Forest City - Futuristic city or farcical folly?

Find out as I frolic through the flora of this fake island while uttering other F-words. This is my on-the-ground review of Malaysia's mega land reclamation project in the Johor Strait.

Dispatches from Southeast Asia: Forest City, Malaysia.

Forest City is an artificial island project in Malaysia, located in the Johor strait opposite Singapore. It has been billed as the Shenzhen of Southeast Asia, with Singapore playing the role of Hong Kong. One of the earlier images depicted it as a Manhattan in the tropics.

The design that was settled on looks more like a futuristic solarpunk city. I’ve been keeping track of the project with a Forest City fact page if you are unfamiliar with it.

I’ve seen enough new cities in Southeast Asia to know that they rarely turn out as the sales brochures depict, so I had to see how this was turning out in real life. I was booked to go to Forest City in April 2020, but that obviously didn’t happen. I ended up visiting in July 2022, not long after Malaysia reopened to the world. The city had been open for residential living for 5 years by then, but as it relied so much on Chinese investors calling it their second home, it was always going to struggle through the pandemic.

Everywhere I go I try and go by public transport to get a better understanding of transport in the region. This new city is projected to be home to 700,000 people, yet it is hard to get to if you don’t have a car.

My journey to Forest City started in Johor Bahru, which in itself is a hard place to get around by public transport. I went to the bus station at JB Sentral and I couldn’t find a bus that goes there. I went to the tourist office and they were confused as to why I would get a bus there. Finally, I went back to the bus station and another person told me that there used to be a bus but it stopped operating. This was not a good sign.

There didn’t appear to be a bus service from the nearest mainland town either, so I took the lazy option that we are afforded in Southeast Asia and booked a Grab taxi. I hate getting taxis for such a long distance, but it was only 90 MYR ($20 USD) for the 37 km trip.

Forest City has been in the news this year for being a ghost town, though that implies that no one is living there (like a ghost city in China). Some of these articles sounded clickbaity, so I wanted to see Forest City for myself.

As we approached the island a row of towers emerged on the horizon. They reminded me of the Soviet-era apartment blocks that you see on the fringes of Eastern European cities. As we crossed the bridge onto the island it started raining, and the grey skies added to the Soviet aesthetic of these towers (albeit in a tropical setting).

This is my review of Forest City. I spent two nights in an Airbnb, renting the spare room of an early buyer on this weird and lonely island. I came here ready to rip the island apart in the name of going viral on a news site. But it is complicated. Forest City is in some ways better than I expected, but overall it’s in bad shape and it made me mad at what a missed opportunity and colossal waste of resources this is turning out to be.

Once the taxi crossed into the island I saw the row of towers that could be seen in the distance. These towers are in the area called Starview Bay (a name that sounds like every other outer-suburban real estate development). If you look at that solarpunk image at the top of this post, this row of unremarkable identical towers looks nothing like that.

I could already tell that Forest City and I weren’t going to get along.

I arrived earlier than my stated time of arrival at my Airbnb, so I pointed the taxi to the central transport hub and had a look around while I waited. The bus terminal was deserted and there was no information about any buses to anywhere on the mainland. There are shops and restaurants at the bus stop, but they didn’t survive the international lockout during the pandemic.

After seeing that depressing row of towers I was ready to rip on this place. My snark was soon disarmed though by the overwhelming amount of greenery. It’s not a city in the forest, but it’s already a pleasantly lush place to be. Even though greenery grows fast in these tropical climes, most of this would have been imported. Whoever was in charge of the procurement of greenery did an amazing job.

I was impressed with how green this place was, and thus how much work must go into keeping it looking like a kept garden. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I saw more gardeners here than visitors. This obviously has to be paid for, so how long can they sustain paying for gardeners if there aren’t enough residents to pay monthly fees?

The centrepiece of the main island is Carnelian Tower 1. This actually looks good in real life, and give it a few more years and it will be as green as the sales brochure portrays it. It probably looks better because it’s the only tower on the island that wasn’t designed with the same cookie-cutter as the other towers. The domed building next to this tower is the main showroom for the Forest City development.

Inside this building is the most elaborate scale model I have ever seen. The model shows what the city will look like when it is fully built. The model includes a larger tower that will have a giant eagle on top of it (or it may become one of the great “never built” projects of Malaysia).

The model shows a train or metro line coming in from the mainland, despite there being no plan for a train being announced.

Here is a short video I made where I walked around the entire model.

