The Development of Elevated Highways and the Formation of Urban Voids

July 11, 2024

Opportunities of Leftover Spaces under Flyovers in Kuala Lumpur

Malaysia is one of the countries with the most vehicles per person. In 2021, the country’s vehicle population (33.3 million) has outnumbered its respective human population (32.6 million). With its car-dependent urban development patterns that have made driving-based lifestyles the norm of society, traffic congestion has become a mired and unsettled problem in almost every city. As the number of private vehicles rises and urban areas expand, so does the demand for better connectivity, leading to the development of high-performance roadways – particularly highways – to increase the accessibility and mobility of commuters.  

Being the country’s highly urbanised, densely populated, and rapidly developed capital, Kuala Lumpur has seen aggressive highway construction that cuts through and surrounds the city. As stated in the Draft Kuala Lumpur Structural Plan 2040, the road network in the city spanned 1,543.74km (Figure 1). While these highway infrastructures may have relieved the intercity and interstate traffic (to some extent), they have also, in many places, divided adjacent neighbourhoods that remain physically close but virtually inaccessible to each other.  

Not only is the integrity of neighbourhoods disturbed, but these highway infrastructures also create vast quantities of empty leftover spaces underneath the structure, which could act as physical or psychological barriers that provide an unpleasant experience to the pedestrian (Figure 2). Since these spaces can only be used in compliance with the requirements of public facilities, and their uses are mainly restricted to temporary settings for greening and landscaping, they often lead to abandonment and deterioration, where vacant spaces are filled with dumping debris, covered with graffiti, polluted, and illegal activities. Besides, due to the lack of officially assigned uses and not easily noticeable like those city square spaces and street spaces, these leftover spaces often lie outside the control regulations and surveillance that come with the established uses of planned urban public space.  

Having said that leftover spaces under flyovers have the potential to be transformed into major corridors, gathering areas, or recreational spaces that cater to the needs and usage of the adjacent community. Due to increasing land values and growing urban populations, these spaces have received a great deal of attention as spaces of possibility for the regeneration process. In fact, cities around the world have worked successfully to makeover these seemingly inhospitable urban underpasses, turning them into public parks with art installations, funky lights, and pedestrian thoroughfares (Figure 3). All of them are examples of a new era of green infrastructure design that emphasises high-impact solutions to reconnect neighbourhoods and revitalise communities by maximising the functionality of leftover spaces while improving safety and the aesthetic qualities of the areas. Most importantly, they demonstrate how public participation and local authority’s commitment to ensuring the success of the regeneration process.

(Source: Kuala Lumpur Structural Plan 2040)
Figure 1: Road network in Kuala Lumpur
Figure 2: Examples of leftover spaces under elevated highways in Kuala Lumpur

Examples of Regeneration Program Before Regeneration After Regeneration

Folly for a Flyover in London, UK, was a temporary project demonstrating the potential for a disused motorway under Croft in Hackney Wick to become a new public space for the area.

It was commissioned by Create London and hosted an extensive programme of cinema, performance and play, curated by Assemble in collaboration with the Barbican Centre and numerous local organisations and businesses.

A8ernA in Koog aan de Zaan, the Netherlands, is a public space that uses the space under the A8 motorway bridge.

The urban renewal project cost €2,700,000 and was a Joint Winner of the 2006 European Prize for Urban Public Space. It is a participatory process that involves residents, business owners, and the local government. 

Underpass Park in Toronto, Canada, is a public space designed by PFS Studio and The Planning Partnership; located beneath the overpasses of Adelaide Street, Eastern Avenue, and Richmond.

The park is an initiative of Waterfront Toronto. The initial phase costs approximately $6 million, paid for mostly by the Government of Canada. A second phase cost $3.5 million. 

The Koganecho Centre in Yokohama, Japan, is a complex of cultural spaces beneath an overpass.

The Koganecho Area Management Center worked with the City of Yokohama and the Keikyu railway company to create an urban renewal project that makes use of the existing structures.

