Placemaking is Really about Appreciating the Best that Penang Already Has

By Rachel Yeoh

February 2024 FEATURE
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Photo from COEX.

IMAGINE A PENANG where public spaces are amalgamated with greenery, communal spaces, education hubs, lifestyle joints and offices. With these, we would have created inclusive and liveable communities around the state. To get there, we need sustainable placemaking—the planning, designing and managing of public spaces to work symbiotically with one another.

The great thing about placemaking is that there is no need for “development”; placemaking can be birthed from old, decommissioned, single buildings to whole districts—it is the making of a place where vibrant cultural hubs can thrive alongside sports facilities, a transportation hub, and say, a pocket park. Placemaking, in essence, makes spaces more connected.

Maybe that vision I mentioned earlier is not impossible, what with Phase 2 of the Penang2030 initiative being “Placemaking Initiatives [1]” where “focal points or positive efforts to develop Penang as a family-focused, clean and green home for its inhabitants” are currently being looked at. So far, three dedicated districts have been identified: Gurney Bay, Creative Digital District (CD²@GT) in George Town, and Middle Bank Marine Sanctuary along the Penang Strait. Site selection is underway in Seberang Perai to establish key administrative, transportation and medical facilities.

Presently, Penang has community champions doing their bit for community strengthening through their business spaces. There is COEX@KilangBesi, a platform for cross-collaboration connected to Hin Bus Depot via a back entrance. Co-founder of aLM Architects, Mei Chi Seong, moved his team of 40 architects and urban designers to this former scrap metal factory in the third quarter of 2022. He wanted a shared creative space open to practitioners of diverse skills.

Outside the office lies a long wooden table, flanked by a pair of equally long wooden benches to encourage communal dining and fellowship. Across the adjoining lawn is a bookshop, a coffee joint, a burger outlet and a ceramic craft shop. On the first floor, there is a library and sharing space managed by Ruang Kongsi for those who want to read or work. COEX also functions as an event space—for workshops, music events, private functions, exhibitions and discourses.

Placemaking Nature

Then, there are the out-of-town places beginning to define Penangʼs future. Along the northern coast lies Tropical Spice Garden (TSG). Since the Covid-19 pandemic, this tourist destination has evolved towards community participation.

TSGʼs Managing Director, Katharine Chua, says that during the pandemic, she came to realise how much healing the garden could bring. “I wanted everyone to experience breathing in fresh air while immersed in nature—I felt it was something tangible that I could offer the community.”

Their membership programme, Spice Fam, grew in number, and they began adding more activities to draw people to the gardens—from campsite access, yoga classes, cooking classes, craft sessions and singing bowl sessions to Santai Sundown, an event where guests can embrace the sunset at their rainforest deck backgrounded by live music and light bites.

“Even though it is business as usual now, and we have tourists coming—that is a tried and tested business, I think our focus now is to build a local community through education, wellness, children, nature and community. We hope that the work that we have started will overtake the tourist market. Placemaking is more sustainable and resilient, especially during trying times,” she says.

Creations by students from Clay.Pu's pottery classes.

A somewhat humbler placemaking startup in Penang is located at a rented semi-detached home at Tanjung Bungah. Named Thit-tho28 (thit tho in Hokkien means to play), the place houses Clay.Pu pottery workshop, a homestay, a thrift shop and a sprightly garden laden with flowers, herbs and fruit plants. Family, friends and acquaintances of the owner, Kong Mun Wei, often commune at this place. The space is also open to those interested in holding craft workshops.

According to Kongʼs daughter, Kong Yi Jing, who also manages the marketing, there was no intention to grow it to its present state. However, thanks to her family wanting to share their hobbies, it has naturally expanded to what it is today. She says the journey for them to be a space for the community is still a long one, but the initial stage has been extremely encouraging.

Making Place for Placemaking

I recently visited Adelaide as part of the delegation with the Penang Island City Council (MBPP) to celebrate the 50th anniversary of George Town and Adelaide’s sister city relationship. We were introduced to Tonsley Innovation District, a 61ha site located 10km south of Adelaide. From the outside, my initial reaction was, “Meh, another GBS [Global Business Services], I suppose.” A few seconds after that thought entered my mind, I had to relinquish it because, no, this is not “just another GBS”—it is a former Mitsubishi car plant that has been turned into a high-tech manufacturing hub that runs on sustainable energy (there are 13,000 solar panels on their roof). There are also pockets of green scattered within the vicinity, housing 42,500 trees and shrubs.

Just when I thought, “Hmm, quite a nice place to work,” I took a turn and saw a glass squash court adjacent to a café and a sushi bar a few metres away; where more greenery was planted, there were seating areas and dining tables. We were later told by the tour leader that on weekdays, the place is abuzz with workers and students from a nearby university who cut through the space. On weekends, families gather; children will be rollerblading, zipping on the well-worn and smooth cement flooring. Events such as blood donation drives and other charity fundraisers are sometimes held here, too.

The Districtʼs success in urban regeneration (funded by the government of South Australia) shows how buildings do not need to be subjected to redevelopment to fulfil a significant purpose for society.

In recent years, private entities in Penang have shown how opening up their spaces have boosted the arts and creative industries and enriched the local economy. Seeing such successes, perhaps incentives by the government should be given to those who would want to start similar initiatives in their neighbourhood or reboot a derelict plot by affording it to visionary locals. Talking ringgits and sen, using these assets requires much less investment and sees more benefits for the community at large. Penang already has so many in the pipeline; now, letʼs hope for more.

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Rachel Yeoh

is a former journalist who traded her on-the-go job for a life behind the desk. For the sake of work-life balance, she participates in Penang's performing arts scene after hours.