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Exploring the Prescriptive and Descriptive Lost Space in the Setting of Urban Fabrics of Kuala Lumpur

Written By

Nurul Shakila Khalid

Submitted: May 29th, 2019 Reviewed: September 24th, 2019 Published: June 2nd, 2020

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.89907

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Due to the tension of urban uniformity and environmental setting, what emerges in most patterns of use in the city is lost space that usually ignored as insignificant. They emerge as if by accident during the design process, sometimes, the result of negligence or simply a feature of time flow in the city. To understand the phenomenon of lost space, this research seeks to identify the prescriptive and descriptive character of lost space from the local perception in Kuala Lumpur. This research also investigates the varied forces, circumstances, and the mechanisms that are responsible for their production. A qualitative analysis is made on selected parameters in the theory of lost space, activities, accessibility, connectivity, maintenance, and design. The result indicates that there were various new perceptions of descriptive lost space includes economic and social activity as these are an important strategy for maintaining the vitality and robustness of urban space. It is proposed in this paper the need of tools and effective ways of (re)designing a space to be applied in a new context and can act as a resource for urban life by hosting the intervention or alternative uses.


  • lost space
  • urban fabrics
  • vitality
  • local perceptions

1. Introduction

In most of the cities today, architect, urban designers, city authorities and city makers are faced with the challenge of creating holistic environments in an urban core particularly as collective, unifying and restructuring frameworks for new (re)development [1]. Too often the design’s contribution becomes an after the fact cosmetic treatment of spaces that are ill-planned for public use in the first place. The process of urban development treats buildings as isolated objects, not as part of the larger fabric of streets, squares, parks and viable open space, without considering the relationship between buildings and spaces, and deeper understanding of human behavior [2, 3]. Hence, what emerges in most environmental settings today is unshaped antispace. It is centered on the concept of urbanism as an essential attitude in urban design, favoring the spatially connected public environment over the master planning. This approach knows for making figurative space out of the lost landscape. Here, architects, urban planners, urban environment, and landscape architects have a major responsibility to meet the challenge and to reintegrate the lost spaces in the urban core into the democratic urban fabric or identify the most holistic ways for temporary or alternative uses. Chohan (2014) found lost space as the normative essence of urbanity. Prior to the economic manipulation in urbanity that aiming at increasing on mobility, global competition and image marketing to boost economic, all too often tend to homogenize space on consumerist and aestheticized values. If the urban space is poorly defined, the failure of harmonizing with the existing system of public space and fit into its surroundings more effectively created the dilemma of modern urban space.

The restructuring of city centers in particular reflects practices that observe the consolidation of the divided city – space is functionally and economically shared, but subject to an increasing social and cultural segregation.

According to Trancik [4], lost space is a leftover unconstructed landscape. They are the undermanaged areas between districts, buildings, or roads emerge without anyone realizing it until its being done physically on the ground. It is the undesirable urban space that is accidentally formed during the planning stage [5]. In other words, lost space can be seen as an inadequate use of space in urban area, isolated from the walking flow [6, 7, 8]. It is abandoned and left area that has lost their functions [9]. Trancik [4] notices that space such as a park can be considered as lost space if space does not serve its intended purpose. Lost space becomes a place when it is given a contextual meaning derived from cultural or regional content [10].

Mobility and communication have increasingly dominated Kuala Lumpur, which has consequently lost much of its cultural meaning and human purpose especially today; the spaces between buildings are rarely designed. The results of this can be seen all around us. The disjointed lacking visual and physical coherence in Kuala Lumpur has resulted to the more utilitarian in their organization, the notion of function was gradually displaces from the external space to the organization of internal space. A building tended to become more of an object, separate from its context.

Under the logic of lost space and how the theoretical understanding contributes to user perception, this research attempts to seek a better understanding towards the local perception of lost space in the urban core areas of Kuala Lumpur and thus to seek the appropriate tools to improve the usability of the space. The aim of this study is to implement a methodology: (i) to define lost space in the context of urban space in Kuala Lumpur, (ii) to identify the factors contributing to lost space, and (iii) to recommend several effective approaches to improve the usability and redesigning lost spaces that have emerged over the last two decades.

For that reasons, 10 respondents were interviewed, as the samples in qualitative research as are often small. Their responses and understandings as the end users help the contribution to design the efficient urban space that incorporates respondents’ value meaning.


