Rejuvenating public spaces with placemaking

Placemaking is a relatively new concept in Malaysia but it is becoming an increasingly integral part of the community and the government is pushing for the concept to be part of urban redevelopment.

Placemaking refers to a way of improving a neighbourhood, city or region, by inspiring people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces and maximise shared value as well as strengthening the connection between people and places.

Among successful placemaking in Kuala Lumpur is Petaling Street, or better known as Chinatown, and in George Town, Penang where the local authorities have reset the function of Armenian Park for recreation, as opposed to being an illegal flea market.

The state reclaimed a forgotten urban space that was once a significant entertainment place for Chinese opera and cinema in Chinatown and decayed and neglected buildings in the city to transform and incorporate with art and cultural strategies.

Deputy Minister of Housing and Local Government Datuk Raja Kamarul Bahrin Shah Raja Ahmad tells FocusM: “Although placemaking is quite new in Malaysia, it is already there in many aspects of our life. Now, we put it in a new light in order for us to see a more organised activity.”

He says public spaces are important for everyone. Hence, the government and its various agencies will continue to provide closer community engagement to ensure that public spaces get the attention they deserve.

Raja Kamarul Bahrin Shah Raja Ahmad

“As we move towards becoming a developed country, we must not only be ambitious in designing remarkable skylines but also keep our eyes on the ground, to see how our public spaces can be a key factor in promoting social inclusiveness as well as economic growth, in line with our Shared Prosperity Vision 2030 (SPV 2030).

“It is important to hold on to the goals of sustainability and liveability of cities as they continue to develop. We should also be cognisant that these principles are in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals which we aspire to follow,” says Raja Kamarul.

Re-envision a place’s history, heritage and culture

The idea is to use arts and culture to build social connections that will enhance the other elements of community development.

“I can see that we are still lacking in authentic street culture. We need it more in the city. (In Kuala Lumpur), the only place where you can find those kinds of activities is near the Central Market. The people there don’t mind standing or even squatting on the pavement. This is what they want – the sense of belonging,” adds the architect-turned-politician.

He says there is a certain part of the city that has high potential in terms of heritage, art and culture for placemaking.

“Places like Penang, Kuala Lumpur, they have a natural heritage. The real place to turn into placemaking is Kampong Bharu, a traditional Malay village in the heart of Kuala Lumpur.

“It represents one of many efforts to establish a balance between the concerns of long-term inhabitants and the demands of modern urban development. Other than that there is the Kelab Sultan Sulaiman area, and the whole stretch of Masjid India until International Hotel (in Jalan Raja Muda Abdul Aziz).”

Raja Kamarul says the Ministry of Federal Territories wants to adapt public spaces and rejuvenate them.

In this context, a site is expected to be designed as an urban attraction, drawing the people to stop over and get exposed to art and cultural programmes which complement the existing public realm there.

Hamdan Abdul Majeed

Meanwhile, managing director Hamdan Abdul Majeed of Khazanah Nasional Bhd subsidiary Think City Sdn Bhd says the process of placemaking started with looking at ways to keep heritage alive.

“We worked with the owners of heritage buildings to match them with local businesses that would promote the intangible heritage – such as Ren I Tang (a restored building from the 1800s which used to be a medical hall) and Seven Terraces (a row of seven grand 19th century Anglo-Chinese terraces). In this way, the use of old buildings could be adapted and brought to life,” says Hamdan, who spearheaded the placemaking project in Penang.

He adds food is what Penang is known for and is a form of valuable intangible heritage.

“We worked with the Penang City Council on revitalising places that people love to be in such as the markets in Chowrasta and Campbell Street.”

On SPV 2030, Raja Kamarul says it is aimed at providing a comprehensive framework to address income and wealth disparities as well as build a united, prosperous and dignified nation.

“I believe placemaking also has a key role to play, for us to collectively achieve this vision for ‘equitability outcomes’.”

He says this is not a journey that can be accomplished alone. The private sector must be proactive in creating and promoting better public spaces and in engaging with the local communities for mutual benefit.

Property and infrastructure developers must engage with and consider the public’s needs to avoid costly mistakes, he says.

“Through placemaking initiatives by city makers and space managers, we may discover what the goals of the local community and their visions are for the city as well as the spaces around them.

“It is about taking in diverse views and feedback to design spaces that meet the needs of the community for a vibrant city. There must be a variety of businesses, and interesting activities to cater to the needs of the crowd that make up different genders, ages and colours. What we need is a bottom-up approach as opposed to a top-down view,” says Raja Kamarul.

Chin Woo Stadium is being upgraded under a placemaking project by Think City

Think City’s Hamdan says the process of creating placemaking will never end.

“We didn’t stop there. Using the same method of evidence-based, community-led processes, we continued to transform, maintain and programme spaces. As a neutral party we are in a good position to initiate collaboration, working with communities, local government, NGOs and institutional partners,” he says.

In Johor Bahru, he says the organisation has launched a backlane pop-up park and arts festivals while in Butterworth it has created an art walk.

“In Kuala Lumpur, we launched the Sama-Sama Festival in the square right outside Ruang, where our KL office is, so that the food and culture of Malaysia’s migrant communities could be celebrated – to promote diversity and inclusivity,” he shares.

As for backlanes, they are typically used as loading bays, parking lots, waste disposal areas and for storage. The cleanliness, safety and aesthetics of these laneways are usually neglected.

The lack of foot traffic could also attract undesirable activities such as substance abuse and other illegal activities.

It is quite common to hear about muggings and other crimes being committed in backlanes. This, of course, deters the public from using the space to get from one block to another, and therefore disrupts connectivity within the city. It also makes a city less pleasant to live in.

Rejuvenating urban landscape

Despite the positive outcomes that placemaking brings, there are many challenges, says Hamdan.

Some of the concerns are a lack of financing, lack of space and the role of local governments in placemaking initiatives.

“As urban planning becomes increasingly complex, how can placemaking be even more creative and innovative? Can it help with social inequality? How can we harness disruptive technology in placemaking? What can placemaking contribute to the climate action movement?”

Hamdan says Think City was born to work on rejuvenating the urban landscape, focusing on heritage conservation.

“One of our first roles was as a public grants manager in George Town when it first received recognition as a Unesco World Heritage Site. We learned a lot from the George Town Grants Programme (GTGP). It showed us how a community-led approach and a system of pilot testing could work to transform a city.

“Of course, there’s still work to be done, but I’m proud to say that Penang has made it to the top 10 list of places to visit in the world, according to Lonely Planet and CNN Travel. This may not have been possible 10 years ago.”

He notes that when Think City first began operations, Penang – once a historically important port city – had stopped being a free port.

“It had lost its purpose and had been declining for years. Many parts of George Town were in a state of decay and neglect. Buildings stood empty. Businesses and residents were being displaced. There weren’t enough affordable homes or commercial spaces. The population was dwindling, with talent moving to work elsewhere, and the level of economic and cultural activity was low.”

After all, he says a good city tells a story.

“You’re being told the story as you walk through it, interact with it, and experience it, and the experience must be pleasurable. Streets with things to see and do at eye level.”

So Think City started from scratch, working first to understand George Town’s challenges.

“A year later, we received a grant of RM20 mil from the Ministry of Finance to launch the GTGP, designed to spearhead urban regeneration. The programme focused on promoting community engagement to preserve and celebrate heritage through grants and technical support.”

Over a four-year period, the GTGP disbursed more than RM16 mil to 240 grants and special projects, for public realm improvement, conservation, capacity building and content development.

Recently, the organisation dedicated to creating more sustainable cities received RM10 mil from Budget 2020 to preserve urban heritage and culture. 

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