Nestled in the heart of the George Town Penang UNESCO World Heritage Site, the open space at Armenian street is one of the few green spaces that can be found in the area. The serene calmness that engulfs visitors today as they walk through the space is a stark contrast to what was felt and seen merely 2 years ago. Bottom-up, community-focused placemaking was at the heart of what has come to be the highlight of 2016 for Think City.


George Town’s metamorphosis from a decaying town less than a decade ago into a thriving city is one that has been well-documented and continues to be a source of inspiration for many looking to emulate its success. During this entire time, there was one site which sorely needed attention, and while hardly significant in size (less than 4000 sq metres), its potential positive impacts and contribution to the rejuvenation of George Town could not be underestimated.  


Comprising of a pocket park, a basketball court and a multi-purpose community building, the site is surrounded by buildings of historical and cultural value. Yet, for many years what occupied it was an informal flea market that left much to be desired.


Think City, a community-focused urban rejuvenation organization setup by the Malaysian government’s investment arm Khazanah Nasional Berhad, was at the time in the midst of implementing a city-wide initiative to rejuvenate George Town through a public grants programme. The Armenian Street site was earmarked for improvement early on as we could see promising impact that would come with the rejuvenation of this open space.


However, as a young organisation little did we know of the complexity we would be dealing with throughout the duration of the project.


Having said this, one thing we knew for sure, it was imperative to engage with the communities from the get go and to continue along this thread until the end. This was all we knew of placemaking at the time.  Looking back, a more in-depth baseline study would have strengthened the project by leaps and bounds.


In 2010, as part of the Cleaner Greener Penang initiative by the Penang State Government, a greening project for the open space at Armenian street was announced. This was also aligned with efforts to enhance the streetscapes and walkability of the area.


A partnership was struck up between the Penang Island City Council (MPPP), George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI) and Think City to drive this project.


The groundworks were laid out and we began our modus operandi – talking to the community. A survey was conducted to collect feedback and understand existing needs and concerns of the communities.  Typically, surveys in Malaysia need to be multi-lingual reaching out to our English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil speakers. Surveys are usually carried out both face-to-face and online.  This eventually fed into a concept design that was displayed at an exhibition for public scrutiny and input. During these early stages of the project, the proposal was not met with much resistance but collectively as a team we knew something was missing, and this was echoed by our Executive Director Hamdan Majeed.


In our rush to activate the project, we had strayed from the building blocks of what Think City had worked hard to implement in many other areas of our work; the community as experts and designing for place and not pride.


Hamdan made the tough but very necessary move to halt the project and reevaluate with a fresh perspective. Back to the drawing board it was. Upon closer inspection, the team realised that the design process was missing two key elements: 1) insufficient input from the community prior to the initial design, and; 2) the impact of the park connecting it with its surroundings. 


This was a sobering moment for Think City as designing before sufficient community participation would have led to certain failure. The orchestrated engagements that had happened in place of authentic participation could have had negative implications on the success of the project.


In the midst of this, Think City was also formalizing its partnership with Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) - a Trust focused on the revitalization of communities. Their expertise helped us view the project from new perspectives. Sessions with different communities and stakeholders intensified in frequency and depth. The dedication and commitment by the team and partners manifested in the interfaces that took place and this resonated with the communities as interest began to escalate.


Questions around what their existing feelings were about the site; their relationships with the existing site; what they thought about the proposal to upgrade facilities and introduce a green space; what they would like to see in the space; and their concerns and considerations and much more. It was important we understood the underlying factors that led to the decay to begin with and whether there was actually a demand for what was being proposed.


The design of the park evolved to respond and interact with its existing surroundings. Created with the intent to enhance the beauty of the heritage buildings that surrounded it, its connection to the neighbourhood was made seamless. Users of the facilities including the basketball court and the community building were questioned on usage which fed into the design.


Amidst all this, the elephant in the room was issue of the existing traders of the informal flea market (typically known as thieves market to locals).  Years of using the site as their base for trade activities had led to a sense ownership that crowded out other potential users. We needed to redefine the park’s usage to allow for multiple purposes and users. Internally we struggled to find a solution that would be acceptable to all. They were very much a part of the historical fabric of the area and many depended heavily on their daily trade activities there.


That said, the feedback we received from the public at large reflected the desire to have the park function as just a park. Despite being there only in the late afternoons and evenings, the 100 or more traders dictated the usage of the park throughout the day. Families felt unsafe bringing their children to the area, the elderly stayed away for the same reason.This feedback fed into the countless negotiations that would subsequently take place with the traders. The entire process took months with many resisting, citing the impact it would have on their livelihood. Underlying this was simply a resistance to the change in status quo.


The scale of resistance which included vandalism and protests received much attention in local media and control measures needed to be put into place to manage this. Vandalised panels would quickly be replaced, site patrols were carried out around the clock.


Rather than retreat, we stepped up efforts and continued with engagement with the help of the local state assemblyman who was instrumental in getting the buy-in and active participation from the surrounding residents. Today, we are happy to report that the traders have a new home in a more conducive environment not far from the park. 


This entire journey which took four years was certainly an eye-opener for the young team and one that brought with it many lessons in making a place. We continue to be reminded, and to remind others, of the importance of authentic community engagement and participation and the need to put ourselves in the shoes of the communities that would ultimately be the recipients of any public realm initiative that we embark on.


Two key learnings from this journey was community participations does not only mean public exhibitions, but actually the commitment and efforts to go down to ground level to really understand the space before even thinking about design. Further, mitigation is not a monographic affair, but it is actually a community effort not only to mitigate but also to strengthen ownership. All these processes are very organic and not mechanical: it is people and culture, and that makes a place a living organism.


Today,  the park is our flagship project - most importantly it is being used as a park for exercise, recreation, as an occasional events space for specific projects like the George Town Heritage Day Celebrations and George Town Festival.  Because there is still much to learn as places are seldom ever completed projects, the team continues to observe and document people’s usage of the park, while adding to our reservoir of knowledge on placemaking.




issue 03. autumn 2017