Penang Goes Public - Making Space Open and Welcoming

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Public spaces help build a community, diverse as individuals may be, by being areas that are welcoming, safe, relaxing, comforting, social; and encouraging of various activities.1 Investing in them is all the more necessary if the urban life that is expanding to cover all of society is to be taken full advantage of.

In Penang public realm improvement and conservation projects have been prioritised in tandem with Penang2030, the state government’s vision to create a “family-focused, green and smart state that inspires the nation”. This includes among others, rejuvenation efforts such as the recently opened Sia Boey, the first urban archaeological park in Malaysia, the Penang Green Connectors Project, as well as the North and East Seafront Public Realm Improvement Projects. The latter three are in varying stages of development.

Penang Green Connectors Project

The average temperature in urban areas is predicted to rise by 1.5% by 2030, and Penang is as susceptible to the effects of climate change as anywhere else on Earth. Reassuringly, steps are being taken to combat the phenomenon. The Penang Green Connectors Project to link different components of urban green spaces to create a network that will benefit biodiversity, for example, was announced by the state government last January.2

Jagdeep Singh Deo.

The massive project will include the creation of a 50km coastal park stretching from Tanjung Pinang to Batu Maung, with a series of linear parks along existing rivers stretching from the sea to the hills. Jagdeep Singh Deo, chairman of the State Housing, Local Government, Town and Country Planning committee, says that furthermore, a total of 18,000 ha of land has been identified on the island to form part of the green network, which will include walkways and greenery along the coastal park. There will also be 65km of “blue” connectors, which are rivers flowing along the coastal park.3

“There are social, economic and environmental benefits associated with the Penang Green Connectors Project which will significantly increase waterfront recreational amenities for the people of Penang,” says Jagdeep.

“It will improve liveability and attract additional talent, skills and investment to the state, with environmental benefits such as the creation of ecological corridors and cooling effects from additional greenery to mitigate climate change.”4

Jagdeep adds that 13km of the Sungai Perai riverbank will also be restored as a pilot project; the state is similarly exploring the possibility of Sungai Juru forming part of the network. Also under the Green Connectors Project are several pilot initiatives to connect Gurney Wharf to Padang Kota through boardwalks and coastal embankment stabilisations, and to improve accessibility to Sungai Bagan Jermal, which flows from the Botanic Gardens.

“Once completed, this will allow people to walk, run or cycle from Botanic Gardens to Gurney Wharf and then along the coast to the clan jetties onto Karpal Singh Drive, and continue to Batu Maung from there.”5

The ongoing roll out of bicycle lanes and pedestrian walkways under the Penang Island City Council's (MBPP) Penang Bicycle Route Master Plan are part of the ambitious project as well. The comprehensive project is a joint venture between MBPP and George Town Conservation Development Corporation (GTCDC), a tripartite partnership between the Penang state government’s Chief Minister Incorporated, Aga Khan Trust for Culture, and Think City.6

“Beyond this, it is also about urban biodiversity; for example, how do butterflies and monkeys move and interact with the urban environment. That is in fact important for their food security,” says Murali Ram of Think City.

“We are now applying for funds from international bodies working on climate adaptation, and part of this is for us to increase the coverage of canopies around the island. The idea is currently being processed by MBPP; the state council is consulting with biodiversity working groups – PERHILITAN is one of them – to see how we can create a new landscape masterplan for Penang Island, and the Green Connectors Project is part of it.”

The North Seafront Project

Rejuvenation works started on the north-facing civic space running the length of Dewan Sri Pinang to Fort Cornwallis in 2017. The project, also by GTCDC, is aimed at creating and expanding existing public spaces by improving the urban landscape to uplift the social value and economic impact of the area.7

The first phase focused on the RM2mil upgrade of Padang Kota partly to restore and enhance the underground drainage system in the field, while the second phase includes incrementally strengthening and expanding the 600m-long seawall along the Esplanade as well as landscaping works and pedestrian walkway upgrades along the promenade.8 “There will be an extra 3m of seawall, and it will run all the way from the naval base of the Royal Malaysian Navy right up to the walkway that heads into Jalan Green Hall,” says Murali.

Landscaping works and pedestrian walkway upgrades along the Esplanade. Photo: Enzo Sim.

The North Seafront masterplan is a comprehensive project that is divided into 10 different zones, including Dewan Sri Pinang, the two food courts nearby, Fort Cornwallis, the Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower, and the Town and City Halls. Among the works planned are the establishment of a formal archaeological site in a dry moat, recreating the moat around Fort Cornwallis, relocating the food court and playground to the godowns at the Seafront and constructing a new Medan Renong food court.9

Also in the pipeline are improvements to Dewan Sri Pinang. To assess its future use, community engagements were carried out. “The state naturally looks at it as a place for cultural activities, e.g. to host George Town Festival events, but that only happens sporadically. If we are to upgrade it, the key question to ask is, how can we activate it so that Penangites will go there all the time?” asks Murali, adding that he used to frequent the building in his youth, back when the hall housed a public library within it.

