How a transit system, walkable cities, and more interesting buildings could make Johor Bahru the Shenzhen of Southeast Asia.
Johor Bahru has been described as the next Shenzhen due to its proximity to Singapore. Shenzhen became an economic powerhouse by becoming a special economic zone (SEZ) and building a new city in the slipstream of Hong Kong.
Malaysia hopes to emulate Shenzhen by creating an Iskandar Malaysia-Singapore SEZ. Iskandar Malaysia is the southern development corridor in Johor State, with most of the area bordering Singapore.
[Iskandar Malaysia map by iskandarmalaysia.com.my.]
It’s easy to say that the Shenzhentrification of Johor Bahru is inevitable due to its similar strategic geographical location. Iskandar Malaysia also sees itself as becoming an international metropolis. There would need to be major changes though if Iskandar Malaysia wants to transform itself like Shenzhen and become an international metropolis.
Future Southeast Asia covers transport and urban development issues, so I won’t cover the economic merits of an SEZ. This article focuses on how improving public transport and building better cities could make Johor Bahru an international metropolis of Southeast Asia.
Public transport like Shenzhen
Shenzhen was a fishing village until it was designated as China’s first SEZ in the 1980s. Its growth since then has been spectacular. Shenzhen recorded a population of 17.56 million in 2020, making it the third most populous city by urban population in China after Shanghai and Beijing.
To get an idea of how big Shenzhen has become, look at the Shenzhen Metro map. The first line of the Shenzhen Metro opened in 2004, and 20 years later the metro system has 16 lines with 373 stations covering 555.43 kilometres (as of January 2024).
[View full size.]
Johor Bahru currently has a shuttle train from JB Sentral to Woodlands in Singapore, and a train from JB to Gemas, where passengers change for trains to KL. If Johor Bahru wants to be like Shenzhen then it will need to make a masterplan for a comprehensive urban transit network.
The JB to Gemas line is being upgraded, so eventually there will be more frequent direct trains to KL. The only other line under construction is the RTS Link, which will provide fast and frequent connections to Singapore. Proposed lines include 3 light rail lines, and the KL-Singapore high-speed railway is now being reconsidered.
I made a concept map that shows current and proposed lines, along with some lines that I propose.
[Johor Bahru Metro Concept Map (view full size).]
The JB concept map is modelled on the map used by Shenzhen Government Online. This map shows the Shenzhen metro system in relation to Hong Kong. My map shows JB in relation to Singapore, also showing how cross-border railways connect with the Singapore MRT system.
[Guomao station in Shenzhen.]
Urban planning like Shenzhen
I first visited Shenzhen in 2010, and I was underwhelmed with the city after having been to cities like Shanghai and Hong Kong. I revisited Shenzhen in 2017, and I was amazed at how more interesting it had become. It felt like a real city that had been lived in, and it was on its way to becoming an international metropolis.
Johor Bahru could emulate the success of Shenzhen, though there would need to be major changes in how they are building urban areas. If Iskandar Malaysia wants to be an international metropolis, it has to stop building suburban sprawl.
Iskandar Malaysia is characterised by low density housing projects that are car dependent. It will be difficult to build a railway in these areas without building urban cores with a higher population density.
The Iskandar Puteri area has a road structure that resembles a suburban development in Florida. This is not a good layout upon which to build an “international metropolis”.
Iskandar Malaysia needs to drop the mindset of it being a dormitory for workers in Singapore if it wants to be an international metropolis.
[View satellite map of Iskandar Puteri.]
Part of why Shenzhen works as a city as it is gridded out like a planned city. Here is what Shenzhen looks like near the Hong Kong border.
[View satellite map of Shenzhen.]
Even though there are big highways with clover-leaf interchanges, there are blocks that are easy to walk. The grid system also helps in building a subway network.
Compare that with Johor Bahru, where it is difficult to walk around beyond the historic old town area.
[Going for a walk in JB is a nightmare.]
The unwalkability of cities is a feature of modern Malaysia. The most walkable areas of cities are the old towns (Chinatown in KL, Georgetown Penang, Ipoh old town, Melaka old town). The cities are now built to serve cars, and walking in Malaysian cities outside the old areas is difficult.
I wrote about the bad urban design of Cyberjaya, which is a new city that was built for cars. If Johor Bahru wants to be an international metropolis, it needs to start retrofitting its streets to be more walkable.
Interesting buildings like Shenzhen
Shenzhen spent its formative years of its SEZ era of getting the basics right. It’s now in the era of building architectural landmarks that you would expect from a significant global city.
My trip in 2017 coincided with the completion of the Ping An Finance Centre (currently the 5th tallest building in the world).
World-famous architects (starchitects) are filling in the Shenzhen skyline. Zaha Hadid Architects won the design competition for Tower C at Shenzhen Bay Super Headquarters Base.
[Tower C at Shenzhen Bay Super Headquarters Base by Zaha Hadid Architects.]
Büro Ole Scheeren won the competition to design the new headquarters for Tencent.
[Tencent Headquarters in Shenzhen by Büro Ole Scheeren.]
