My Oh My George Town! Public spaces need publicity – and polish

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A simple street corner holds different significance for different people – it may be a location for a street seller in the morning or a place for a relaxing pensioner in the afternoon, and during festivals it may take on other entirely new meanings. The Penang Institute “My George Town” project sets out to discover the use of such spaces.

Much emphasis is placed on George Town’s historic buildings. Their architectural styles, unique features and building techniques are the subject of many a book and magazine. And since its inscription as a World Heritage Site in 2008, significant work has also been carried out to describe the city – population and land use have been studied in depth, heritage buildings documented and assessed, and support provided to conserve and restore the unique architecture. A Special Area Plan and a Heritage Management Plan have even been developed for sustaining the city’s built heritage.

And while all that is fine and dandy, an important side of George Town is neglected – something as basic as the spaces between the buildings; spaces in fact by which we access the city.

George Town’s multicultural living heritage thrives in the city’s public spaces, constituting the crucial territory where much of urbanity is experienced. It is in these spaces that the interchange of human values takes place, creating George Town’s unique culture and townscape unparalleled in East and South-East Asia. These intermediary spaces – be they parks, places of worship, streetscapes, etc. – produce the vital connection between working, living and recreational opportunities.

A study of these living spaces is being undertaken by the Penang Institute, supported by Think City and George Town World Heritage Incorporated. The “My George Town” project is a public space programme that documents the daily rhythms of the George Town World Heritage Site (WHS), at the heart of which is a reading of the city’s connectivity, accessibility and walkability. It is also a celebration of George Town through photography and videography – including a 360-degree panorama – based on detailed examinations of built environments and on a micro-level mapping of the city’s pedestrian infrastructure.

A family enjoying breakfast. In George Town, very often, pavements become extensions of eateries.

Improving connectivity: the George Town WHS Special Area Plan

The George Town WHS Special Area Plan was prepared with the aim of guiding and controlling development within the heritage site. Its objectives are as follows:

• Public space connectivity – In order to green the city and reduce carbon emissions, a series of parks and public open spaces will be interconnected via a landscaped pedestrian network;

• Node connectivity – Komtar, Weld Quay and Swettenham Pier are three main nodes that bring the highest number of pedestrians into the WHS, and are to be connected to the pedestrian network;

• Waterfront connectivity – Linkages between the waterfront and the inner city are to be developed to enhance pedestrian movement.

Public realm, access and circulation were some factors that were to be further addressed through detailed strategies and actions.

A base for future improvements

Our built environment has a huge impact on our lives. After all, it provides the setting and stimulates our senses, emotions, activities, sense of community and general wellbeing. As we walk past buildings and through spaces, they emit meanings that we effortlessly pick up.

The purpose of the “My George Town” project is to improve extensively the city’s walkability, accessibility and connectivity. The need is great to redesign our urban spaces to become more inclusive and provide opportunities for public participation. Women, the young and the elderly are easily excluded by poor quality urban environments, as are people with disabilities and other disadvantaged backgrounds.

The built environment today is increasingly a direct expression of design strategies and new technologies which principally address crime concerns; however, these subtly indicate who are welcome and who are not. We are also seeing an increasing privatisation of the public realm. With this intrusion, much that we consider democratic about “public” spaces is lost.

How we construct our environment potentially addresses many of today’s persistent challenges, such as public health concerns like obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, asthma, injury, depression, violence and social inequities. Travel behaviour and demand are significantly shaped by our built environment; what we build and design now can influence future patterns of behaviour. Wherever the physical environment is left to deteriorate, people would begin to avoid it, resulting in a greater fear of crime in that area among remaining residents and occasional visitors.

Holistic planning can and should consider all these elements. Writer and activist Jane Jacobs’s most significant contribution to urban planning was her understanding that streets and sidewalks, as much as parks, are the true public spaces of a city. While many planners argued that streets were wasteful and that pedestrians needed to be separated from cars, Jacobs looked closely at how streets and sidewalks were actually used in vibrant urban districts. An ardent critic of urban planning of the time, she concluded that successful streetscapes contained a mixture of uses and activities linked together by pocket parks, squares and public buildings at key locations. Successful streetscapes, in short, prioritise the pedestrian.

How we construct our environment potentially addresses many of today's persistent challenges, such as health concerns.