2. The model of lost space

Since 1986, many scholars began to study a particular kind of lost spaces and provided many definitions and suggested several interpretations such as loose space, cracks, vacant, in-between, transitional, liminal, neglected spaces, deteriorated and indeterminate space (Table 1). Trancik [4] first used the term of lost space to describe spaces that are in need of re-design, antispaces, making no positive contribution to the surrounds or users. According to Trancik [4], lost space is a leftover unconstructed landscape or under managed space. It is the undesirable urban space that is accidentally formed during the planning stage [5].

1974SommerTight space, hard spaceOfferings possibilities for different activities, unrelated to the original designed purpose for a particular space.
1986Roger TrancikLost spaceSpace that makes no positive contributions to the surrounding and people.
1996Loukaitou- SiderisCracks in the citySpaces that are abandoned and left deteriorate, which eventually be filled with trash and human waste.
2001Hajer and ReijndorpIn-between spacesAs an ephemeral object, a site – yet not only space, but also a possible future, and disparate activities.
2007Franck and StevenLoose spaceSpaces that only allows certain regulated activities, unrelated to the original designed purpose for a particular space.

Table 1.

Definitions of lost space by various scholars.

Lost space can be car parking, the edge of highways which are being planned without maintenance and management, under elevated highways, the base of high-rise tower, overhead bridge, abandoned waterfronts, unused sunken plaza, vacated military sites and deteriorated parks [4]. Trancik [4] argues that the blame for creating lost spaces lies squarely with the car, urban renewal, the privatization of public space, the functional separation of uses and the modern movement.

In placing more emphasis, lost spaces or leftover spaces are mostly found in between two buildings, in front, at the sides or at the rear of buildings, and rooftops. These spaces loss their values and meanings, functions, and a sense of belonging. Leftover spaces, usually publicly owned but without any assigned function, are often located right next to spaces with fixed and restricted functions [9]. Examples include the spaces under bridges and next to highways. These exist beyond the boundaries of organized social space, having no intended use and often lacking conventionally appealing features, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1.

The examples of underutilized spaces in urban areas accommodate unexpected and unintended activities such as businesses and parking lots. (source: [10]).

Tibbalds [8] argued that the lost space affects the way we experience the city thus contribute to undesirable views, piled with rotting rubbish, covered in graffiti, illegal activities, polluted, unsafe, congested by traffic, full of mediocre and ugly poorly maintained buildings, and populated at night by homeless people living in cardboard boxes. Besides, the unclear territoriality of these spaces acts as physical and psychological barriers making the poor experience among users and disconnected between new and old uses, buildings and activities. What a failure to deal with minor signs of decay within an urban area could bring a rapid spiral of decline. For example, as Malaysia aggressively build the elevated highways as the “efficient” alternative to solve the issues of traffic congestion in major cities, thus affect the aesthetical, ecological, historical, and recreational qualities [11]. The worst phenomenon is the elevated highways disconnect neighborhood until then the urban community feel the marginalization in the development program. Loukaitou-Sideris [3] writes about “Cracks in the City” and define cracks as the “in-between spaces, residual, under-utilized and often deteriorating.” The poor management is also to blame for the state of many plazas, car parks, parks and public housing estates, where abandonment and deterioration have filled vacant space with human waste and trash.

What is the best characteristic to describe the factors contributing to lost space? According to Trancik [4], there are four major factors contributing to lost space, which are (i) increasing dependency on the automobile, (ii) modern movement in design, (iii) land use zoning policies, and (iv) unwillingness of urban authorities and designers to assume responsibility for the public realm.

The increasing automobile dependency has caused the city form to change from time to time. Streets are no longer essential urban open spaces for pedestrian use. Open spaces are slowly replaced by highways, thoroughfares, and parking bays which are considered as predominant types of open spaces in the modern urban planning perspectives. These highways, parking bays and similar to it cuts through cities and created huge areas of lost spaces.

The modern movement has created buildings more practical and functional in their organization, spaces between buildings are rarely taken into consideration as architects and planners tend to make the building as a formal object separated from its context. Architects and urban planners in the twentieth century failed to understand the needs and desire of pedestrian towards space [8]. This has resulted in what once used to be an external space of an organization gradually turns into a private internal space of the organization (Peterson, 1980).


3. Research methodology

To understand the definition and characteristics of lost space, this study attempts to investigate what and how local people perceived the lost space from their view, experience and understanding. The aim to gather and understand the local perceptions is may help to improve the usability of lost space optimally and also to help the architects, urban planners and local authority to design and plan the space in a more holistic way.