Architecturally-interesting buildings are hallmarks of great cities. In contrast to these examples in Shenzhen are the boring buildings and bad urban planning of Forest City.
Forest City is broken – here’s how to fix it
Forest City is a new urban area built on an artificial island in the Johor Strait, and it was planned to house 700,000 people. Forest City has since become more famous for being a “ghost city” and its association with the troubled Chinese developer, Country Garden.
Forest City started off with a grand vision of a being a great city. The original Forest City masterplan by Sasaki envisaged a group of islands that looked more like a futuristic Manhattan in the tropics.
Instead of this exciting futuristic city, Forest City currently resembles a mass-produced housing development in provincial China.
[Forest City: Inside Malaysia’s Chinese-built ‘ghost city’.]
Great cities of the world such as Shanghai, Hong Kong, and now Shenzhen, do not have rows of cookie cutter towers in their city centre. I visited Forest City in 2022, and I was dismayed with what a wasted opportunity this was.
[Row of cookie-cutter apartment towers in Forest City.]
There are aspects of Forest City that I liked, such as the abundance of greenery (here is my full Forest City trip report). I think it’s a bit harsh to call it a ghost city, and most articles running this headline feels like click bait. There are many bad design decisions that have been made here, such as lack of footpaths and not enough bike lanes.
The good news is that Forest City can turn itself around if it makes some drastic changes.
Build a railway to Forest City
A new city of this size shouldn’t have been planned without a railway first. When I visited in 2022 there wasn’t even a bus from JB Sentral. I went to the information desk to work out if I could catch a bus somewhere to get another bus, but no one knew how to do it. I ended up getting a Grab taxi to Forest City. There were no Grab drivers based in Forest City, so I had to book a Grab by pretending I was in Iskandar Puteri (16 km away), then get it to go via Forest City to take me back to JB Sentral.
Plans for a railway now appear to be in motion, with the proposed light rail system being planned to be connected to Forest City. There are also calls to reroute the high-speed railway via Forest City.
Say no to single-developer projects of this scale
Entire cities should not be built by a single developer. If the company gets in financial trouble then the city goes down with it. The Country Garden crisis has proven this point.
The other problem with a single developer is that they are more likely to mass construct the same type of building to save costs. This is called the cookie cutter method, where rows of identical buildings are built. Great cities of the world have a variety of buildings.
I stayed at an apartment in Forest City, and every apartment tower is identical. Apart from the signature tower and sales showroom, everything looks the same in Forest City.
[Forest City from my visit in 2022.]
The government should be strict on this and not be swayed by developers who are more interested in churning out identical buildings in the name of increasing their profits. Let Forest City stand as a monument of what not to do in the future.
Grid it out and let anyone build here
Going forward, Forest City (and everywhere in Malaysia for that matter) should scrap its future road layout and make a gridded area. Why not copy cities that already work. Perhaps Manhattan is too big, so copy Melbourne’s famous Hoddle Grid. This 1.61 km × 0.80 km grid of streets alternates between wide streets and small lanes. The blocks are big enough for skyscrapers, so there can be a variety of building sizes here. Let developers bid for each block, and if a single developer gets multiple blocks then they can’t build the same building in different blocks.
[Copy the Melbourne CBD grid design.]
If the Melbourne grid is too big for developers to get their head around, start with something even smaller like Shamian Island in Guangzhou. This little walkable paradise is the most interesting place in Guangzhou and it would be easy enough to replicate. I often wonder if urban planners have actually travelled to see how cities work, or if they travel anywhere without a car.
[The beautiful and walkable Shamian Island in Guangzhou.]
Shamian is 900 metres facing the Pearl River, and 300 metres from canal to river. Copy this and you will have instant success compared to the boring nonsense that is the current Forest City plan.
[The origianl Shamian Islanf plan (via Wikimedia Commons).]
I have written about building on grids here: Building better new cities in Southeast Asia.
Can JB be the Shenzhen of Southeast Asia?
It would be unrealistic for JB to be exactly like Shenzhen due to the massive population differences. Shenzhen’s population of 17 million is a drop in the bucket compared to China’s population of 1.4 billion people. Malaysia has a population of over 33 million, so half of that in JB isn’t going to happen.
A more realistic outcome is that eventually JB matches the size of Singapore, which has a population of about 5.5 million people. The economist, Tyler Cowen, predicted passport-free travel between Malaysia and Singapore, and this is now being considered as part of the SEZ. In the future it would make sense for passport-free travel between Singapore and all of Malaysia and that Singapore and JB become an urban conurbation. Passport-free travel would then be extended to the Riau Islands as part of the Indonesia–Malaysia–Singapore growth triangle.
JB could also be the Dubai of Southeast Asia, though it should not look to Dubai for urban planning inspiration. Dubai has become a global city where people from around the world have chosen to base themselves and their business. With Malaysia rebooting its ‘second home’ golden visa program, JB could become the Dubai of Southeast Asia.
Is 2024 the beginning of a new era for Johor?
With the proposed Johor-Singapore SEZ, perhaps this is a good omen that Johor is ready to ride the back of the Singapore dragon to prosperity, just as Shenzhen did with Hong Kong.
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