Capturing George Town

Before setting out to capture the public spaces of George Town, Penang Institute carried out a crowdsourcing exercise to identify the public spaces that mean something to the people. Hundreds of people were engaged via social networking sites, each contributing to our online collaborative Google map. The instructions were simple: put a pin on the map indicating interesting public spaces and state why these places were interesting, along with information about the best time to capture these spaces in use. We also engaged with mosques, churches and temples using a physical version of the map to reach out to their congregations.

On the basis of these maps, we went about capturing key public spaces in both photography and film. A 360-degree video camera (we’ve taken to calling him “George”) was used to take photographs and film videos, with a special software to stitch these together to make a panoramic 360-degree environment. We also captured a range of public spaces from the Esplanade and the City Marina to Little India and Lebuh Chulia in both rolling film and time-lapse film, making possible an easy examination of how the space is used throughout a typical day.

"George".

Mapping George Town

In May, a detailed mapping exercise of George Town’s public realm was undertaken. Two teams went street by street to map pedestrian and street infrastructure ranging from blockages in five-foot-ways (both permanent and temporary), places where motorcycles hindered pedestrian access, changes in elevation between individual shop lots, open drains and the location of street stalls, streetlights, street furniture and so on.

"George".

This micro-level analysis was then built up to the block and street level, and the results will be presented to key stakeholders to support future planning in the city. However, we expect future planning to take into account not just the physical attributes of the streetscape, but also how the streetscape is actually used, as evidenced in our imagery. A street may be full of blockages, but it may also be full of life.

Furthermore, this mapping can provide a framework for improving the pedestrian environment, while enhancing – rather than displacing – the public life that is integral to the city’s Outstanding Universal Values. It can provide a useful aid for policymakers in prioritising decisions.

In addition to the mapping, pedestrian and cycle counts were undertaken along a pre-identified route. 10-minute counts were done at 55 locations, on four occasions throughout the day. After more than 8,000 pedestrians and 1,000 cyclists had been counted, we discovered that 54% of pedestrians and 69% of cyclists were male. With the exception of pedestrians in the morning, males were predominant at all times throughout the day.

Three sections of the pedestrian spine were identified as having the highest pedestrian flows: Jalan Penang (especially in the morning) where the Chowrasta Market is a great shopping attraction for the locals; Lebuh Armenian, which draws masses of tourists; and Lebuh Pantai, where many office workers can be found, especially during lunch time. Crossreferencing this pedestrian flow data can further support the prioritising of interventions to improve pedestrian infrastructure.

The most significant flow of cyclists was, not surprising given the number of bicycle rental shops that have opened in the past few years, in and around Lebuh Armenian. While cycling around the city continues to gain popularity, the city has very little, if any, cycling infrastructure. To what extent this prevents people from exploring further afield has not been quantified. However, it would be fair to assume that improved infrastructure can open up more of the city to cyclists and perhaps relieve pressure on areas that can get very congested.

Contributing to My George Town

The project website, launched during George Town Festival, is where all our findings come together. All media-related materials, i.e. professional photography, 360-degree photospheres and film, and 360-degree time-lapse videos will be shared with the public, while detailed mapping will be accessible to key stakeholders. Though we have captured a range of both formal and informal public spaces, this is only the starting point; the aim of the website is for the people of George Town and the people who love George Town to continue to build it as a library that captures the city’s public spaces. Old photos of George Town are also welcome. These will help us see how the use of space has changed – or not – over time.

As George Town continues to develop economically, its infrastructure and facilities will have to support an increasing number of users. Some of those users may want to utilise spaces in ways which are different from their original design intent. The adaptive reuse of traditional shophouses for example is driving a renewal of the city and contributing to economic growth. However, these changes must be managed and a balance must be struck to ensure that they do not dilute the Outstanding Universal Values of the site.

The My George Town exhibition will run for the entire month of August, Mondays to Fridays from 9am to 5pm at George Town World Heritage Incorporated on Lebuh Acheh. Admission is free.

For any inquiries, email hello@mygeorgetown.my. Visit the website at www.mygeorgetown.my or follow us on Facebook (www.facebook.com/ mygeorgetown.my), Twitter (twitter.com/mygeorgetownlah) and Instagram (instagram.com/ mygeorgetown).

Stuart MacDonald is a fellow and head of Urban Studies at Penang Institute.



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