The data were collected through semi-structured interviews who respondents have been selected using snowball sampling who lives or works nearby the study area (refer Figure 2) that covers the area of Perdana Botanical Garden, Jalan Parlimen, Merdeka Square, KL Bird Park, Kompleks Daya Bumi and Masjid Jamek. The total of 10 respondents is among direct and indirect stakeholders. The direct stakeholders are professionals such as architects, urban planners, environmentalist, place-maker, contractor and local authority while indirect stakeholders are the local people who are randomly selected during a weekend in the study area such as in Perdana Botanical Garden, Merdeka Square and KL Bird Park – the most visits place. The interviews questions were conducted as non-directive to allow respondents to describe and explain their understanding of the subject matter in their own words and expressions. Every interview session only took approximately about 15–20 minutes. Among the questions to be asked to the professional respondents are, “To what extent do you understand the term of lost space?”; “Do you think there have lost space in Kuala Lumpur?”; “What are the characteristics of the lost space and what improvement can be done in aspect of design to improve the usability of the lost space.”

Figure 2.

Urban core areas of Kuala Lumpur have been chosen as a study area including the heritage quarters, urban parks, institutions and major river.

Furthermore, this study utilizes an addition to a base map during the interview session. A tracing paper is overlaid on the base map of Kuala Lumpur (as the study area) and the respondents thus are required to encircle the location of lost space base on their experience and knowledge.

Data collected from the interviews are further analyzed using grounded theory to identify the appropriate characteristics of lost space in Kuala Lumpur. Coding and themes are formulated to analyze the data collected. The findings will be compared with characteristics of prescriptive lost space and thus provide the research with the respondent’s understating of lost space in urban areas.


4. Analysis and discussions

To understand the phenomenon of lost space in urban areas, this study attempts to investigate the descriptive and prescriptive in the context of lost space. To be noted, prescriptive lost space refers to the definitions as explain in the theory of lost space, and using codes and themes to group the definitions, while descriptive refers to local perceptions that may contrast with the definitions by theory. Local respondents only are able to describe the lost space from what they experience and observe. Both descriptive and prescriptive reflects the question how theoretical approach of lost space may differs how local perceive and understand the lost space. Analysis sections were divided into three sections: (i) analysis of relationship between the characteristics of lost space and the built environmental setting, (ii) analysis of characteristics between prescriptive and descriptive lost space, and (iii) analysis of prescriptive vs. descriptive lost space.

4.1 The relationship between the characteristics of lost space and the setting of built environmental

In this analysis, the setting of built environment in urban core areas of Kuala Lumpur such as streets, public spaces, parks, government reserve, buildings and parking has its unique characteristics needed in enhancing the quality of urban fabrics. Built environmental settings in the urban areas become a part of city attractiveness elements because of its ability to attract newly-emerging businesses, enhance social interactions among urbanites and improve the landscaping.

The results found that there are three most characteristics mentioned by the respondents; social activity, economic activity and design (Table 2). Cafes, buskers, picnic, exhibitions, music festivals, and other events are types of social activities identified by the respondents. If space was poorly managed and declined either physically, or in the activities (social, cultural and economic) it offers, the vicious cycle of decline may all too easily set in Ref. [12] describe “if people use space less, then there is less incentive to provide new spaces and maintain existing ones. With decline in their maintenance and quality, public spaces are less likely to be used, thereby exacerbating the vicious spiral of decline”.

Table 2.

Respondent’s comment on the characteristics of descriptive lost space based on the physical urban environment.

The second characteristic of descriptive lost space as perceived by the selected members of the creative class is economic activities. Retail locations, restaurants, cafés, street food stalls, are some of the economic activities that were identified by the respondents. The third characteristic of descriptive lost space as perceived by end users’ is the connectivity. According to the respondents, connectivity refers to the relative location and types of elements in the physical setting. Connectivity also refers to the availability of public transportation in the area. Accessibility, according to the respondents, refers to safety, convenience, and permeability. Some respondents have been denied access to it, prominent among which are the rich, elderly and youth. Exclusion of fear and inability to consume, the most written about being sporting and skateboarding, which is regarded by some as anti-social because of the conflict it creates with other groups. In such places, youth experience problems of safety and security and feelings of exclusion, while what they desire in a public space is social integration, safety and freedom of movement. All these describe failures to manage shared public spaces in a manner that allows their equitable use by all groups without diminishing the welfare of others.

