Seeing green

The Star Online, 3 June 2007

The vast and therapeutic Sentul Park, a significant part of the Sentul West development in Kuala Lumpur, is one fine example of why there should be more such spaces in the city.

IMAGINE you are a developer who has inherited an under-utilised golf course. You plan several blocks of swanky high-rise apartments but find you have 14ha of land to spare.

Do you squeeze in a few more blocks of condos? Or do you create a lush landscaped park?

A shining example of the proverbial “road less taken” can be seen today at Sentul Park, part of the Sentul West development in Kuala Lumpur by YTL Land & Development Bhd. Its mix of open grassy spaces and jungle-like nooks with evocative names like South Gardens, Central Lake, East Fields and West Fields certainly creates an oasis of calm amidst the concrete jungle that surrounds it.

So why did YTL choose to go down this road?

In the 1990s, developers were crazy about golf-course-themed residential projects.

Yet, a survey conducted in 2003 showed that, amazingly, only 6% of prospective buyers wanted homes by a golf course. A whopping 53% preferred “country-resort-garden-botanic park” living. In other words, good social and environmental sense made sound ringgit and sen too.

Sentul Park’s principal designer, the renowned landscape architect Sek San (who declines to have his picture taken), says the idea of a park surrounding the condo units is like creating “outdoor rooms that are an extension of each home”.

And urban kids who would otherwise not know what ginger plants or tadpoles in ponds look and feel like can “discover it for themselves” here.

Outdoor sofas

As we walk into the park from the adjacent KLPAC (Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre), it’s clear that Ng really means what he says about creating “outdoor rooms”. There are garden “sofa sets” made of pre-shaped wire mesh located in strategic spots for you to sit down and take in the scenery!  

“This is tropical monsoon furniture for the outdoors,” says Sek San. “Just one kick, and it’s all dry.” (Which is more than can be said for most local park furniture which is often designed for dry temperate weather.)  

Sleek chairs and origami-like flamingos, both made from sheet metal, provide artistic conversation starters. And not only can we sit on the chairs, we can even spin ourselves silly in them.  

The traditional Malay wooden wakaf or shelter is modernised into an unobtrusive glass and steel structure. “The idea is not to glorify an object or building. Nature is the big thing here,” explains Sek San, whose name in Cantonese is a homonym of “stone and mountains”. 

Indeed, there is even a little Tom Sawyer-like jetty (no, why don’t we call it the Tanjung Karang fishing village jetty) where kids can dangle their feet just above a pond amidst luxuriant canopies of greenery.  

Creating a forest in the city 

A camping ground (thoughtfully equipped with bathrooms nearby) and another shelter, inspired by Taman Negara’s wildlife observation “hides”, also grace this forested part of Sentul Park.  

“Parents can let the kids camp out for the night and go back to the condo the next morning,” says Sek San. Security is not an issue as it’s a private gated park with security officers roaming the grounds - some on horseback. The only wildlife here, apart from unruly teenagers, will be domestic cats and dogs.  

“All Malaysian (urban) parks nowadays don’t allow dogs. But this park is dog-friendly,” says Sek San, whose gregarious golden retriever runs alongside us, before taking a dip in the pond to cool off.

His concept is to tread lightly on Mother Nature - literally. He has carefully provided metal grating walkways to protect the native undergrowth, prevent soil compression and to allow light and water to recharge the earth.  

However, it’s not truly deep jungle and, as a result, this corner of the park does have its mosquitoes. Then again, some thinning out of undergrowth plus cultivation of insect-repelling plants might clear the air, so to speak.  

Sek San has kept many existing acacia and casuarina trees, leftover from the days when this place was a golf club, and planted a delectable array of new ones, including mighty tropical hardwoods such as meranti, cengal, West Indian mahogany and teak.  

And of course, the towering Sandoricum koetjape, the very Sentol tree that gave this area its name. When the trees mature, a magnificent six-storeys high leafy canopy will blossom over the park.  