Bajo Puentes’ (Under Bridges) is a project throughout Mexico City, Mexico, that turns the underutilised space beneath highway spans into shopping plazas, playgrounds, cafes, and other public spaces.

A total of 20 Bajo Puentes spaces are planned for the city, and the project allows business owners to move in at below-market lease rates to encourage participation in the experiment. 

Mill St. Skatepark in Cape Town, South Africa, is a community-led skate park that transformed from an underused and blighted underpass.

Designed by a Cape Town-based multidisciplinary team, the skatepark was built after being named as the winner of the PLAYscapes design competition organised by Building Trust International.
Figure 3: Examples of urban underpasses regeneration

Nevertheless, not all leftover spaces under flyovers have the potential to undergo a regeneration process. This is because the size of some of these spaces is often too small or too narrow to accommodate groups of people and their activities (Figure 4a). Sometimes, these spaces are even dark, noisy, and smelly, with limited height and irregular shapes that limit their functions as public spaces (Figure 4b). Most importantly, these spaces are publicly owned but exist beyond the boundaries of organised social space. Since they are located right next to infrastructures (highways)with fixed and restricted functions (Figure 4c), they often lack conventionally appealing features, leading to a rather small commercial value.

Figure 4(a)

Figure 4(c)

Figure 4(b)

Even if they are reclaimed for other uses, such as shops, grocery stores, or restaurants, their actual operability is rather low, but the respective maintenance costs could be high. This is because,unlike premises located in residential or commercial areas, the planning and installation of supporting facilities, such as water piping, electricity supply, telecommunication cabling, solid waste disposal, and waste water discharge systems, could be more difficult and complicated.

Besides, for a space to be potentially transformed into a public space for gathering, it needs to be perceived as safe and easily accessible from the public domain in the first place. This directly eliminates many leftover spaces under flyovers, as most of them are located in the middle of high-volume traffic, which could be difficult for the public to access. Furthermore, visibility is also an important aspect of public space, as it creates awareness by drawing users' attention while also providing a safety perception. Therefore, leftover spaces that are tucked away from the public domain are deemed incapable of being public spaces (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Examples of leftover spaces that have less potential for regeneration due to safety, accessibility, and visibility

In general, the reclaiming possibilities of aleftover space rely heavily on several criteria that are described by the space’s typology, namely (i) size, (ii) safety, (iii) accessibility,and (iv) visibility. To better illustrate how these criteria are crucial in determining a space’s reclaiming possibility, several leftover spaces underneath selected highways/expressways are chosen as examples:(i) Duta-Ulu Kelang Expressway(DUKE), (ii) Sungai Besi Expressway (BESRAYA), (iii) Maju Expressway (MEX), and (iv) Jalan Loke Yew.  

DUKE,BESRAYA, and MEX are selected because they have various parts that run across the dense residential and commercial areas in Kuala Lumpur City. Meanwhile,Jalan Loke Yew is selected because this road, together with Jalan Cheras, makes up the Cheras Highway, which is part of the Federal Route 1 system and is known for its high traffic volume and congestion, especially during peak hours, with low-cost flats and shop lots along the road. Human-scale activities existed in some leftover spaces underneath these highways/expressways, as they are easily accessible by the surrounding neighbourhoods due to the presence of multiple entry points without physical barriers.

Activities conducted in these leftover spaces are mostly informal, temporary, and illegal but tolerated, such as car parking and car washing. There are also commercial activities deemed to be legal – by obtaining the temporary occupation license (TOL)– conducted in these spaces, such as second-hand car sale galleries, hawker stalls, and temporary shelter from rain for motorcyclists provided by the local council (Figure 6).

As one can observe, all these sites share commonalities that support and attract human-scaled activities, such as being expensive, flat and wide, having unobstructed surfaces, being visible by commuters and passengers, and being accessible by surrounding neighbourhoods,which are in line with the above-mentioned criteria that described the typology of space. Most importantly, these spaces are safe to access as they are connected to streets with lower traffic volume that serve the local communities.