This model must be a sales agent’s most powerful tool to help meet their sales targets. They just need enough planeloads of prospective buyers on inspection tours, and then let the model do the rest of the work. I was starting to feel like I could live here myself, so I had to step outside and get a dose of humid equatorial air before I signed my life away.

There are three islands planned, but they are still working on expanding the first island. I went for a walk to an unopened section of the island and I was quickly reminded that the reality doesn’t match the model.

This is the section called Ataraxia Park. The apartments here look the same as the apartment I was staying at Regalis Park, which also looks the same as the apartments at Starview Bay. Cookie cutter towers everywhere.

I went back to my apartment cluster at Regalia Park to look at the shops. Most of the shops were closed, with most of the shops that were open being furniture and homeware stores.

There was one shopping plaza open with a Marry Brown fast food outlet and a kiosk selling coffee. I ended up finding another Chinese noodle restaurant, but there was not much else to pick from.

I saw some closed supermarkets that didn’t make it through the pandemic. They looked like sets for a zombie apocalypse movie.

There are no basements here as they would just be digging into freshly reclaimed land that was previously the sea. As a result, the whole island is basically a parking lot with buildings built on top of them.

It looks like there is a car park for every apartment. The fact that Forest City is so far from mainland public transport means that anyone who lives here has to have a car. This is one of the things that made me mad. I was actually walking around swearing into the void like a madman because it made me mad that such a big project could be built and sold as an “eco-project” without being connected by public transport.

At one point the developers had pitched to have the Singapore-KL high-speed railway build another stop near the island, which still wouldn’t have been near enough to be a transit solution. A development of this size should not have been approved in the first place without having a plan for a railway connection.

The car-centric design is really noticeable as a pedestrian. I rarely saw anyone walking around (mainly because there is hardly anyone here). For those who do walk though, the pedestrian infrastructure seems to have been planned by someone who has never had to walk in a city before.

This is a brand-new city that has been planned and built at the same time. The most simplistically obvious thing to do is the have footpaths on either side of every road. I was surprised to find how few footpaths there were. I ended up walking on the road most of the time, so it was a good thing that it was mostly a ghost town. It rains on and off so often here, so they should have copied Singapore by building covered walkways.

What is even crazier is that they didn’t think to build separate bike lines on the road. They’re selling Forest City as a green eco-paradise city, yet they overlook something so simple. Here is a section of the road where a bike lane looked like it was added as an afterthought.

The developers had a blank slate to build an urban paradise, and they’ve already blown it. I often wonder about people who are designing cities in Southeast Asia, and if they have travelled. Getting such jobs requires a degree of some sort, but there is no requirement for real-world experience. Have they been to the Netherlands and seen bicycle super-highways where bike lanes are separated from the road?

My biggest takeaway was how pleasant cities can be when surrounded by lush greenery. As a Melburnian I’ve always known this, as Melbourne is famous for its tree-lined streets. We all know how pleasing green cities are, so why don’t we do it everywhere? Make it a law that every new urban development has to have an abundance of green space. We don’t need to dredge an island from the sea to make a green city.

Another thing that bothers me about this is that they want to make an urban paradise yet it doesn’t do anything to address the unwalkable cities in Malaysia. Johor Bahru is a good example of an urban planning disaster. Apart from the old town area which has a walkable street grid, the rest of the city is crisscrossed with big roads that make it hard to walk anywhere.

There are other big urban developments that are being built without any railway plan as well. Instead, they should have planned a railway that crosses the state of Johor, and build new urban areas around each new station. And build the cities block by block, as demand calls for, and not build a ridiculously massive city first and then hope to sell as many units as possible.

This incremental approach also encourages a variety of different buildings, rather than a developer putting up as many of the same buildings as possible in order to save construction and design costs. I have written about this before in my article about building better cities in Southeast Asia. One of the rules is to not let developers build a whole city.

Finally, why did this need to be an island when there is enough land on the mainland to build? The environmental cost of dredging and sourcing more sand (which is already a scarce commodity in Southeast Asia) would have cancelled out the benefits of having some apartment towers covered in greenery.

It’s too soon to tell how this will work out in the future. The fate of the project is tied to the current problems of similar developers in China who have run out of funds. Travellers from China have not been able to return yet, and there is a recession on the horizon. I was going to say that Malaysia might have reconsidered land reclamation given that the construction industry is looking to reduce its carbon emissions, but the reality is that Malaysia is steaming ahead with more land reclamation projects.

I will return in a few years to see how this island project is faring.

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