But why not fruit trees

“Singapore’s authorities tried planting them in parks (around flats) and discovered it causes neighbourhood conflicts,” he explains. “People fight over the fruits. Unless management collects the fruits and distributes them evenly.”  

The grassy spaces of the park are versatile enough for frisbee flying, football kick-abouts, picnics, weddings and even grand open air concerts (such as YTL’s 50th anniversary bash featuring tenor Russell Watson in 2005) or last year’s al fresco Starlight Cinema (where the park became a giant outdoor theatre).  

If you’re lucky enough to have a friend staying at the Maple, the adjacent luxury condo, check out the four themed gardens there and an infinity pool with glorious views not just of Sentul Park, but of the whole Klang Valley right up to the distant mountains of Hulu Klang....  

Eco-friendly cement 

Throughout the park, Sek San has used basic, local materials as a matter of principle.

Steel cables and upside down concrete drain culverts are adorned with flowering creepers for beauty and shade. Textured concrete serve as benches. 

And, in a nod to Sentul’s heritage of railway workshops, old wooden railtrack sleepers are incorporated into the pavements alongside simple asphalt. It’s all low-maintenance and low-cost, yet eminently functional with its own rugged aesthetics.  

“People may not think asphalt on walkways is very nice. But actually it’s softer, there’s a bounce to it,” he explains. 

And what about the egalitarian, textured cement benches?  

”It’s not ugly. It can take lots of abuse and look even better after that. Whereas, imagine how marble would look after a few years?” says Sek San.  

Inspired by the philosophy of Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa (who was renowned for his back-to-basics style) he is against the use of imported chic materials such as marble from Italy and tiles from Spain. 

“Bringing them all the way here entails high energy costs and it’s less environmentally sustainable.”  

Nor does he believe in using polished river stones from the Philip- pines as rivers there are dredged and damaged to obtain them.  

“I can use chipped granite and limestone or even bricks. These materials are more democratic. It’s all about how it’s designed.”  

Only a playground for the elite

However, the fact remains that Sentul Park is a private gated area – an exclusive playground for those who can buy the half-million ringgit condo units of Sentul West. 

Is this eco-elitism

“Initially I thought it was,” says Sek San. “But then again, YTL owns the land and they could have easily built more condos instead. 

“Anyway, this area was once a private golf course. I suppose it is less elitist when the whole family gets to use the park (compared to just golfers). And 5% of the park (around KLPAC) is open to the public.” 

The irony is that we now have to pay top ringgit for experiences that people in Sentul could have for free 50 years ago. 

“In the 1950s, people used to fish and swim in the Gombak river which runs along Sentul Road. There were orchards and coconut plantations further inside,” reveals Dr Yeoh Seng Guan, an urban anthropologist with Monash University, Petaling Jaya. And no doubt, they were also able to “discover for themselves” the joys of tadpoles and ginger plants then. 

But this is no fault of Sentul Park’s developers. It’s just a shame that places around Kuala Lumpur which were originally supposed to be public parks and community forests have fallen into private hands. The list includes 

Bukit Sungai Putih (in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur), Bukit Kiara (also in Kuala Lumpur) and the recent cemetery controversy at the Kota Damansara Community Forest (in Selangor).  

Dr Yeoh also notes that the Sentul Railway Workshop (where Sentul West sits now) was a cornerstone of the national railway system. Yet, in the current gentrification of the area and the clearing of the nearby railway quarters, little of the workers’ contributions have been remembered.  

“There should be a small museum. Or at least a sculpture, since arts is a theme here. Something to commemorate the people who once lived here,’’ says Dr Yeoh.  

“The developers should realise they are sitting not only on a goldmine of real estate but also a goldmine of history. Sentul has always been a very colourful area.’’ (There are mosques, Anglican, Catholic and Methodist churches as well as Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist temples. Opposition leader Tan Chee Khoon and infamous gangster Botak Chin hailed from here.) 

And now that YTL has successfully added “green’’ to the area’s colourful attributes, one can only hope that other developers and the Government will take the cue and create more such urban oases for the public.  

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