The promise George Town's back lanes hold


How easy it is for a person to walk in a city – its walkability – is fast becoming a measure of how liveable a city is. The George Town Back Lanes Project is constructed on that understanding, and shows the potential that our forgotten pathways contain.

Back lanes as assets

An improved quality of life is a key advantage of having pedestrian-friendly spaces in the city. Pedestrians tend to congregate around safe, pleasant and interesting environments, particularly the young and creative generation that values a strong social culture. More public spaces would promote walking just as how increasing highways would bring in more cars. A city with a wide network of pedestrian infrastructure and spaces provides an avenue for creativity to manifest. The “Car Free Sundays” around Penang’s Beach Street, for example, has seen many events taking place, attracting tourists, skaters and cyclists from all over, some even coming out with their own quirky versions of bicycles. The additional public spaces will champion a more social and pedestrian culture, which George Town has been aiming to achieve.

Once the pedestrian groundwork has been put in place, small independent businesses like food bars as well as magazine and gift stalls will spur the economy by setting up their premises along the spaces to catch the pedestrian wave. This will spread economic benefits across the town.

Back lanes provide segregation between pedestrians and vehicular traffic. People are more inclined to walk or hang out in vehiclefree spaces compared to busy streets, away from the exhaust and hazards of the road. The ambience of the back lanes is naturally more laid-back, with less noise and less of the “stress and strains” of the city.

The Melbourne example

The Melbourne Laneways Project was implemented in the central business district (CBD) in the late 1980s. Before the project, the city was in the doldrums, experiencing its lowest occupancy. The programme witnessed the transformation of the back lanes and alleys in the CBD into public spaces. The garbage collection system was first reorganised, the grime and waste on the surface were removed, and a smooth walking surface was put in place. Once those dark lanes were spruced up and injected with life, people started to see the potential that lanes held in Melbourne.

Soon after, the city saw a dramatic improvement in street life and businesses along its downtown streets and alleys. Small independent businesses such as music shops, art galleries, food bars and craft workshops began moving away from the main streets (that demanded high rents), to set up in the revitalised lanes. Ten years later, the city showed an 830% increase in residents, 275% more restaurants and cafes, and a 62% increase in students1.

An artwork lining one of the back lanes in George Town.

Pedestrian barriers

Many of the back lanes located in the heritage zone of George Town are no longer “unknown” territory to the locals and visitors, thanks to Lithuanian-born street artist Ernest Zacharevic’s street murals and Think City’s metal sculpture project2 that helped promote the character-rich lanes. Many tourists have identified the locations of the art pieces and continue to flock there. One such lane is an obscure lane opposite the Khoo Kongsi, which has seen a large increase in tourist flow ever since it was publicised online.

An appealing characteristic of the degree of walkability in George Town is that there are much fewer pedestrian barriers within the city compared to more complex metropolitan blocks like KL. There are no obstructing highways, no major rivers and no eight-lane road trunks. Most of the streets in George Town preserve the repose of old.

Yet a challenge faced by many pedestrians is that the street shoulders are not wide enough, and many times the sidewalks or kaki lima either are broken or too narrow, have an obstruction built into it like a wall or tree, or just do not exist at all. Therefore sometimes it just seems easier to walk on the streets instead of on the sidewalks.

On the flip side, there is a considerably large network of back lanes within the heritage zone of George Town that provides an alternative pathway to the busy streets. The problem is that many of the residents use the lanes to park their vehicles, and it would be another matter entirely to get them to give up their parking lots in the name of public space.

The George Town Back Lanes Project

Penang Institute has been mapping the network of back lanes in the heritage zone of George Town, exploring their potential. The study, dubbed the George Town Back Lanes Project, shows that the lanes hold great potential to be converted into public spaces if provided with the proper infrastructure such as smooth pavements and benches. After all, they are already shaded by surrounding buildings and trees and are used as short-cuts or places for locals to relax.

Thus far, 40 lanes have been identified. The ownership of the lanes is being recorded and their current usage observed. These lanes, when connected with short street sections, have the capacity to create a whole network of walkways connecting important locations from Weld Quay and the clan associations of Armenian and Acheh Streets to the backpacker arteries of Love Lane and Chulia Street. Proper signages can be erected across the nexus of walkways to direct pedestrians to heritage sites in the city. Colour codes can also be used to categorise different areas of the network in the city; for example, light blue for Weld Quay and green for the area around the clan houses.

One of Zacharevic's murals in a lane located near the Khoo Kongsi.

This mapping study aims to complement the Greening of George Town project and Think City’s Little India Improvement District project to transform two back lanes within Little India into walkways-cum-public spaces. Four underutilised courtyards in the district are also being transformed into urban pocket parks. This Secret Garden programme seeks to bring in an element of surprise into public space to encourage more people to explore those places.

Several concepts under the George Town Back Lanes Project have been tabled. One is an “Artist Lane” where artists can convene to display their artwork. The lane should have long stretches of clean walls that can be painted or printed on, with sections where benches can be placed. It would essentially be an open art gallery strip. A lane that may suit the description is the extension of Argus Lane, which is a clean and shady alley with an exceedingly pleasant atmosphere. Situated behind St George’s Anglican Church, the lane is also home to Seven Terraces, the newly restored boutique hotel. Other lanes near Cannon Square are being looked into as well.

Another concept on the drawing board is the “Cafe Lane” where small businesses and cafes shift their outlets to face the lane. The lane should be broad, attractive and safe. Incandescent lights may be used to line the rows of houses to provide ambience in the evenings. Currently under study is Cheapside Lane, which already has hardware businesses along it and is a hive of activity among technicians. It also has the back of houses facing the lane, which may present an opportunity for residents to open cafes and bars.

A “Garden Lane” impression was also developed in which linear gardens and creepers line the lane. A public park can be developed where anyone can contribute to the lush greenery of the belt. Different sections are envisioned, with areas for, say, potted miniature plants and flower beds. A bicycle station can be opened within the lane to serve as the start for a cycling trail around the heritage enclave.

In conclusion

The future of the George Town Back Lanes Project is still uncertain but one can already imagine the aesthetic or economic benefits the project will bring. The official implementation and infrastructure development are largely in the hands of the authorities, but for back lanes to be transformed into real public spaces, public participation is essential. Hopefully, residents or business operators may see their lanes as opportunities for art and business and explore the potential for improvement. George Town is already acclaimed for its high quality of life, but an increase in public spaces within the city will provide a catalyst for creativity and add an edge to the area’s social culture.

“Places for People” by City of Melbourne in collaboration with Gehl Architects.

2 Think City is a special project vehicle established by Khazanah Nasional Berhad and is responsible for the implementation and management of the George Town Grants Program. It carried out the Marking George Town Project that saw the winning concept of the metal sculptures being installed in various sections of the city to generate public interest in the city’s heritage and history.

Eric Capel flips between the oil and gas industry and urban planning.

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