The city of Kuala Lumpur has grown in the last 60 years, both in terms of infrastructure and population. What was first a sleepy tin-mining settlement in the 19th century has since become a global city, and one of South-East Asia’s biggest economic players. Keeping up with this breakneck pace of development, the face of the city has changed since independence, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse.
“If Kuala Lumpur remakes itself to be another city and doesn’t create an identity of its own, it will lose its flavour,” says Hamdan Abdul Majeed, Managing Director of Think City, the community-focused urban regeneration organisation breathing new life into old places. “That’s the USP: the uniqueness of space. Culture adds a big value to that uniqueness, historic urban fabric is a big asset and that’s something you cannot ignore. The challenge is about how to build this by keeping the old and, at the same time, building the new.”
Think City cut its teeth in Penang in 2007, with a programme to breathe new life into the gracefully declining city of George Town. “Penang was a microcosm in the sense that it was at the forefront,” Hamdan says about the island’s role in Think City’s history. “Over the years, George Town was emptying out and, by the time we had started our programme, it was not really a place that people wanted to go to – it was not on the map.” George Town was fortunate to receive UNESCO World Heritage Site status the following year and, together with Think City’s programme of restoring buildings and regenerating the city through 250 projects over five years, helped to bring about a transformation.
Since then, it has expanded to Butterworth, Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru (and also claims a small footprint in Klang and Kuching). The approach has always been community-led, where Think City provides high-level technical expertise, collaborates with the private sector and the city government, and distributes grants to help kick-start momentum. It operates by a “tailored fit”, as Hamdan puts it. “Each space has its own challenges, demands and, at the same time, its own sets of limiting factors and potential. The key principle is: listen, observe, and analyse.” What works in George Town may not necessarily work in Kuala Lumpur and in the capital city, that means a different approach – namely, keeping it liveable.
The programme here began in 2014/15 and tackles the challenge of retaining a population in residence in the city centre, which identified two factors: one, not letting Kuala Lumpur become a ‘transient space’; and two, to create a focal point for Kuala Lumpur (an alternative to KLCC). It marked the historic area (particularly between Masjid Jamek and KL Sentral) as “a great opportunity to create what we call ‘the new cultural creative district of Kuala Lumpur’, this mix of nature, historic urban fabric, diverse communities – it’s a great asset to start from. We then started a programme with focus on renewing buildings to show people this is a great place to be, and the pinnacle of this was in recent years with the World Urban Forum.”
It was there, in February this year, that Think City presented the new micro-housing community concept at the Urban Village in Medan Pasar (a stone’s throw from another of its regeneration projects, RUANG by Think City, on 2 Hang Kasturi). The joint project with Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL) introduced the intensely utilitarian single-person two-storey unit at 250 sq ft as a means of creating more living space in a city where people are getting priced out. “It opens up the conversation, saying this is something to be considered as a way for renewing existing spaces that are in decline,” he says. “What we want to encourage is the many different typology of spaces, so you have the continuum of space in different formats, catering to all different classes. That’s what makes a great city.”
The Department of Statistics places the population of the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur at 1.79 million in 2017, and DBKL projects it to reach 2.2 million at the turn of the decade. So, options need to be ready. “We’re exploring how this continuum can be something that we can realise over the next decade, so you will see people living in the city centre and it will be a much more active place, both in the day and the night; it’ll be a place that people will call a hub and home,” he says with conviction.
One unavoidable outcome of revitalising areas that were once stagnant is gentrification, but Hamdan sees it as a good thing that benefits everyone. Its process involves extensive bottom-up communication before anything else, so on-theground businesses are not forgotten: “We try to open up minds and ask how they can do things that are different, that serve different types of communities. You don’t want to kill the golden goose – I like to think the historic areas are all golden geese waiting to lay eggs – and the key lies in how to make sure we do the right things. Which means we need to embrace change, but managing change is important. For example, when we provide grants, we also assess what it is going to do to the building, to the businesses and so on.”
Hamdan emphasises Think City’s ability to ‘walk the talk’, its capacity to polish up places that have “lost its shine” and bringing people back. It’s helped attract the interest of some big international organisations (like The Prince’s Foundation, The Getty Foundation and UN-Habitat), but after close to 10 years, the satisfaction lies in doing the job right. “The achievement is that we see people find utility in our presence and how we’ve been able to contribute positively. To enhance the quality of life in the different places we’ve been working in, and the notion of how small projects can have big impact,” he says. “It’s not a story about us: it’s a story about making others believe in their own potential. We’re proud of the fact that we have been able to achieve that.”
TEXT FLAVIA GALEOTTI
PHOTOGRAPHY ROBIN LIEW
ART DIRECTION PENNY CHEW