Results of the community engagements have been compiled in a report and submitted for the state’s perusal. “They are now considering which option to choose – do we maintain Dewan Sri Pinang as is, or do we do an extension and take advantage of the sea view? These are just some considerations; obviously there are cost implications involved, but for the time being, the state is deliberating on the matter.

“As for the Town and City Halls, these belong to the council. I am sure they have plans, but we [Think City] are not privy to what kinds of upgrades are to be carried out. The Fort Cornwallis is an ongoing project. We hope to complete the south side of the moat by next year, and that will open up new views of the city – it will be pretty ‘instagrammable’. And at the end of 2021, we’re looking at a moat on the Esplanade side – the western side – just north of the food court.”

The East Seafront Project

The regeneration of the East Seafront involves a 12-acre stretch from the Penang Yacht Club to Tanjung City Marina, and is poised to become a cultural and commercial district in compliance with strict heritage guidelines set under the Special Area Plan for the Unesco world heritage site.10

The project is divided into Parcels One, Two, Three and Four; Parcel One is focused on the expansion works of Swettenham Pier Cruise Terminal. This RM155mil project is jointly funded by Penang Port and Royal Caribbean Cruises which will see, among others, the extension of the current berth length from 545m to 793m.11 “The structure will be built from the sea to connect with the existing structure, enabling two Oasis-size ships, measuring about 350-380m long and carrying 6,000 passengers on-board, to berth simultaneously,” says Jeffrey Chew, chairman of Penang Port Commission.

Parcel Two will focus on ground transport arrangement, i.e. providing temporary parking for tour buses to alleviate traffic congestion of the surrounding areas; while for Parcel Three, efforts are channelled to upgrade the abandoned godowns. Plans for Tanjung City Marina, which makes up Parcel Four, will be finalised once the proposals for rehabilitation or redevelopment of the site have been reviewed – the request for proposal for the project ended on December 11.12

The refurbished godowns will house F&B and retail outlets selling local wares. Photo: Penang Port Commission.

But are these initiatives for locals or for tourists?

“The area will certainly attract a lot of foreign foot traffic, but rest assured, it is not just exclusively for tourism. We are opening up the area for the local community as well,” says Chew, adding that the refurbished godowns – which have been left dilapidated for the past 30 years – will house F&B and retail outlets selling local wares.

“There will be no Starbucks opening up business here, within the vicinity of the core zone, in the foreseeable future,” he confirms, freeing locals to proudly showcase their heritage and culture through the products they sell, and to better stimulate the state’s creative industries. Him Heang biscuits is naturally a solid example, cites Chew. “Think about it, if products unique to Penang like a pair of beaded shoes are sold here, won’t that stir the curiosity of both cruise passengers and tourists to discover what else the godowns have to offer?”

Plans are also in the pipeline to establish duty-free zones; alcohol can be purchased and consumed within the demarcated areas, but a tax will be imposed on consumers once they are taken out.

These are just some of the significant initiatives to breathe local life back into George Town following the repeal of the Rent Control Act. Unfortunately, the city’s Unesco listing saw an influx of foreign buyers purchasing the bulk of properties; most have been turned into cafes and such. “I have no criticisms about it, they are trying to add value, to make enough money to cover their ROI. But this area is a living heritage, if you can find something local to eat and buy, this surely means that hope is slowly being restored.

“The game plan is to get Penangites back into the inner city, to sell commodities and services that are on par with what locals can pay for. You can’t be selling a plate of char koay teow for RM25 here when people can easily make their way down to Lorong Selamat to feast on one for half that price. Ideally, it must be a win-win situation for both the developer and the proprietors, but it’s a tall order if stall rentals are taken into consideration. Still, it’s a risk worth taking.”

Parcel Three will feature cultural spaces, bicycle paths, as well as a network of walkways modelled after those in Fremantle, Australia – people will now be able to walk all the way down to the clan jetties without fearing for their safety! “I call this the unpolished jewel of Penang very soon to be refined,” says Chew.

And once completed, both the North and East Seafronts will be connected and made accessible for the enjoyment of Penangites.

Understanding the Terms

Urban development is a comprehensive concept, spawning a variety of related terms, e.g. urban rejuvenation, urban regeneration and urban renewal. But these, however, provide very different meanings.

