V. Localizing heritage stewardship

COMMUNITY-FOCUSED URBAN REGENERATION Preserving and activating the Historic Urban Landscape in Malaysian cities


Based upon the public realm improvement programme in three Malaysian cities, this chapter focuses on community involvement in the design, upgrading, and activation of the Historic Urban Landscape undertaken by Think City Malaysia, a wholly owned subsidiary of Khazanah Nasional that is dedicated to community-focused urban regeneration. This work involves an innovative platform whereby local government, community stakeholders, and technical experts all work together to ensure that there is wider public-sector appreciation for the practical application of the provisions of the 2011 UNESCO Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape as well as greater opportunities for participation in planning, interpretation, and activation of this Recommendation. The public realm improvement projects implemented by Think City', anchored in the George Town UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS), include the development of a Special Area Plan1 based upon the historic city’s Outstanding Universal Value. A Public Realm Improvement Guide was developed through a series of public consultations for use by the Penang Island City' Council and other interested investors. The demonstration projects included a pocket park, rehabilitation of neglected back laneways, streetscape improvements, repair of a deteriorated historic sea-wall, and the institution of a public promenade along the restored seawall. The same formula of community consultation, engagement, and involvement in design work used in George Town has been applied to Downtown Kuala Lumpur as well as in Johor Bahru old town. In both these cities, the challenges of integrating heritage conservation within development objectives are greater than they are in George Town, which enjoys the protection afforded by its formal UNESCO World Heritage status. Nonetheless, by involving communities in planning, design, and activation, the HUL approach is given concrete expression, modified to meet the needs of the Malaysian context.

Urban heritage of peninsular Malaysia

Peninsular Malaysia continues today in its historical geo-cultural role, at the confluence of global trade routes, with the Straits of Malacca being the world’s busiest shipping lane." Up till the nineteenth century, the sea and rivers were the main highways in the carriage of people and goods linking the Malay

Archipelago with Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Far East. As a place of confluence, port and riverine settlements were the genesis of kingdoms. Multi-ethnic enclaves soon developed as traders sojourned while waiting for changing monsoon winds to sail back to their homelands. Many of these settlements were built near water, with structures often elevated on stilts in adaptation to the tropical ecology.

With the coming of Islam in the fifteenth century, the mosque, together with the palace and the port, became the focal points of human settlements, particularly in the nine sultanates which arose in peninsular Malaysia. The arrival of European colonialists, beginning with the Portuguese in 1511, followed by the Dutch (1641), and then the British (1786), added new layers to the morphology of these towns, as well as creating new ones. From towns focused on the harbour, European colonialists, particularly in the early phase of occupation (1511—1824), enjoyed monopolistic policies where local resources were procured and concentrated in trading factories protected by military infrastructure. The Portuguese built the A Famosa in Malacca (1520s), which was a European-style fortification transplanted into the Far East. Dutch Malacca (1641-1824) features the Stadhuys, civic buildings organized around a European-style town square, for the congregation of trading interests in nearby Heeren Street. On Penang Island, the British introduced (1786-1957) its standard colonial formula of fort, esplanade and civic buildings. The British settlement of George Town on Penang Island was a township organized to facilitate trade and commerce. In 1800, on the peninsular mainland, the British secured a strip of land to provide supplies to sustain its Penang Island settlement.

Today, most Malaysian cities, especially on the west coast of the peninsular Malaysia, share several fundamental characteristics in town planning, built structural heritage, and living traditions underlying a similar social and spatial organization, occupational distribution, religious diversity, and other cultural practices derived from an amalgam of Malay, Siamese, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, and British influences. The colonial imprint is strongest in downtown areas with the ubiquitous shophouse - a hybrid trader’s residence with architectural influences from China and Europe adapted to Malay world conditions. In terms of the urban morphology, these towns are often developed along a formally laid-out grid pattern and organized around administrative buildings. Older settlements like Malacca (est. 1400), George Town (est. 1786) and Singapore (est. 1819) have prominent fortifications with the most intact being Fort Cornwallis in Penang and Fort Canning in Singapore. In the second phase of British intervention (1876-1914) when the entire peninsular Malaysia came under British rule, such military constructions became obsolete and were redeveloped, although the base template that distinguished the European from the Chinese and Malay settlements was retained. In Kuala Lumpur, a tin mining centre, the British colonial security forces were established on higher ground, separated from the native and immigrant communities by the Klang River. In the 1900s, with the advent of modern town planning, public open spaces, laneways and a road system to facilitate the advent of motorized vehicles were built.

