Curating the City: Public Spaces and the Framing of Urban Architecture

By Dato’ Dr. Ooi Kee Beng

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THE KEY DIFFERENCE that I observe when visiting a thriving city and a striving one is in the manifest gap in ambition and maintenance between private places and public spaces.

In fact, the role of government—be this federal, state or local—is on obvious display when one considers an urban ecosystem that way. What defines modern governance and the nation-state is that all spaces that are not privately owned are under the control and management of the State. Therefore, to what extent the State takes the trouble and the pride to manifest that fact to its citizens informs its citizens how seriously they are to take the claim that their government actually governs.

In a modernising city, be this a skyscraping metropolis like KL or a heritage centre like George Town, architectural trends and aesthetical ambitions respond to what is there and what has gone before in that specific area. Now, how architectural projects get conceived has to consider the surroundings. A piece of art—and I shall consider every architectural undertaking to have such pretentions—does not pose in a vacuum. It is framed by its environment, and it is judged in that setting.

And so, whatever an architect chooses to do in any given city is never really a greenfield project. He adapts to the collection of private places and public spaces where his project is to happen. Functionally and artistically, therefore, his greatest collaborator is the public sector—the state authorities in charge of planning and maintaining the urban landscape around the project, and of granting him permits and conditions.

In a developed, thriving city, one tends to experience a good fit between private projects and properties, and the public spaces and utilities around it. Is there a park close by? Are pedestrians safe? Are there enough car parks around? What is the access to public transport like? Are the streets safe at all times of day? Are there medical facilities close by which can be reached quickly? Are water, electricity and cyber networks reliable and available? Where does the rubbish go, and how are they collected? Are there risks of flooding? If we are talking about a tropical city, are there enough trees planted for shade and for beautification?

This is the tapestry that weaves the liveability of a city.

Plans That Determine State Capacity

Basically, town planning by the public sector decides the level to which the aesthetical ambitions of the particular urban designer can be achieved.

In short, just as the curator decides the success of an art exhibition, sometimes as much as the artist does, the town planner decides how well the city will function in the eyes of its users, the citizens. And yes, as a piece of living art—as art that is lived in, literally.

When the curation is piecemeal and ad hoc, the city will develop accordingly. However well-conceived and executed an architectural plan may be, its overall impact depends on the quality and execution of the many plans and guidelines that the town planner is subjected to follow, and by the maintenance of the public spaces that frame private places and buildings.

This applies to any area—residential or business, industrial or recreational, or even oft-forgotten territories such as landfills and cemeteries.

Just to highlight how vital town planning and public space upkeep are to the liveability of a city, and to making a city a thriving metropolis rather than a striving wannabe, one could list for quick impression the types of planning directions a city government, at all its levels, is obliged to provide.

Firstly, a Master Plan is needed. This is to provide a long-term vision for the city and to ensure coordinated development on all matters; most notably, a Land Use Plan for adaptive and sustainable development should be part of this. Then, there is an Accessibility Plan, of course; what is city life if not about the mobility of goods, of capital and of people? Combined to that is the need for an Infrastructure Plan to provide smooth supply of electricity and water, sewage management and telecommunications.

A Housing Plan to provide affordable housing, control density and accessibility is also a basic guide, as is an Environmental Plan to maintain the quality of water, air and green spaces.

Then, we come to the issue that usually decides whether planned cities function or not, and that is the Socioeconomic Development Plan. In the end, all the plans mentioned should aim for economic sustenance, if not growth, and include a component on support for local economic activities, from street businesses to managing state grants to financial undertakings.

At the more concrete and daily level, there is need for a Public Safety Plan, as well as a Community Facilities Plan—the former to provide police and fire services, and emergency and disaster response, and the latter to ensure access to healthcare, libraries, parks and recreational facilities.

Lastly, and especially relevant to Penang, is the Historic Preservation Plan. On the one hand, this plan is to manage the preservation of historic sites and landmarks, but on the other, it also has to adapt to socioeconomic conditions peculiar to the times and the economics involved.

These are not all-encompassing either, and given the three levels of government we have in Malaysia, overlaps and veiled functions tend to abound. How is sewage to be managed? The flow of surface water? Street lighting? Traffic lights? Pedestrian crossings? Hawkers and street vendors?

To sum up, urban designers and architects, seen as innovative artists who are to improve a society’s urbanscape, need a dedicated and effective public sector as their inevitable curator to succeed and to excel. If the professional of the one syncs with the other, then you have a good mix going, and we can expect an exhilarating exhibition to unfold.

Dato’ Dr. Ooi Kee Beng

is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS 2016). Homepage: