Spaces, Vigour and Funding: Keeping George Town’s History Palpable

By Laurence Loh

main image
Sketch by Tan Cheng Keat.

CULTURAL HERITAGE CONSERVATION of the highest order descended upon the streets of George Town in July 2008 as it was conferred the honorary title of World Heritage Site through the agency of UNESCO and the World Heritage Committee. The Outstanding Universal Value (OUV)[1] embedded in the place and its setting is now globally recognised. The proponents of “bringing world class ideas home”, such as the Penang Heritage Trust (PHT) and a small group of conservation experts, had been promoting the listing of George Town by UNESCO since the mid-1990s.

In subsequent years, the image of a once worn-out city defined by its rows of traditional shophouses that form strong street edges on both sides of its narrow lanes was rejuvenated. This happened through the collective efforts of the private sector, supported in great part by the George Town Grants Programme (GTGP), and administered by Think City Sdn Bhd, a special-purpose vehicle created by Khazanah Nasional Berhad in 2009. George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI), established in 2010 by the state government, provided RM3mil for the restoration of Category II shophouses.

Building by building, ensemble by ensemble, hundreds of double-storey houses, once neglected because of rent control imposed after World War II, were refurbished and conserved. The impetus grew and renewal slowly transformed the look and feel of the city. Today, George Town has become a delightful and vibrant place to visit.

16 years later, it is a timely signal to ponder over the rate of success and change.

Sketch by Tan Cheng Keat.

Transforming the Public Realm to Recover Historical Identity

Being inscribed on the World Heritage List has directed public attention towards the value of heritage assets within the historic core of the city. There has been a visible transformation through urban renewal within the World Heritage Site and its wider setting; the adaptive reuse of heritage assets for commercial purposes has not involved the need to mobilise huge sums of money to redevelop properties.

The success, multiplier effect and impact of the George Town Grants Programme combined with co-investments by private building owners and Chinese clan associations have aided the repair and revitalisation of prominent properties in the private domain. The restored eclectic façades of the shophouses that modulated street edges and conversed with the thoroughfares have come to frame a unique urban identity once lost to neglect, disrepair and dilapidation. What was once surrendered to the unforgiving elements of weather has been given a new lease of life.

The momentum spilt over into the public realm, where strides of notable size and impact happened through private-public partnerships between the state government, the Penang Island City Council (MBPP) and Think City—with help and expertise provided by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC). The lesson learnt from the World Heritage exercise is that by placing our trust in a concept that has saved many a historic city throughout the world, urban revitalisation has taken place in George Town, and the historical identity of the place has been refreshed.

The public realm refers to the interface between and around buildings that are publicly accessible beyond the boundaries of private properties—outdoor spaces consisting of streets and back lanes, squares, parks, open spaces, the foreshore and harbour front; and indoor spaces like arcades, the halls of public buildings, ferry stations and most importantly, the traditional five-footways. High visibility achievements include Armenian Park, tree planting on the central median of Carnarvon Street, China Street Ghaut, the Esplanade and Light Street abutting it, the Fountain Garden next to the MBPP Town Hall, Fort Cornwallis and its west and south moats, and the recently completed North Seawall.

The document that triggered investments in the public realm was a study carried out at the end of 2013, when Think City signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with AKTC to produce the George Town Strategic Master Plan.

The recommendations were accepted by the state, and the Plan incorporated into the Special Area Plan (SAP) as an addendum called the “George Town Action Plan” (GTAP), which recognised how the revitalisation and upgrading of the public realm would create sustainable and impactful change. It would heighten appreciation of the enhanced heritage landscape by employing proper urban design guidelines, and by returning the waterfront to the people and improving public amenities. Importantly, it advocates a structured, planned sequence of inclusive urban interventions to make George Town a liveable city.

A key area is the combined North and East Seafronts, which consist of major government-owned properties, open spaces, a harbour complete with wharves and godowns, the cross-channel ferry terminal, and Fort Cornwallis. The North Seafront became the primary focus, with Fort Cornwallis as one of the critical sites to tackle.

