Balancing Heritage Conservation and Sustainable Urban Development

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WITH THE POPULATION of cities expected to increase by 2.5 billion between now and 2050, cities face a multitude of challenges. Urban sprawl and transportation congestion are expected to worsen, and the effects of climate change will increase the vulnerability of cities to natural hazards and climate-induced displacement. Such consequences will affect people’s welfare and bring unprecedented challenges to the planet’s environmental sustainability.

For many years now, the concept of heritage conservation has been the main agenda for George Town’s development, which led to its inscription as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. Many policies are driven by heritage conservation, but most only develop at the level of historical building preservation. To be able to support the relationship between cultural heritage conservation/regeneration and sustainable development, the cultural landscape must channel its contributions in improving the economic, social and environmental productivity of the city. In short, George Town’s cultural heritage is an investment and not a cost.

Penang2030

The overarching framework of the vision, Penang2030, focuses on four pillars: i) increase liveability to enhance quality of life; ii) upgrade the economy to raise household incomes; iii) empower people to strengthen civic participation; and iv) invest in the built environment to improve societal resilience.

Read also: Sprucing Up Penang's Agriculture Sector

The emphasis given to the need to increase liveability recognises the aspiration of the people of Penang to live in not only a safe and secure environment, but also a mentally and emotionally rewarding one. The fourth theme (Invest in built environment) specifically mentions the need to develop a green economy, as well as the need to be climate resilient.

Importantly, all projects and programmes under the Vision will need to show how they are able to contribute to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This is a significant step made by the State Government to adopt a forward-looking approach to achieve sustainable development in Penang, and George Town as the Capital City of the State, must lead by example.

Penang Urban Agenda

State planning policies inevitably affect State-owned lands and planning schemes. Therefore, these policies – developed and/ or endorsed by the Penang State Government – must provide builders and developers, industry stakeholders and the public with guiding principles.

While Sustainable Masterplan Initiatives within the private realm can be encouraged (discretionary provisions) and enforced (mandatory provisions) through the State and local planning framework, their implementations will be faced with challenges such as validity of sustainability in planning, local policy support and site-specific considerations.

The goals for sustainable development in Penang must be in response to its own context, climate and resilience planning for future generations, and environmental and economical adaptations to climate change.

To strike a balance between heritage conservation and sustainable urban development, the Penang Urban Agenda and Penang2030 ought to develop Penang into a Smart and Green City. In the authorities’ aspiration to re-populate George Town, guidelines such as low-carbon city, GBI Township, and Heritage and Building tools should be utilised for a measurable delivery of these sustainable goals.

The Penang Green Council, together with the State, is identifying the areas of concern and prioritise the SDGs for the next 10 years. These in turn should filter down to George Town in enhancing the key liveability indices of human scale, conservation, heritage and cultural vibrancy.

The main focus areas are on Land Use and Planning; Disaster Risk Reduction and Management; Green Economy; Agriculture; Marine and Coastal Management; Green Buildings and Townships; Sustainable Mobility and Connectivity; Water and Sanitation; Biodiversity and Natural Ecosystems; and Governance and Institutions.

Re-populating George Town

Much of the work undertaken to date by the Penang Island City Council (MBPP), in collaboration with George Town World Heritage Incorporated and Think City, is focused on enhancing public places through strategies such as pocket parks and laneway projects, translating to greater travel convenience, lower car usage and more social interactions.

To re-populate George Town, MBPP is working on attracting people back to the inner city. This will be achieved through a pilot project to repurpose heritage shop houses along Lebuh Kimberly, turning them into co-working and co-living spaces for local artisans.

Given that land on the Island is limited, the repopulation endeavour would require strategic densification. Unlike island cities like Singapore, the building of high-rise residential towers in George Town would only compromise its status as a World Heritage Site.

The framework for sustainable development needs to first of all identify the general demography that will be introduced to reside within the city; this will inform the appropriate development of housing typologies, social environment and supporting infrastructure such as tertiary city campus, entrepreneurial incubator and age care facilities to create a viable circular economy and public welfare.

Smart city initiatives can augment the ecosystem through the set-up of CCTV units and the development of an Intelligent Operations Centre which would have video analytics capabilities to monitor traffic, illegal dumping and littering. Consequent focus areas should include water and energy smart grids to combine usage and efficacy.

Penang’s Green Economy

Green economy is generally defined as an economy that improves human well-being and social equity, while reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcity. In Penang green economy is able to spur innovation and the practice of vibrant circular economy, increase social and environmental resilience through enhanced social equality/mobility, as well as protect the integrity of the environment.

A green economy in George Town would require that the tourism sector significantly reduces its environmental and social footprint. Businesses would be encouraged to practice energy- and water-saving, waste recycling and to have a public-oriented transit network. Likewise, green tourism is able to promote the use and sale of locally produced green goods and services, which will help accentuate the visibility of Penang’s unique culture and heritage.

George Town can also be the hub for green buildings and townships, with functional designs and sympathetic retrofitting of its old buildings. This can be built on the existing initiatives by the local authority to beautify and create more usable public spaces in George Town. Due to its role as Penang's transport hub and the proximity to ports, George Town can also be developed into a smart and green logistics centre for goods and people, not only for the benefit of the State but also the entire Northern Region.

To create a high-quality public realm and environment as prioritised in the New Urban Agenda for George Town, the city can truly be a unique district with landmark architecture and a rich mix of cultural hotspots. However, to reach its full potential, even its humblest public spaces must play a part.

And as the plan to develop George Town into an educational and innovation hub progresses, it will be the driver for a greener and more dynamic economy for the whole of Penang.



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