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A historical perspective of urban tree planting
in Malaysia

M. Sreetheran, E. Philip, M. Adnan and M. Siti Zakiah

Extensive tree planting in Kuala Lumpur helps to make Malaysia a “Garden Nation”

M. Sreetheran, E. Philip and M. Adnan are Research Officers at the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM), Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

M. Siti Zakiah is the Deputy Director of the Landscape and Urban Cleansing Control Department of the Kuala Lumpur City Hall, Malaysia.

Tree planting has played an important part in the greening of Malaysia’s cities, from the eighteenth century to the recent campaign for a “Garden Nation”.

Trees and vegetation provide beauty and benefits to city residents. Trees along streets and in parks, around homes and businesses and in natural areas throughout the city provide improved air and water quality, savings from decreased heating and cooling costs and increased property resale values. Urban greenery provides opportunities for recreation and makes neighbourhoods more pleasing.

The greening of urban Malaysia has focused primarily on beautification and has mainly been the province of horticulturists, landscapers, nursery workers, town planners and architects, with negligible inputs from foresters. Perhaps for that reason, the term “landscaping” has been used more widely than “urban forestry” by government and private institutions, politicians, stakeholders, academicians and the public. However, this does not mean that tree planting has not been given a priority in
Malaysia’s cities. This article highlights the development of urban tree planting in Malaysia from a historical perspective and outlines some challenges and prospects for its continued development.

The development falls loosely into three phases: the initiation of greening prior to independence; a more extensive greening programme in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s; and the campaign for a Garden Nation of the past ten years (Figure 1). Over the course of this development, Malaysian cities have seen great changes in species selection, tree planting and tree maintenance – in other words a transition towards improved arboricultural practices.

Timeline of Malaysia’s urban greening

The greening of urban Malaysia has focused primarily on beautification: planting a Kuala Lumpur street with coconut palms (Cocos nucifera) fosters a tropical image


The earliest urban tree planting in Malaysia was recorded more than a century ago. Pterocarpus indicus (angsana1) was reported to have been planted in 1778 in Malacca (Koening, 1894) and in 1802 in Penang (Burkill, 1966). Owing to the beauty of its spreading crown and ease of propagation, P. indicus fast became a popular tree for urban planting and remained so until the 1990s in Malaysia and Singapore (Philip, 1999). However, in 1935 these trees were reported to be dying rapidly in Malacca, Penang and Singapore because of an unknown disease (Furtado, 1935). Infected trees were removed immediately in an attempt to contain the spread of the disease, and there were no further reports until the same symptoms were observed again in 1985 in Singapore and in 1992 on the eastern coast of Peninsular Malaysia (Sanderson, 1992; Philip, 1999). This time the causal agent was determined to be Fusarium oxysporum. As a result of this disease, the popularity of angsana dropped. Many argued that the high population density of the species contributed to the epidemic. Angsana is currently being replaced in urban plantings by many other indigenous or exotic species in Malaysia.

More urban tree planting activities were undertaken with the establishment of the Federated Malay States Forestry Department in 1901. Through collaboration with the Department of Agriculture and the Public Works Department on roadside tree planting programmes, local tree species such as Syzygium grande (kelat jambu), Millettia atropurpurea (tulang daing), Peltophorum pterocarpum (yellow flame), Mesua ferrea (penaga lilin) and Lagerstroemia speciosa (bungor) were widely planted in urban areas in the 1920s and 1930s (Adnan and Abdul Latiff, 1993). Other species that were introduced during those years included Arfeuillea arborescens (hop tree), Ceiba pentandra (kapok tree), Andira inermis (brown heart), Spathodea campanulata (African tulip), Jacaranda filicifolia (jacaranda) and Stereospermum fimbriatum (snake tree) (Wee and Corlett, 1986).

During the colonial era little was known about the properties and needs of indigenous species, and well-known non-native species (e.g. Cassia fistula, Swietenia spp.) were introduced to speed up the process of revegetation in the harsh urban areas (Chee and Ridwan, 1984). Subsequently, public parks and botanical gardens such as the Taiping Lake Gardens, the Kuala Lumpur Lake Garden and the Penang Botanical Garden became popular, and additional species from different parts of the world were introduced, were planted widely and soon became naturalized (MARDI, 1993).