The resultant townscape, characteristic of the Malaya Peninsula, was the manifestation of an extractive colonial economy where primary resource from mining and commercial agriculture were accumulated, stored, and packed for shipment to Britain’s industrial heartlands. A ready market for these industrial goods saw the British Engineering Corps building facilities, such as metalled track roads, bridges, railways, warehouses, and a rudimentary sanitation infrastructure. A multi-ethnic population began to take root providing much needed labour and services. By the first decade of the twentieth century, as British administration became more widespread and systematic, municipal councils were formed and administrative rules and regulations were introduced, with the result that urban planning became more formalized. Professional architects were hired to design public as well as private buildings that reflected the tastes of the times. It was in the 1930s that modern town planning professionals entered the picture. The Federated Malay States Town Planning Department, established in 1928, began to make its presence felt in Kuala Lumpur, which has a high concentration of buildings of early twentieth century modern architecture. Today, Kuala Kubu Bahru, a small township about 30 miles from Kuala Lumpur, is the most intact example of the Garden City concept in Malaysia.

Up until Malaysian independence in 1957, such downtowns were the administrative, business and social centres linked to the hinterland by road, rail and rivers. At corresponding points in the economic chain were collection centres, minor towns that were mirror images of the larger cities only on a smaller scale, with a corresponding complement of urban features. The only exception to this standard template was to be found in the Malay Sultanate of Johor, which retained its independence right up until 1914, where urban development directed by a modernizing monarchy. Johor Bahru had its own local town planners, architects, and road builders. In fact, in 1870, the first wooden railway linking Johor Bahru and Gemas in Johor was built here. While most of the towns on the west coast of the peninsula were organized around colonial administrative buildings and an agglomeration of commercial establishments, Johor Bahru was also a royal capital with architectural expressions of locally inspired modernity taking form in the sultanate’s public, religious, and palatial buildings.

It is these multi-cultural influences, both local and foreign inspired, over the course of several centuries that made Melaka and George Town’s bid for UNESCO World Heritage inscription successfol. As the inscription Statement of Outstanding Universal Value reads:

Melaka and George Town, historic cities of the Straits of Malacca, have developed over 500 years of trading and cultural exchanges between East and West in the Straits of Malacca. The influences of Asia and Europe have endowed the towns with a specific multicultural heritage that is both tangible and intangible. With its government buildings, churches, squares and fortifications, Melaka demonstrates the early stages of this history originating in the 15th-century Malay sultanate and the Portuguese and Dutch periods beginning in the early 16th century. Featuring residential and commercial buildings, George Town represents the British era from the end of the 18th century. The two towns constitute a unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia.3

The evolution of multi-ethnic and multi-cultural communities in both cities inspired and reinforced a distinctive template of urban development that radiated throughout the Malay Peninsula during the late nineteenth and throughout the twentieth centuries. UNESCO World Heritage status, conferred in 2008, further reinforced the legitimacy of this historic urban planning template which, with inscription on the World Heritage List, became formally codified as the basis for twenty-first century town planning, the main aim of which being to align conservation with development based upon the Outstanding Universal Value (OUVs) defined in the World Heritage inscription. In both Melaka and George Town, Special Area Plans (SAP) were developed and gazetted to protect the historic urban fabric. To activate the SAP, a Strategic Master Plan (SMP) was developed in George Town to demonstrate the alignment of conservation and development. The SMP identified public realm improvements to complement private sector activities, mostly in the hospitality and services sector. As public open spaces are limited within the inscribed boundaries of the George Town World Heritage site, their protection, rehabilitation, and long-term maintenance became an important component of Penang State Government planning strategies for George Town. This planning prioritization has allowed for the efficient use of local government allocations and demonstrates innovative ways of adapting built heritage assets for contemporary uses by the community.

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