Feeling at Home in Public
Clever and charming ways of reclaiming public spaces are getting Penangites to go out into the open again.
Some 120 colourfully decorated, free-standing yellow chairs were scattered around the George Town heritage zone last August. A month-long social experiment organised by local think-tank Penang
Institute and jointly supported by Hin Bus Depot and Narrow Marrow to tie in with George Town Festival, “Chairs” attempts to reverse burgeoning development on the island by democratising public spaces within George Town. Locals and tourists alike were encouraged to move and rearrange the chairs around the heritage zone to “create a public realm of their own” that doubles in identifying new public spaces as well.
According to Stuart MacDonald, head of the Urban Studies Department at Penang Institute, “Chairs” was inspired by PARK(ing) Day. The first of its kind to be held in Penang in September last year, the event saw parking spaces transformed into mini urban parks by the public for a day. It was very successful in the morning but by the afternoon, it became very hot. Everybody had to look for shade. But there wasn’t really anywhere to sit – you would have to go to a cafe or a coffee shop for that. “That’s where ‘Chairs’ comes in: we want to be able to show that if you give people the opportunity to decide where they want to sit, they will tell you where they want to sit,” he says.
The chairs’ movements were tracked through social media using the hashtags #chairs and #mygeorgetown, and wherever they settled, MacDonald says public seating in the particular area will be studied. Suggestions for public seating at some of the locations will also be submitted to the local authority in an effort to create more public spaces for the people.
Innovating communal spaces is perhaps the best way to entice the public back out into the open again. Take Singapore for instance: certain public areas have been decked out with “benches refashioned from timber planks from the old National Stadium,” according to the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s public space Master Plan. The intricate designs and details of the yellow chairs have not only tempted “passers-by to slow down, linger and enjoy the city”; their strategic locations along shaded sidewalks and five-foot ways have assisted in restoring Penangites’ sense of community as well. Families, friends and even strangers exchange face-to-face dialogue while taking a much-needed breather after a leisurely excursion around the city.
“The chairs facilitate conversation because the chances of an individual speaking to another are increased through their close proximity,” MacDonald explains. “And who knows what will happen as a result of two people coming together and talking? They might go on to form a business, they might go on to form a relationship or they might even go on to get married. If the chairs were not there, these conversations would not have happened.”
Reclaiming Public Space
Modern lifestyles have definitely changed the way people interact, and this takes expression in the evolution of public infrastructure. “Thirty years ago, people were active in public spaces,” says Pulau Tikus assemblywoman Yap Soo Huey. “Even today, you can still see folks of the older generation spending time out in the open. It is not true that it’s not in our Malaysian way of life to be out in the open space; it is simply because our environment has undergone such radical urbanisation that public spaces are no longer suitable or comfortable for people to use anymore.”
The key to breathing new life into existing public spaces is to involve the residents in the action, Yap explains. She invited Pulau Tikus residents to participate in cultural mapping workshops to help them reconnect with the memories they once had of public spaces. Facilitated by Arts-ED, a non-profit organisation that provides innovative community-based arts and culture education in rural and urban communities, the workshops helped the residents identify precise locations around Pulau Tikus, from back lanes to street corners, which had profound memories for them.
This was followed up with a place-making workshop. “Together with architects and town planners, we had people go out with survey forms to walk to places with which they had identified. We then asked them which of those places should be activated into common areas and how we should go about doing that.” By the end of the workshop, four sites were identified as prime locations that can be activated into public spaces; among these was a sidewalk along Jalan Cantonment: “The sidewalk is actually really broad so the people felt that it could be activated either by landscaping or by setting up kiosks along the area.”
Having previously lived in Melbourne, Yap observes that there is both hardware and software when it comes to creating communal areas. “The hardware lies in the re-designing of public spaces by injecting them with aesthetically pleasing views. At the moment the sites in Pulau Tikus are flat open spaces. They need to be softened, and that is where the software comes in.”
“It is vital that we give the residents reasons to spend time outdoors,” says Yap, who has also been actively hosting a variety of activities and events such as the Pulau Tikus Heritage Hunt and Riang Ria Tahun Baru Cina to welcome human interaction in the suburb’s public areas.
With these creative methods of identifying the need for public space, Penangites will begin to feel more at home outside their abodes again.