depends on political will, but if the opportunity to create a new city meant we could help to begin this shift, then it seemed a worthwhile endeavour. Second, we were intrigued by both the density – 700,000 residents on 1,386 hectares – as well as the proximity to Singapore. In denser cities that have excellent transit systems and pedestrian-oriented environments, the need for a car substantially decreased. Could Forest City become the first metropolis on Earth to go completely carfree? That’s our hope.
APR: Why four islands instead of one? Grove: This was also a decision that was made before we were engaged in the project, but we believe it was absolutely the correct approach. Obviously, Forest City has been years in the making, involving close collaboration between the primary developer and joint-venture local developer partners, multiple planning and design consultants, hydrology and infrastructure consultants, the Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA), the Johor State Government, the Malaysia Department of the Environment, and the Government of Malaysia.
From what we have experienced, the most critical component to the project’s success to date has been the result of a transparent engagement process. Open discussions raised valid concerns regarding potential effects that both short-term construction and long-term development would have on multiple issues including the environment, transportation, and economic impacts to local fisheries.
Public discourse addressed these issues, and construction was even voluntarily halted to allow for the completion of a detailed environmental impact assessment by an independent agency. This transparent process is also what led the shift from one island to four, as hydrology experts studied tidal flows and currents, and environmental experts identified ecologically-sensitive areas such as shallow-water seagrass areas, providing important mapping tools to adjust the islands’ ultimate location, size, and form. APR: Can 700,000 people fit into the space? Isn’t it too high density? Grove: The short answer is yes, because it is absolutely imperative that our cities become denser. With an estimated 9.7 billion people on the planet by 2050, it is critical that we learn to live with less – certainly with the goal of protecting our shared natural resources and rethinking traditional approaches to land use where, in many places, land is still treated as an infinite commodity. We are witnessing a unique shift in trends around the world, where younger generations are moving back into cities, eschewing the desire for private cars and individual plots of land for a more communal experience.
Public parks and plazas create spaces for children to play and adults to interact, without being relegated to private yards. Denser office districts rather than suburban corporate campuses allow diverse industries to mix and co-create, sparking innovation and the exchange of ideas. And again, convenient transit connections allow for efficient mobility, rather than frustrating gridlock. This is the direction that our cities need to go – building up instead of out. APR: How does the underground / below ground roads/transport system work? Grove: To be clear, nothing at Forest City is being built underground. Because the city is atop reclaimed land, everything is at-grade or higher, and only presents the illusion of being “underground”. The transportation system is organized as a multilayered approach, designed to prioritize pedestrian connections. Infrastructure related to vehicular traffic is located at the ground level, while a contiguous landscape above creates public space adjacent to transit stations at the top level of the infrastructure podium.
This approach envisions a new paradigm for the public realm — a four million sq m contiguous rooftop landscape that links all development parcels, accommodates stormwater, re-establishes native habitat zones, filters runoff, and provides recreational opportunities in an entirely automobile-free experience. Green walls, sky gardens integrated into the architecture of the city, and rooftop landscapes on individual buildings create yet another dimension of vertical open space that allows humans and nature to coexist at new heights. APR: In 20 – 30 years’ time when the entire project is completed, won’t there be new concepts and technology that would supplant the current technology envisioned by the masterplan? Grove: Yes, there absolutely will be new concepts and technologies, and it is our hope that the master plan provides enough flexibility in its framework to allow this to happen. New modes of transit or our propensity for ride-sharing will likely replace some of the need for traditional auto-dominated streets, better sensors will deliver even greater energy efficiency, and cost reductions will permit more futuristic materials and systems. The key is to design cities for their ultimate end-user, the human experience. Specific technologies will quickly become obsolete, but our desire to engage with nature and with each other will always endure. APR: The masterplan envisions increased accessibility to Singapore such as another bridge across the straits. It has been said this is a sure thing and some work has already begun on this including the building of an immigration checkpoint. What are your views? Grove: We are somewhat out of the loop at this point when it comes to any political discussions taking place between the governments of Malaysia and Singapore, but it is our view that a multiplicity of connections between Forest City and Singapore will benefit both locales. While border controls including customs and immigration are obviously important for security, from the lens of increasing economic output and exchange, it is vitally important that they become a seamless and efficient experience. There is already an incredible amount of daily cross-border traffic between Singapore and Malaysia as both are heavily dependent on each other, so more connections and the ease with which those connections happen has many more advantages than disadvantages. APR: Do you foresee additional transport linkages to Singapore from Johor apart from said bridge e.g. ferry? Grove: To help connect Forest City to Singapore and consequently to the rest of the world, robust transportation connections are necessary. Forest City is planned to include multiple modes of public transit, including an extensive ferry network that connects to downtown Singapore/Marina Bay, Changi Airport, and potentially even to Indonesia or other parts of coastal Malaysia.
Additionally, the internal light rail transit system within Forest City will hopefully have a direct link to Singapore’s MRT network and even the planned high-speed rail line connecting Singapore to Kuala Lumpur. Smaller, internal water taxis between Forest City’s four islands will complete the system.
APR: Forest City is supposed to be a future sustainable city. What are some of its most outstanding sustainable features? Grove: A primary concern during the planning process was Forest City’s potential impact on regional fisheries. Located near the estuary of the Sungai Pulai River and its two Ramsar-designated conservation zones, the brackish waters of the region support a diverse collection of coastal mangroves, shallow water seagrass, and intertidal mudflats. These ecosystems provide habitat for an estimated 75% of locally caught fish, and are among the most productive and biologically complex ecosystems on Earth.
The plan for Forest City is organized to protect endangered seagrass beds through the creation of a preservation zone that restricts motorized boats, limits human access, and creates opportunities for ongoing monitoring, research, and conservation of this vital landscape.
Additionally, over 10 linear kilometres of new mangrove habitat helps to resupply some of the ecosystem lost during the past century due to urban expansion in Singapore and Southern Malaysia. Combined, these two objectives offer an incremental addition of protected habitat in the region, helping to strengthen fisheries and sustain this sector of the local economy.
Looking beyond the natural ecosystem, however, the incredible human and cultural diversity of Malaysia is another defining characteristic of the region. Forest City celebrates this diversity in its collection of urban neighbourhoods that prioritize cultural and civic amenities at the centre of each district. Public parks, squares, and plazas are activated with a mix of commercial, cultural, and civic programmes that establish distinct identities for each neighbourhood. These areas allow for festivals, gatherings, and other events that showcase the traditions of the many ethnicities and cultures that will shape Forest City’s social networks. Similarly, a varied programme of residential housing types is integrated into each neighbourhood, ensuring varied demographics ranging from single professionals and young families to elderly residents to help create a socially and economically sustainable city.