Peri-urbanisation in Penang: A Potential to Exploit or a Threat to Overcome?

loading Peri-urbanisation evens out the population concentration to mainland Penang where the cost of living is relatively more affordable.

PERI-URBANISATION DESCRIBES the transitional process of an area peripheral to urban centres, the end result of which boasts an interesting blend of rural and urban characteristics. The boundaries of peri-urban areas are not well-demarcated, instead these tend to straddle their urban/regional and rural environs.

A high demand for built environments has forced the conversion of paddy fields into housing developments and industrial plants.

What exactly causes peri-urbanisation? This is a hotly mooted subject, with some experts claiming it to be a product of urban sprawls, while others suggest it results from the urban development of rural municipalities. But all agree that the process brings with it myriad advantages, from economic opportunities to infrastructure improvements. However, if the process is allowed to naturally unfold – and without close supervision – damaging consequences may result, affecting both its population and the environment.

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In Penang peri-urbanisation occurs within the George Town Conurbation, covering approximately 3,938 sq km, and includes parts of Kedah and Perak. According to urban planners, the George Town Conurbation experienced moderate urban expansion between 2010 and 2018, but the area is primed to undergo even more significant changes in the future, e.g. in housing its ever-growing population, especially on the Island. This is in addition to the forecast of the conurbation becoming a regional growth centre for the northern region of Peninsular Malaysia (Samat et al., 2020).

In the past, many parts of the Island such as Permatang Damar Laut, Bayan Lepas and Balik Pulau were considered rural, before the traditional villages were torn down one-by-one and in their place, newly built condominiums arose. On the mainland, peri-urbanisation is more vigorously obvious, the process driven partly by larger public participation and less land use restrictions.

Identifying Possibilities and Threats

FutureSim, a tool developed by Universiti Sains Malaysia, investigates the land use cover and forecast changes of the peri-urban areas of the George Town Conurbation. Pioneering this research is Dr. Narimah Samat from the School of Humanities. From the model, it is expected that peri-urbanisation will spread further north, where the Kedah-Penang borders are located, and to the middle of the George Town Conurbation, where Batu Kawan is situated.

Source: Pejabat Setiausaha Kerajaan Negeri Pulau Pinang, 2013

If development strategies are well executed, peri-urban areas are able to function as buffer zones, with an integrated transportation system and land being used for better connectivity. As it stands, the usage of public transportation is dismally low, at 3%. Eighty-nine percent of Penangites still prefer to commute via private vehicles, while 85% say they would be willing to use the transit rail only if the fee does not exceed the average of RM2 (Lee & Cheah, 2014).

With the rise of remote working, peri-urbanisation evens out the population concentration to mainland Penang where the cost of living is relatively more affordable. The Covid-19 pandemic has also fast-tracked the state’s digital adoption, presenting these peri-urban areas the opportunity to develop in line with new economic models, and to exist complementarily with the city centre.

Conversely, haphazard developments may jeopardise the state’s regional development. Already this is happening with the agricultural lands of Seberang Perai, i.e. a high demand for built environments has forced the conversion of paddy fields into housing developments and industrial plants. If left unchecked, this is a very serious threat indeed to Penang’s rice bowl.1

But a more pertinent point to consider is how the state will leverage on the potentials of peri-urbanisation, while working to minimise its threats.


  • Lee, L. Y., & Cheah, Y. K. (2014). Willingness-To-Pay for Monorail Services: Case Study in Penang, Malaysia. Pertanika Journal of Social Sciences & Humanities, 22(1).
  • Pinang, P. S. K. N. P. (2013). The ‘Recommended Transport Master Plan Strategy’. Penang State Government.
  • Samat, N., Mahamud, M. A., Mou, L. T., Maghsoodi Tilaki, M. J., & Tew, Y. L. (2020). Modelling Land Cover Changes in Peri-Urban Areas: A Case Study of George Town Conurbation, Malaysia. Land.

1 Kee, S. (2018, January). Penang – A Rice Bowl State under Threat? Penang Monthly  

Syafiqah Nazurah Mukhtar is an Urban and Regional Planning graduate from Universiti Sains Malaysia. She is currently pursuing her PhD and is a project researcher at Penang Institute.

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