Analysis of characteristics of descriptive lost space is very important as to compare with the characteristics of prescriptive lost space explained in the theory. As an example, the variety of public spaces in Kuala Lumpur such as KL Bird Park, Orchid Garden, Merdeka Square, and Perdana Botanical Garden, includes those that are planned for certain assigned functions; both legally and physically, accommodate other activities as well. It also includes other kinds of spaces currently without assigned functions that accommodate unintended and spontaneous activities. Many of these spaces possess particular features that invite people to appropriate them for their own uses.Three respondents have mentioned that urban core areas of Kuala Lumpur are lacking social and economic activities, connectivity, accessibility and design. The respondents have highlighted that there are no significant attractions or interesting activities that attract people to come. The following comments show how the importance of having a synthetic gesture in an urban area:

“…it is important to have a synthetic gesture to attract density towards an area. However, in the case of Perdana Botanical Garden and its surrounding, there is no strong attractions that may attract people to visit often. Having the activities alone does not make the area vibrant and liveable. The support by the efficient public transportation and better connectivity helps to contribute the density in the area….”

The poor physical state of Perdana Botanical Garden seems to rest with the fact that it is rarely clear who should be managing it after it is built, or after it has declined. As a result, it is being neglected, with [13] explaining that more attention needs to be given to such transitional space.

In addition, the study area consists of a large recreational park surrounded by various cultural and eco-tourism areas. However, local people did not find any attractions to visit. This brings us to the second characteristic, which is poor in connectivity and accessibility that contributes to lost space as mentioned by the respondent.

“I have been living in Kuala Lumpur for 30 years. Very rare I visited the Perdana Botanical Garden. Hardly reachable, unfriendly pathways and bicycle lane, and no public transportation access to the area except the Hop on Hop off Bus, which only caters for the tourists only, make me consider to visit this place”.

This can be said that the design of the area also influences people to utilize the space. Two respondents perceived that Perdana Botanical Garden is unsafe due to many reasons such as robbery and vandalism. The massive development around the park especially the new highways and high rise residential contributed to the feeling of unsafe due to the lack of natural surveillance.

4.2 Characteristics of prescriptive and descriptive lost space

Most of the respondents expressed the negative perceptions towards the term lost space as defined by the authors in [3, 4, 9]. People are aware of the negative side of the space and the need of redesigning towards the area. This shows that most of the respondents’ definitions of lost space are somehow similar to Trancik’s [4].

For the descriptive definition of lost space, this study synthesizes the key themes discussed by selected end-users’ when asked to define their perceptions of lost space. Provided that, most respondents perceived descriptive lost space as an activity, building, poor, lost, connectivity, empty, and negative (see Table 3). These terms are the most frequently mentioned by the respondents where they were asked how they define the lost space. The respondents were given several photos of lost space as guidance such as the back lane, buildings, corridor, parks, under elevated highways and pathways. The respondents understand what is the definition of lost space by looking at the photos and their answers were almost similar to the definitions by the scholars (see Table 4).


Table 3.

The frequent term that mentioned by respondents.

Offerings possibilities for different activities, unrelated to the original designed purpose for a particular space.
Space that makes no positive contributions to the building, surrounding and people.
Spaces that are abandoned and left deteriorate, which eventually be filled with trash and human waste.
Modern space is, in effect, anti-space; the traditional architecture of streets, and squares created by differentiated figures of volumetric void by definition obliterated by the presence of anti-space which leads to the erosion and eventual loss of space and the results of this can be seen all around us.
Spaces that only allows certain regulated activities, unrelated to the original designed space.
Undesirable urban areas that are in need of redesign – antispaces, making no positive contribution to the surroundings or users.

Table 4.

Comparison between respondents’ understanding and scholar’s definition of lost space.

4.3 Prescriptive vs. descriptive lost space

In discussing the lost space in Kuala Lumpur, the respondents mentioned Taman Tasik Perdana, streets, roundabout, waterfront, Kompleks Daya Bumi, viaduct of Jalan Kuching - Jalan Tun Perak, and parking space. Examples of each area mentioned by respondents will be discussed in the following section.

For the purpose of determining whether an exact location conforms to the characteristics of prescriptive and or descriptive lost space, these specific areas of Kuala Lumpur mentioned by the respondents were fit into the typologies of prescriptive lost space. Table 5 summarizes the respondents’ understanding on lost spaces in Kuala Lumpur. The results show that there is the conflict between the characteristics of prescriptive and descriptive of lost space. In fact, the respondents reported that the parking lots are not a lost space because it is a part of public facility. People create loose space through their own actions and behavior [14]. These urban spaces possess physical and social possibilities for looseness, being open to appropriation, but it is people, through their own eyes and understanding, who fulfill these possibilities in social context. From the results, the emergence of a lost space depends upon; people’s perspective of the potential within the space, and second, varying degrees of creativity and determination to make use of what is present, with possibility of modifying existing elements or bringing in additional and temporary uses (Figures 36).