The Kuala Lumpur Lake Garden was initiated in 1888 based on the idea of A.R. Venning, the Chairman of the Sanitary Board of Kuala Lumpur, to create a place for healthy activity, recreation and relaxation for the public. With a modest allocation approved by the governor from public funds, the area was rehabilitated and planted with ornamental palms and shrubs. The scheme also had the support of Cheow Ah Yeok, a wealthy benefactor who was an enthusiastic gardener and contributed a hundred chempaka (Michelia spp.) and orange trees (Citrus spp.) to the first year’s planting (Gullick, 2000). Today, these mature parks are highlights of the urban green spaces in Malaysia and major tourist attractions for recreation (Adnan and Abdul Latiff, 1993). Many additional parks such as Titiwangsa Park, Permaisuri Park, Bukit Jalil Park, Lembah Kiara Recreational Park, Menjalara Park, Datuk Keramat Park and Rimba Kiara Park have been established in Kuala Lumpur to cater to recreational and amenity demand from the public.

City parks are major attractions for recreation and tourism – pictured, a landscape with indigenous species at Kuala Lumpur City Centre (KLCC) Park


The first well-planned greening programme in Malaysia began in the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur in 1973 with the establishment of the Beautification Unit under the Beautification Programmes of Kuala Lumpur (Ayoub, 1989). In 1979, the unit was upgraded into a department. Today it is known as the Landscape and Urban Cleansing Control Department. The initial programme of “No Roads Without Trees” set into motion a highly successful and sustained effort to maintain the green environment of the city wherever possible and to bring greenery into the concrete jungle via extensive tree planting and landscaping. Among the popular tree species used were:

The Kuala Lumpur City Hall started a serious urban tree planting programme in 1973 (see Table) with its famous “instant tree planting” concept: large stem cuttings were used for planting, creating a green city almost overnight (Ayoub, 1989). The City Hall classified five areas of interest in the tree planting programme:

The city greening programme of Kuala Lumpur was properly instituted in the planning process with the Federal Territory Planning Act of 1982 (Act 267), which stipulated the rules and regulations for planting, cutting and conservation of urban trees.

Apart from the tree planting programme, an emphasis on urban tree planting has also been stated in the Kuala Lumpur Structure Plan (Kuala Lumpur City Hall, 1984). This includes:

Number of trees planted in Kuala Lumpur, 1972–1988


No. of trees planted


~130 000


~13 000


14 753


20 137


18 898


13 858


12 593


~231 000

Source: Ayoub, 1989.

The non-native species Khaya senegalensis is considered an ideal tree for “instant” roadside planting in Malaysia


The past decade saw many local authorities and even property developers in Malaysia involved in greening and beautification programmes. Property developers incorporated green elements and even created nature-based themes to reflect public interest in environment-friendly development.

This development was in line with government initiatives for creating and preserving beautiful landscapes in the country. The Landscaping the Nation programme was initiated in May 1995. It paid particular attention to tree planting along roads and rivers, together with the establishment of nurseries by state and local governments to ensure ample plant supply.

In July 1995 the Department of Town and Country Planning published National Landscape Guidelines (Jabatan Perancang Bandar dan Desa, 1995), which serve as a reference for developing and maintaining landscaped areas, providing standards for tree and shrub planting, tree conservation in urban development, etc. The guidelines include details on site preparation and planting techniques for trees, palms, shrubs, ground cover, climbers, grass, and plants in planter boxes. Appropriate management procedures such as fertilizer application, mulching, watering, pest and disease control and pruning are also covered (Ismail, 1997).

To coordinate the greening programmes in a more systematic manner, the National Landscape Department was established under the purview of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government in 1996. The emphasis on landscaping the nation was inspired by the Prime Minister’s desire to balance economic, social and environmental development in the country.

