Street life – the restoration of historic George Town, Penang. An interview with Francesco Siravo and Hamdan Majeed
View of the recently completed seawall and public promenade in George Town, Penang. Courtesy of Permata Green / Jordan Lye
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Investing in public spaces is good for business, as a welcoming pedestrian environment attracts people who support stores, coffeeshops and restaurants. It is good for residents, who appreciate a walkable, safe and healthier environment, and it is good for communities as public open spaces strengthen social bonds, reinforce cultural values and promote inclusiveness.

George Town is an exceptional example of a multicultural trading town in East and Southeast Asia, with its many distinct cultural traditions and ethnic groups. These make the town’s intangible heritage unrivalled in the entire region. Moreover, the town possesses to this day the highest concentration of well-preserved historic buildings in the region, buildings that have virtually disappeared from cities such as Singapore and Hong Kong.

Two pressing reasons determined the significant public investment needed to improve the quality of George Town’s seafront. The first was the need to intervene urgently to prevent the collapse of the dilapidated seawall and narrow public promenade on top. The second hinged on the desire to create an appropriate setting for the Esplanade, the vast green expanse known locally as the Padang, and its associated spaces and public buildings.

The renovated seawall looking west. AKTC / Mohamad Faizul Bin Ismail

The renovated seawall looking west.

AKTC / Mohamad Faizul Bin Ismail

This is a major undertaking that will completely transform the nature of the central public space and enhance appreciation of the 18th-century fort that, without its former moat, may appear today as an incomplete and diminished landmark. This attention to reconstituting the north seafront’s physical setting and urban significance within the wider WHS Master Plan distinguishes our approach from most contemporary planning initiatives. Very often, the latter consist of an accidental combination of piecemeal and uncoordinated developments. These inevitably disregard the harmony and coherence of past urban ensembles and the sense of place and continuity that characterise the cities we have inherited from previous generations. We endeavour to re-establish these urban continuities and put back, at least in part, what has been so hastily and inconsiderately destroyed following the town’s more recent urban transformations.

Unlike conventional public-private partnerships aimed at securing additional private financing for public projects, we aimed to strengthen the public-sector capacity in the heritage sector and ensure the operational efficiency and quality of the results in a highly sensitive cultural and environmental setting. 

Conservation techniques and processes adopted were aimed at avoiding many of the recent planning failures whereby traditional urban landscapes were swept aside and remodelled in ways that ignore the deep, intergenerational connections that link people to their familiar urban places. 

Both environmental and cultural resources are now rightly perceived as two sides of the same coin. In the future, they will demand greater efforts and collaborative synergies to orient planning efforts and the construction industries towards nature-based solutions and the use of traditional materials.