“Urban rejuvenation or revitalisation injects new energy into a city, giving new life to old spaces. Oftentimes, you need to balance it alongside good gentrification,” says Murali. “Bad gentrification is when you have too much of the same thing. For example, you’ve got 100 shops and about 80 of them have been turned into cafes. You will know something is amiss because the area is predominantly single-used. There’s the need to strike a balance of sorts between local residents and culture with businesses.

“Essentially, urban rejuvenation is about seeding intervention in different places through façade uplifts and public realm improvements. George Town is a prime example of this. There is no new infrastructure capital, but we have festivals and such; and in Butterworth, back lanes are being upgraded and new pocket parks are created.”

Urban regeneration involves area transformation. The East Seafront Project is one example where facets of the overall landscape are changed, and new economies are introduced to further enliven the space. While urban renewal is as the term suggests. “Projects of this nature often entail the loss of history of the place, and in doing so, old communities get disconnected and are left no choice but to uproot themselves and move someplace else,” he says.

Key Initiative to Revitalise George Town

Launched in 2015, the Armenian Park Improvement Project – a collaborative effort between the MBPP, GTCDC, George Town World Heritage Incorporated and Think City – saw a sweeping transformation take place. What was once a dodgy community park quickly became a proud asset of its neighbourhood.13

The initiative was one of the first rejuvenation efforts to increase the amount of green spaces within the world heritage site. “At the time of the inscription, there were only about 3% of public spaces in the entire site; and by public spaces, I mean parks that people can go to,” says Murali. “Apart from the North Seafront which encompasses the Esplanade and Fountain Garden, there were no other parks. Even Armenian Park wasn’t a park then; it was a thieves’ market.

“We were looking at expanding public spaces, while also encouraging residents to remain in the residential quarters of Lebuh Melayu, Lorong Toh Aka, Lebuh Acheh and People’s Court. The Lebuh Armenian area, in particular, was shunned by many because of the unsavoury activities that were going on at the time, including the peddling of drugs, pornography and stolen goods.”

To facilitate the project, baseline surveys and studies were first conducted with the neighbourhood community to fully appreciate the location’s DNA. “A space must be studied to understand how it is used by the public; for example, before entering the park, one must identify where the movements are centralised to – how do people walk from Point A to Point B; the shorter distance is no doubt always preferred, and it is important to understand what is it that people want to use that space for in the future as well,” Murali explains.

Photo: Penang Port Commission

“Every park is different; you can’t just replicate the model of one park. It doesn’t work like that, rather it is a bit like a dance between the designer and the neighbourhood community to strike a compromise.”

The space limitation naturally prompted tweaks to the design principle, and a minimalistic “look” for Armenian Park was eventually agreed on. Upgrades ranged from soft landscaping and improving lighting fixtures to building spaces where people can sit and relax; the basketball court was retained, but re-oriented to serve as a multipurpose event space.14

“It was decided for the park to be used as a place for respite, to take in the views from surrounding areas – in this case, the heritage houses of Lebuh Armenian and Lebuh Acheh that flank the park – it’s all about the positioning. The park was also designed as an open space to be rented out for events, which is why you don’t see exercise equipment or a children’s playground, but more of walking trails and benches.

“Ultimately, the impact you want to have is for more people to move back to George Town, or for young families to live here. I think this has happened; we see more rentals, more people are doing up their houses and renting them out to younger people in the area. People are choosing to live in George Town now, which is key to ensuring the continued vitality of the neighbourhood.”

1https://medium.com/@thejas009/the-importance-of-public-spaces-5bb49ba6c000
2https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2019/04/28/penang-sets-up-climate-change-plan
3https://www.thestar.com.my/metro/metro-news/2019/01/07/penang-to-create-network-of-parks-linked-to-waterfront-amenities
4Ibid.
5Ibid.
6Ibid.
7https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2019/04/14/a-masterplan-to-link-george-towns-waterfronts-for-a-pedestrian-friendly-cit/1743050
8https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2017/07/11/penang-kicks-off-north-seafront-masterplan-with-seawall-facelift/1418239
9Ibid.
10https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2019/08/01/penang-east-seafront-transformation-to-start-in-six-months/1776612
11https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2019/11/539803/royal-caribbean-bring-430000-cruise-passengers-malaysia
12https://www.malaymail.com/news/malaysia/2019/08/01/penang-east-seafront-transformation-to-start-in-six-months/1776612
13https://www.thestar.com.my/metro/metro-news/2017/09/15/keeping-it-green-and-simple-minimalistic-community-park-project-enhances-heritage-enclave
14https://thinkcity.com.my/project/the-armenian-park-improvement-project/



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