The tipping point will happen this July with the recovery of Penang’s most significant early cultural landscape. It will coincide with the George Town World Heritage Day celebrations, when the construction hoarding comes down and the South Moat of Fort Cornwallis facing Light Street and the State Assembly building is unveiled, completing the historic connection with the North Seafront, the Queen Victoria Memorial Clock and Swettenham Pier—all reminiscent of 19th-century George Town. This is a sequel to the completion of the North Seawall undertaken earlier by the MBPP and a team of consultants, with special supervision and design undertaken by the AKTC team led by Francesco Siravo and Giovanni Santo, head of Think City’s Master Builder team.

Within a decade, the team has introduced materials and techniques for traditional building in the tropics—where humidity and heat are often high—utilising only locally produced materials to reduce the carbon footprint of their projects.

In the moat construction around Fort Cornwallis, necessity was the mother of invention. When lumbered with a contractor who had no track record in conserving historic structures, the master builder formulated a range of special premixed aggregates for lime mortar which was prepacked and delivered to the site. It reduced the complex design of the moat into the equivalent of “painting by numbers”. This directly paved the way for cultural conservation sustainability as a marketing concept to be introduced to a dwindling conservation contracting market. By closing the loop, a fresh conservation paradigm was invented.

The high-profile enhancement of the public realm with Fort Cornwallis as the centrepiece, hinging between the North and East Seafronts, will deepen what the OUV regards as the priceless and irreplaceable assets of the cultural and natural heritage.[2] Here, George Town continues as an exceptional example of a multi-cultural trading town in East and Southeast Asia, forged from the exchanges of Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures, and the colonial power of Britain for almost 230 years, with their imprints on the architecture and urban form, technology and monumental art. The fact that the public realm, by default, covers a greater area and distance, provides the recovery of its historical identity with a greater chance of success.

Positive action and promotion, together with the injection of funds from state and federal agencies to restore the dilapidated godowns on the East Seafront, will accelerate renewal. Without a doubt, this is one of the most concrete ways to safeguard the OUV of the site.

The Esplanade seawall.

Elevating Heritage Management

The prestige that comes with a well-crafted enhancement of the public realm is the road to success. The ongoing Fort Cornwallis conservation project will transform an underwhelming site (which recently received international brickbats for being the second “Most Boring Tourist Attraction in Southeast Asia”)[3], into Penang’s major landmark.

If the state authorities and agencies earnestly wish to elevate heritage management to a higher plane, they have to look into the disparities between management and planning standards within the UNESCO World Heritage Site and the wider setting. On the one hand, inscription on the World Heritage List has brought innumerable praises to Penang on a regular basis throughout the last 16 years. On the other hand, it sacrifices its reputation as the first mover in conservation advocacy and good practice by approving physical mockeries of conservation within the wider setting. For instance, I consider the approval for an actual heritage building that now sits inside a high-rise building behind a glazed shopfront—totally disconnected from the world, tombed where it once stood proud and free—a grave misstep. How does placing a building in a hermetically sealed glass box send the right signal to future generations about why we are conserving our past?

In tandem with this imperative, the principle of sustainable use as defined in the UNESCO Operational Guidelines[4] should apply, specifically:

“World Heritage properties may sustain biological and cultural diversity and provide ecosystem services and other benefits, which may contribute to environmental and cultural sustainability. Properties may support a variety of ongoing and proposed uses that are ecologically and culturally sustainable and which may enhance the quality of life and wellbeing of communities concerned. The State Party and its partners must ensure their use is equitable and fully respects the Outstanding Universal Value of the property. For some properties, human use would not be appropriate. Legislation, policies and strategies affecting World Heritage properties should ensure the protection of the Outstanding Universal Value, support the wider conservation of natural and cultural heritage, and promote and encourage the effective, inclusive and equitable participation of the communities, indigenous peoples and other stakeholders concerned with the property as necessary conditions to its sustainable protection, conservation, management and presentation.”

The pathway to sustainable development has been set with the promotion of the UNESCO 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. In the realm of climate adaptation, Penang is first in line in Malaysia to be awarded USD10mil from the World Bank Adaptation Fund to mobilise the resources of the MBPP, the Department of Drainage and Irrigation and Think City to undertake climate adaptation programmes related to urban greening, stormwater management, social resilience and institutional capacity.