Trancik [4]Lost space is the leftover, undesirable urban areas that are in need of redesign-antispaces, making no positive contribution to the surrounding or users.
Respondent 01Lost space is a wasted space
Respondent 02Lost space is a space that are uninviting and unconducive
Respondent 03Lost space is a space that nobody took notice of the space existed
Respondent 04Lost space is a space that we do not notice it existence, and not being highlighted
Respondent 05Lost space is a redundant space
Respondent 06Lost space is a space that is no longer there, hidden spaces, negative spaces, Bermuda spaces
Respondent 07Lost space is a space that is not occupied by any program or events
Respondent 08Lost space is a negative spaces that could be made better for an urban environment
Respondent 09Lost space is a space that could be transform for other uses such as economic benefits or social activities
Respondent 10Lost space is a place that no activity, no people walk around and nothing been really taken care of

Table 5.

Comparison of definition between prescriptive and descriptive of lost space.

Figure 3.

Lost spaces identified by the respondents include (i) roundabout in Jalan Kuching, Kuala Lumpur; (ii) viaduct of Jalan Kuching - Jalan Tun Perak, and (iii) Panggung Anniversari.

Figure 4.

Respondents highlighted the Perdana botanical garden is well maintained. However, due to the lack of interesting activities, poor connectivity and accessibility, thus contribute to lost space.

Figure 5.

Jalan Lembah, Kuala Lumpur, a street that found lack of activities and pedestrian infrastructures. A greater variety of streets and land uses stimulate the emergence of loose space.

Figure 6.

The vacant lots and abandoned spaces turn into parking lots which has no necessary relation to ownership, size, type of use, or even landscape characters.

In further discussing of the definition of lost space, Table 6 below shows the comparison of characteristics between prescriptive and descriptive of lost space. According to the findings, respondents describe the characters of descriptive lost space was divided into fivecategory; activity includes economic and social, connectivity, accessibility, design and maintenance. These five characters of descriptive fit into the typology of prescriptive lost space by Trancik, Loukaitou – Sideris, and Franc and Steven. The activity refers to the activity in unstructured landscape, unused sunken plaza, abandoned blight and deteriorated parks. While for design characters refer to unstructured landscape ad marginal public housing. This thus concerned with the contrasting roles of design normally associated with protecting the community’s interest in the environment and with the role of maximizing a developer’s profit. For example, the provision of public housing (known as affordable houses in Malaysia) for low and middle-income groups did not take into account wider issues, such as the qualities of the environment which make it both enjoyable, pleasant, and safe to use throughout a 24 hour day. Housing schemes were based on the home as a defended space not a as a lost space (Table 7).

Table 6.

Comparison of characteristics between prescriptive and descriptive of lost space.

Table 7.

Comparison between areas of prescriptive and descriptive lost space according to the definitions.


5. Notes

  1. Only one respondent highlight the issue of lack of activity in area of Kompleks Daya Bumi.

  2. None of the respondent report that the parking areas in KL Historical Zone was lack of connectivity. Most of the respondents indicate that parking are necessary to facilitate their daily life, therefore they assume it as not a lost space. However, one respondent report that due to the single use of the space, it has been caused to be as wastage of space instead of lost.


6. Conclusion

Having the understanding on the differences between prescriptive lost space and descriptive lost space, it is apparent that the respondents in this research perceive Kuala Lumpur to be lacking activity, connectivity and accessibility, and therefore, has descriptive lost space potential. The respondents also perceive that more social economic activity would help prevent descriptive lost space, especially if those activities had better connectivity and accessibility with the surrounding.

It is crucial to trigger the relevant bodies’ interest by highlighting certain basic principles in planning for a better space design and planning in urban core areas. As conclusion, both political commitment and public investment are required. It is not the planning system per se which is at fault. We need a strong planning system. It is possibly the way that it is operated that needs review. There needs to be greater sensitivity in the application of planning laws to better control over the location of high buildings, infrastructures, public spaces, greater regard for historic areas, better understanding of the organic growth of urban core and a striving for higher quality in building and space design.

Additionally, there has always been a strong relation between commerce and urban public space, and strong exclusionary tendencies among those with management and ownership responsibilities. It is surprising that corporate interests are determined to take responsibility for public spaces when the public sector has often done such a poor job in managing the spaces for which they are responsible, spaces that still make up the large majority of the public realm.



The author gratefully acknowledge the support of Universiti Teknologi MARA, Centre of Studies for Town and Regional Planning and all the anonymous who willingly to participate in the interview.


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Written By

Nurul Shakila Khalid

Submitted: May 29th, 2019 Reviewed: September 24th, 2019 Published: June 2nd, 2020