In March 1997 the Prime Minister launched a nationwide tree planting campaign, with the aim of making Malaysia a “Garden Nation” by 2005. With this campaign the Kuala Lumpur City Hall was given a mandate to plant 220 000 trees by 2000 (Nordin, 1997). To date, more than 400 000 trees and 6 million shrubs have been planted. Approximately 40 percent of these have been planted along roads (Figure 2), where they have the greatest visibility and impact (Salleh, Wong and Ng, 1990). Roadside trees serve as screens, providing motorists with pleasant scenery and selectively blocking off unsightly features. They are also planted for the benefit of people living next to motorways; they screen off traffic dust and noise and provide a view of trees rather than of traffic (Salleh, Wong and Ng, 1990). Indeed, the expansion of highways and city link roads in Malaysia invites more roadside tree plantings.

Tree-planting has been carried out with the support of the private sector, city dwellers and other government agencies. However, achieving the quantitative target is only one aspect of the campaign. Trees planted should not be neglected or left unattended, but should be nursed and maintained to reach maturity and to avoid potential hazards and nuisances such as obstructing motorists’ vision and damaging public property. Ideally the planting effort should be accompanied by guidelines and standards for management and maintenance of the trees. The National Landscape Department has already made a proposal to the central government for the establishment of an arboriculture unit to provide technical support and monitoring for tree management and maintenance in the country. In reality, however, the country lacks qualified and competent arborists at various levels (Esa, 2003).

Getting public support is vital in achieving the vision of a Garden Nation. A notable effort to create public awareness and involvement was the attempt to set a world record in October 2000, when 110 461 trees were planted in one minute (New Straits Times, 2000). This event was about more than just setting a record – it was designed to demonstrate that public participation and commitment are crucial and need to be sustained.

Public awareness has been further enhanced through the Ministry of Housing and Local Government’s Cleanliness and Beautification Programme and National Landscape Competition. The competition has 15 categories to cover a wide range of contexts, ranging from landscaping around residences, schools and religious buildings to city parks, neighbourhood parks and agricultural parks or recreational forests.

Overall the move towards the Garden Nation has been positive on all sides. It is a great challenge, but achieving this vision will improve the quality of life of urban dwellers. Malaysians today are more aware of the value of the green elements in their environment and are putting in effort and money to beautify it.

Location of urban plantings in Kuala Lumpur under the Garden Nation campaign

Roads are choice sites for tree planting, providing motorists with pleasant scenery and screening out traffic dust and noise: rain trees (Samanea saman) line a protocol road leading to the parliament house of Malaysia


While the planting programmes have progressed as planned, the subsequent management of the trees and plants has not been adequate. Maintenance is still frequently lacking, and public safety is often overlooked. Hence, some of the urban planting has failed because problems that have arisen have not been rectified in time. Regular tree inspection and correct pruning techniques have often been overlooked, and as a result trees sometimes topple down in heavy storms.

Damage through building and road construction is one of the most common causes of tree death and decline in urban areas (Lilly, 2001). Even when the trees have been earmarked to remain in place, construction equipment such as bulldozers and cranes often operate near them and may damage the roots or the trees. Damaged trees may not die right away but may decline over time. Preservation of trees on construction sites is possible only if the right protective measures are taken from the start of the building project. Although there is a provision on tree preservation under the Town and Country Planning Act 1976, the law has not been fully enforced.

Malaysian cities have many planted ornamental trees that are not native to the country. Many of these species establish easily, but they do not grant a local identity (Tho et al., 1983). However, the National Landscape Department has been working with local town councils to encourage the planting of successfully tested indigenous tree species found suitable for urban planting.

There is still an urgent need to increase the number of professional landscape architects, arborists, landscape designers and town planners. This would foster a greater appreciation of greening and promote research, technology and the professional practice of tree planting and landscaping (Sreetheran, 2004).


As green awareness and interest in healthy living increase, the public today demands environmentally friendly development, especially in cities. In the ninth Malaysian Plan, sustainable development and conservation of biological resources are emphasized. Development plans are directed towards creating a healthy and balanced quality of life. In line with these objectives, big cities like Kuala Lumpur are establishing more urban parks for their dwellers, geared primarily towards recreational activities, education and mobilizing the local community to participate as guardians of the environment.

1 Common names given for species in this article are those used in Malaysia; some species may be more widely known under other names in other countries.


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