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Southern Penang Island in the Sun: Malaysian Urban Design Excellence Test Case?

The controversial reclamation project of Southern Penang that creates three artificial islands is set to be another mega project that will reflect our progress in urban design. The announcement of the winner of the International masterplan design competition with BIG being the lead masterplan design consultant and Hijjas Kasturi Architects as the local partner will create interest as to how this new development that was part of the Penang Transport Master Plan strategies will set the trend for the future design of Malaysia.

Since all this happened whilst PEREKABANDAR was still at its formation, we can only give our views on the winning proposal where urban design excellence was one of the judging criteria. This project is located at the area of Penang locally known as Balik Pulau and where there is an existing fisherman community and dominated by the Malay ethnic group. It is less developed than George Town located at the tip of the Island.

There are three aspects that need to be highlighted here namely the concept, urban pattern and the image of the proposed scheme. The concept of Bio-DiverseCity is rather trendy and in tandem with the overall planning goals of the state government for the future. However, the irony is that the whole reclamation process and the creation of the artificial islands are detrimental to the existing ecosystem. One major challenge of the scheme as far as urban design is concerned is the ability to coexist and be in keeping with the existing urban fabric of the settlement opposite the three islands. The presence of a fisherman village community opposite these new islands is a major site force that demands contextual integration.

This leads to the way the urban pattern that has been proposed where the concept of urban lily pods was proposed to generate the pattern. The use of lily pods as an analogy to generate the pattern is rather odd as this part of the island is not known for its lilies rather well known for its durians and nutmeg plantations. This is the only part of Malaysia where nutmegs are being grown and together with the fishing village can be seen as the elements that are associated with the genius loci of the place. For the new design to establish a sense of place, responding to the genius loci must be done to ensure the new design is localised and evokes meanings and association to the local people.

In designing the urban pattern of the new islands, consideration must be given to the figure-ground of the surrounding existing settlements to enable the new design to weave in with the whole ensemble. It appeared that the new urban pattern of the islands did not address this aspect and that it is totally alienated from the settlement on the opposite parts that are linked to the islands.