By Sam Tan
We all have street stories and mine is one of a typical 80’s baby who grew up in a residential area in Petaling Jaya. You have all heard the usual reminiscing – the evening over-the-gate badminton sessions with the neighbourhood kids, the street football, the catching of tadpoles in the padang, the sound of the roti man or ice-cream man we chased after with our parents’ change and of course the rhythmic calling of the karung guni chanting the catchy refrain, “Old newspaper, paper lama, sau gao pou zi“.
Then we grow up. We move on and we see things change little by little. As I was watching my own kids on the iPad one afternoon, when the thought jumped into my head: Whatever happened to play in the way I knew it? Over-the-gate badminton, padang tadpole-scavenging and the roti-man seems hovering on the brink of extinction. It has also been a while since I heard the chant of the paper-lama uncle.
I sometimes come across articles about the increase of depression among children and teens, and wonder if it really may just have to do with the lack of outdoor play. But to be honest, we have contributed to it. We are so afraid of letting them out of door, out of our sight. We constantly fear for their – and our – safety because we’ve all heard the news reports of kidnappings, robberies and assault.
I remembered a season in which I kept meeting people who had been robbed in front of their own gates. A friend had had her arm slashed by robbers while she was backing out of her house. At least one in every five person I met would tell me they had been a victim, or knew of someone who had been a victim, of crime. In the last 15 years, our crime rate had soared. Times really have changed. And so have our neighbourhoods.
We cannot sit here lamenting the passing of the good ol’ days and not to offer to do anything about it. And so we as a community have responded; in the early 2000s, our neighbourhoods began closing their doors. Our streets, robbed of safety, responded as we started wearing wary and worried looks. The wolves we know as fear and insecurity have set upon us.
Security guards were planted about and security sheds sprang up, spawning the era of the gated and guarded community. This era initiated its own changes. Our legal infrastructure had to change to accommodate evolving living conditions. Gating would have been illegal under certain legislation which prohibited, for example, the blocking of public roads and the movement of the public to public facilities.
I have yet looked into crime-rate data as related to the rise of the gated community but I have come across a study of a particular neighbourhood that showed a decrease in crime after the installation of security zones and the erection of guardhouses and boom gates.
There are also American studies that show gating communities contribute to residents feeling safer. In another survey conducted by the Asian Professional Security Association, it was found respondents agreed to feeling safer in the gated-community environment. This peace of mind is important, for it may be the thing that would help bring that community spirit, and neighbourly play back to our streets.
This evolution of the gated community is not only reflective of the things we have lost over time – safety – but is also an illustration of how the role of developers has evolved. There is more to it than putting up a series of buildings. It is about problem-solving. We were faced with the issue of security and the most practical solution was to cordon off residential sections.
Property developers have more than the property to think about. In every product offering we need to see the bigger picture and the bigger issues surrounding our communities and their living spaces, their lifestyle and the environment. We need to think on behalf of the people living in the spaces.
What are their needs and how can we improve the quality of life? How can we encourage our children to play on the streets again, or again foster that neighbourhood spirit I remember from my childhood?
How can we encourage people to mingle with their neighbours and adopt healthier lifestyles for their own wellbeing? We think of safety systems, we think of parks, we think of playgrounds and we think, how can we make it sustainable? There is a whole system to worry about and that is part of contemporary developer’s role.
When I look at my little ones, there are many things I had growing up I wished they could experience them too. There are values I’d like them to have that would come from these experiences. But I also know there are things they now have that I wish I had then.
I recall a Yale commencement speech by Tom Hanks: “I’m not so sure the planet earth is in worse shape than it was 30, no 18, no four years ago. That’s not to say it’s in better shape either. It is interesting, though, pondering what we have lost with time and what have we gained.
“Just as the world has become a better place after all, it has also grown a bit worse at the exact same rate. A one step up and one step back sort of cosmic balance between forward progress and cultural retreat that puts mankind on the bell curve of existence,” said Hanks.
Of course life seemed to have been better in the days before we needed to have gates; but I suppose that is just how the world works and we are here to alleviate the issues we face with solutions that are immediate, or relatively immediate, as and when we anticipate them. And that is always a balancing act.