Urban greening will look at introducing new tree-lined streets, pocket parks, green façades and green roofs, and urban agriculture within the World Heritage Site. Stormwater management will look at blue-green corridors, swales and infiltration wells, and upstream retention ponds. Social resilience programmes will aim to reduce gender vulnerability asymmetry for women and girls, as well as include youth and schools programmes. Lastly, building institutional capacity will pioneer the use of nature-based solutions.[5]

The South Moat.

The State Heritage Commissioner appointed under the State of Penang Heritage Enactment 2011 should also initiate a serious planning exercise to incorporate the Historic Urban Landscape[6] (HUL) approach into the pending Local Plan for Penang Island. As an urgent matter, a state list identifying heritage sites state-wide should be compiled in a transparent manner and subsequently gazetted. It was unfortunate that the consultants appointed to draft the Local Plan 2030 were not up to par, leading to thousands of objections in a public consultation exercise record. The draft had to be withdrawn to make way for a fresh plan, giving the authorities a second chance to get the heritage listing correct.

The state appointee should solicit through public engagement the views of stakeholders on their prerogative to advise and for consideration for the wider setting (as defined in Paragraph 112 of the Operational Guidelines) to be given in respect of new planning initiatives. It states:

“An integrated approach to planning and management is essential to guide the evolution of properties over time and to ensure maintenance of all aspects of their Outstanding Universal Value. This approach goes beyond the property to include any buffer zone(s), as well as the wider setting. The wider setting may relate to the property’s topography, natural and built environment, and other elements such as infrastructure, land use patterns, spatial organization, and visual relationships. It may also include related social and cultural practices, economic processes and other intangible dimensions of heritage such as perceptions and associations. Management of the wider setting is related to its role in supporting the Outstanding Universal Value. Its effective management may also contribute to sustainable development, through harnessing the reciprocal benefits for heritage and society.”

The above approach has not been developed and sufficiently socialised with stakeholders in the Structure Plan, the SAP and the initial Draft Local Plan 2030. As sustainable development and its direct correlation with climate change are clearly an expressed goal of the state and federal governments leading up to 2030, every effort should be made by all stakeholders to push the agenda. Planning is one of the most effective disciplines for managing spatial and social changes and should always be used for the common good.

There is a sense that the state is not imposing its will to propel Arts, Heritage and Culture up to a higher plane, all while other destinations have recognised that the soft power of culture and the creative arts can be a strong, stable and sustainable economic driver that benefits every level of society. The State Museum has been closed for more than a decade whilst precious treasures remain unsighted, with human resources not being productively redeployed. Funds for major crowd-pullers like the George Town Festival and the Butterworth Fringe Festival have been drastically reduced year by year until it is now a trickle, whilst Penang still awaits the emergence of a world-class performing arts venue. There are talented emerging musicians who are craving for a chance to perform in public, but opportunities are few and far between. Kudos must go to private venues like the Hin Bus Depot that keep the Penang flag flying despite having to run on its own steam. Raising the tempo and energy level will make a difference.


[1] UNESCO, Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention, Section I.B The World Heritage Convention, Paragraph 4, pg. 11; (English)

[2] According to the World Heritage Convention 1972: “The cultural and natural heritage is among the priceless and irreplaceable assets, not only of each nation, but of humanity as a whole. The loss, through deterioration or disappearance, of any of these most prized assets constitutes an impoverishment of the heritage of all the peoples of the world. Parts of this heritage, because of their exceptional qualities, can be considered to be of “Outstanding Universal Value” and as such, worthy of special protection against the dangers which increasingly threaten them”.


[4] UNESCO, Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention, Section I.B The World Heritage Convention, Paragraph 119; (English).


[6] The Historic Urban Landscape approach, according to UNESCO, moves beyond the preservation of the physical environment, and focuses on the entire human environment with all of its tangible and intangible qualities.

Laurence Loh

is an amply awarded architect whose most noted project is the world-renowned Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in Penang, which won the Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Awards in 2000 for the “Most Excellent Project”. In 2008 his restoration of Merdeka Stadium in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s Stadium of Independence, was conferred the Unesco “Award of Excellence” and his restoration of Suffolk House in Penang, the only surviving Anglo-Indian Georgian mansion in South-East Asia, was accorded the Unesco “Award of Distinction”.