The Sustainability of Urban Heritage Conservation: The Case of George Town, Penang

The City of George Town in Penang, Malaysia, with a history of urban growth of more than 200 years, grew as a British trading port with traders and settlers coming from Europe and other parts of Asia, bringing with them their religious and cultural beliefs and practices. With its potpourri of cultural and architectural styles, George Town is a quite unique city in the world. This has qualified George Town, together with Malacca, to be included in UNESCO's World Cultural Heritage List on 7 July 2008, as "the most complete surviving historic city centre on the Straits of Malacca, with a multi-cultural living heritage originating from the trade routes from Great Britain and Europe through the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and the Malay Archipelago to China.
The listing is accompanied by stringent protective measures that forbid new development and changes that may destroy the unique architecture, culture and townscape. Already there are conflicts: Some hotel projects for example could not be executed the way they could have before, as the new heritage guidelines have changed the construction guidelines as well. The government is now facing possibilities of being sued for large sums of money by developers for stopping their projects.

Proponents of heritage conservation emphasize its cultural, aesthetic, educational, environmental, social and historical benefits. However, many still regard urban conservation as an obstacle for economic growths - the development of economic benefits such as jobs, household income, and business profits, are more important. This view is particularly strong in developing countries, where economic growth has priority over heritage values.

Some are optimistic that along with conservation, the economy will also grow due to the increase in heritage tourism that in the end bringjobs and businesses. This, however, may lead to the traditional residences and businesses being sold and converted to boutique hotels, souvenir shops, trendy pubs and restaurants, catering to the tourist trade as well as the displacing of local residents who will hence not be able to participate in and benefit from this development, while the old trades, communities, traditions and life styles may be destroyed by this gentrification process.

This presentation will spell out in more detail these issues and challenges as well as the efforts and measures that have been taken by the local authority and the state government of Penang towards the sustainable heritage conservation of George Town, showing how successful they are.

Mr. Tan Thean Siew
Consultant, Town Planning and Real Estate Management, Penang
theansiewtan@yahoo.com


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