Examples of Activities Conducted at Leftover Spaces Location


(At intersection near Jalan Pahang)

Car parking

Site characteristics:

· Expansive, flat & wide

· Unobstructed surface

Next to the commercial area 


(Along Jalan Loke Yew, next to DBKL Dog Pond Cheras)

Second-hand car sale gallery and hawker stalls

Site characteristics:

· Expansive, flat & wide

· Unobstructed surface

· Open view

Next to the residential area 


(At intersection near Jalan Sungai Besi)

Shelter from rain

Site characteristics:

· Expansive, flat & wide

· Unobstructed surface

· Open view

· Opposite to the industrial area 

Jalan Loke Yew

(At intersection near Jalan Chan Sow Lin)

Hawker stalls and car parking

Site characteristics:

· Expansive, flat & wide

· Unobstructed surface

Next to commercial & industrial areas 

Figure 6: Activities found underneath selected highway/expressway in Kuala Lumpur

This is in contrast with leftover spaces underneath the Ampang–Kuala Lumpur Elevated Highway (AKLEH), which most appear to be undefined in use, as the accessibility into these spaces is limited due to their discontinuation and uneven level with the roadside, although they are located in residential areas. Besides, since the AKLEH highway is built along the Klang River, most of the leftover spaces are characterised as narrow and with limited height, which has somehow affected the public’s perception with regard to the spaces’ safety (Figure 7).

Likewise, most of the leftover spaces underneath the Setiawangsa-Pantai Expressway (SPE) – previously known as DUKE Phase-3 – especially along Jalan Sungai Besi and in front of the Sempang Airport and Bandar Malaysia, have a rather low reclaiming possibility as public space; because Jalan Sungai Besi itself is a major road in Kuala Lumpur with heavy traffic. The existence of SMART Expressway and Kuala Lumpur-Seremban Expressway alongside Jalan Sungai Besi have created a wide but enclosed road network system in which the accessibility and continuity of human-scaled movement are obstructed (Figure 8). Leftover spaces with this type of typology are better used for green infrastructure and landscaping purposes so as to create a buffer zone for the safety of commuters and road users.


(At the intersection near Lorong Awan 12)

Site characteristics:

• Narrow, uneven & discontinued

• Obstructed surface

• Next to residential areas


(Along Jalan Sungai Besi, MEX, and Smart)

Site characteristics:

• Expansive, flat & wide

• Enclosed road network system

• Less direct access points from the surrounding areas

Figure 7: Characteristics of leftover spaces underneath AKLEH and SPE expressways

Figure 8: Location of Sempang Airport and the adjacent major road/highway

In conclusion, the ultimate goal of revitalising leftover spaces underneath flyovers is to reconnect these useless spaces withcontext while achieving users’ needs. In this sense, only spaces that are located near residential and commercial areas and fulfil the criteria that determine the reclaiming possibilities may have the potential to be enhanced.Besides, many other issues may arise with regard to such regeneration/revitalization process, such as:    

- What principles are to be followed to promote the advantages of revitalising leftover spaces?

- What organisations will be in charge of using and evaluating these spaces?

- Who should be responsible in funding these projects?

- How can we deal with cross-departmental and cross-sectoral challenges and achieve national policy?

- Also, what kind of technological installations should be used to achieve sustainability and to fit the potential and capabilities of the city?

Other countries deal with these issues by formulating a suitable, efficient framework and administrative system that allows for private initiatives while requiring personal responsibility and remedial action. Funding is addressed by government programs with the aim of encouraging investment. As a result, a national strategy is essential to support the government in overcoming different concerns related to the reuse and revitalisation process. Such frameworks should engage all involved stakeholders and ensure regional strategies' compatibility and complementarity with national strategies.

On the other hand, it is important to make sure the public spaces are appropriately used and maintained to keep them attractive for users and investors, as managing public spaces is the responsibility of a variety of organisations. In addition, there could be several departments and organisations with various roles in any public space, adding to the difficulty in development and management collaboration. Establishing a management committee to oversee all aspects of potential leftover space management is necessary.

Disclaimer: Any opinions expressed are entirely the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of PropertyGuru and its entities.

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