NICOLE KOBIE Wired 22 Mar 16;
Forest City is quartet of islands born from reclaimed land in the Straits of Johor, the thin strip of water between neighbours Malaysia and Singapore, but it may as well be the uncanny valley so much is it like wandering into a video game.
The flaws become apparent without even looking very hard. The road linking the first of the islands with mainland Malaysia is lined with fully grown palms, but ten feet back from the road, construction crews push around sand to build a foundation for the fake island. A pool next to the main entrance is surrounded by jungle as thick as on the nearby mainland, as though it's been growing for all of time, but it's no more than three months old.
"Are those flamingos? They are -- are they real? I can't tell." The fully-sized, unmoving elephant model plonked down next to the realistic-from-the-road pink birds suggests they're indeed plastic, too.
Welcome to the 'Role Model of Future Cities', Malaysia's latest attempt to build a city from scratch and compete with Singapore -- just two kilometres from the more prosperous city state.
I'm at the development site and marketing suite as an embedded freelance journalist on a trade mission -- with UK Trade and Investment and Innovate UK promoting British Internet of Things and smart city firms to Southeast Asia -- and our schedule included a trip to Forest City.
In the works for years, the full plans for Forest City had only been unveiled a few weeks before by Chinese developers Country Garden, with a glossy marketing brochure promising "a place of wonder" with "crystal blue skies and the sounds of nature" and a "blooming boulevard of flowers in a vehicle-less environment". Concept artwork shows glistening towers draped with green plants, ringed with beaches and surrounded by sparkling seas. As it's early days, with work expected to take decades, little is actually built, but the ideas behind Forest City are showcased at the main marketing suite, a flat, white and glass structure that's pristinely clean with greenery criss-crossing the walls.
Inside, an incredible model of the city sits in the centre, showcasing what the city aims to look like when it's done. It's straight from Just Cause 2, a game unofficially based on Malaysia that focuses on life in a dystopian island state, with a dash of urban-planner game Cities: Skylines.
Xiang Ye Tao, manager at Forest City, described homes so smart they'll keep your orchid perfectly watered without human intervention, that a window broken by local children kicking around a football will be fixed before you return home. All the surface transport will be sustainable: residents will drive over the bridge but "dock" their car underground, we're told, though it's clear there's plenty of above ground roads on the model.
Buildings will be smart and layered with plants, which we're told will help reduce cooling costs. A mission attendee from the Carbon Trust says that idea is not entirely nonsense -- "it's useful, not just a gimmick," said head of public sector Tim Pryce -- but it's noticeable that the foliage hanging down in front of our faces are, in fact, plastic.
Outside, the plants are at least real. Verdant gardens ring the space-ship style building, and tall palms tower over sun loungers on perfect white sand, which is littered with more fake animals -- including a colony of plastic seals and giant, terrifying crabs, which look like characters to manoeuvre past to reach the next level.
But that automated watering system to keep your orchid perky? It's nowhere to be seen, as old-fashioned humans stand around pointing water hoses at plants, despite how easy it would be to install automatic irrigation systems on a greenfield site. And the view from that sun lounger? Industrial plants in one direction, oil tankers in the other.
One mapping expert, who wished to remain anonymous, pointed out that much of the green on the map suggesting untouched forests were in fact industrial areas. "It's a good example of how you can lie with maps," he said.
A good example of how to lie with maps, according to one expert, with industrial areas coloured greenNicole Kobie/WIRED
There are other concerns, beyond the not unexpected gap between marketing guff and reality. As Alexander Peschkoff, founder of MultiPass, pointed out, the 300,000 expected homes simply won't fit. The developers suggest 700,000 or more could one day live on the 14 square km of the four islands, but that would give Forest City the highest population density on the planet, topping leader Manila by a solid margin.
And there's little reason to cram in residents, as there's plenty of space for building on the mainland, which is only a few minutes further away by car. "There's so many different questions in terms of sustainability and feasibility," said Peschkoff.
Another grand promise that may prove tough to deliver is Forest City's own passport control to avoid the hour-long queues on the main link from Singapore. That will naturally require the approval of Singapore, which has already filed environmental complaints that have delayed the project. "They'll be fucked off," was the overriding sentiment, and it's no wonder, as Forest City is encroaching on Singapore's own space, already too little for its population and plans, and its real estate market.
Forest City isn't being built for the average Malaysian. The studio apartment will cost RM500,000 (£86,500), and the villa RM3.5 million (£606,000), well out of reach on salaries with a median of around £10,000 per year. Instead, Forest City hopes to draw Singaporeans looking to retire or expats working in the city but not keen on paying its higher rents -- the marketing example is a Beijing-based businessman. The marketing team keenly pointed out that dropping RM150,000 (£26,000) into a Malaysian bank account lets foreigners apply for a "My Second Home Visa", which has no minimum stay and doesn't tax your overseas earnings.
High prices might not be all that keep Malaysians away. Our driver said that, with all due respect, she wouldn't live on Forest City, not even for free. Why make your home on a crowded, uncanny island reconstituted in a busy shipping strait when the natural beauty of Malaysia is right there, on the mainland? Fake pink flamingos optional.
NICOLE KOBIE Wired 22 Mar 16;