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Field notes

Kuala Lumpur thinks big with small projects

Urban renewal led by Think City aims to bring the arts, heritage and community involvement into the city.

KUALA LUMPUR • For the last 64 years and counting, the clattering presses of Art Printing Works (APW) have been faithfully churning out calendars, receipt books, textbooks and other printed materials.

But truth be told, time had long overtaken this old-fashioned enterprise. Business had slowed and the premises had grown derelict.

Still, Mr Ee Soon Wei, 36, who inherited the business started by his grandfather, was determined not to let it fade away.

He was particularly anxious to protect the jobs of its faithful employees.

Taking advantage of its biggest assets - its enviable location in the glitzy neighbourhood of Bangsar and its nostalgic heritage - he turned the premises into a creative hub.

Over the last four years, a co-working office, chic cafes and an events space were built, all alongside the printing presses. "The printing business is an ongoing one but it's not a growing one," said Mr Ee. "Adaptive reuse has brought new life into this old space."


An arts performance in a KL city train station, part of the Arts on the Move programme. Think City, which has helped to organise the programme, is rejuvenating the city by focusing on small-scale projects. PHOTO: THINK CITY

His work was supported by several funders, including Think City, a state-financed agency for urban regeneration which began operating in Kuala Lumpur last year.

Think City funded a Malaysia Day festival at APW last year, and also gave a RM190,000 (S$62,800) grant to build a "pocket park" - mini parks less than half a hectare in size - on the factory site.

Opened in August this year, the "Projek Poket Pokok" (Tree Pocket Project) drew hundreds when it hosted this year's Malaysia Day celebration on Sept 16.

"It's interesting to see how a private space like APW has been made public through adaptive reuse," said Think City's executive director Hamdan Abdul Majeed.

RENEWING GEORGE TOWN, ONE COURTYARD AT A TIME
With imaginative projects such as APW's pocket park stirring public curiosity, this previously little-known agency is now getting quite a profile boost.


Think City's projects include helping Mr Ee (above) create a community "pocket park" within his grandfather's Art Printing Works in Penang and making a community arts space in a restored heritage building in KL. PHOTOS: CAROLYN HONG

Funded by Malaysia's sovereign wealth fund Khazanah Nasional's Hasanah Foundation, Think City was set up as part of the government's plans for urban regeneration.

With three-quarters of Malaysians now living in urban areas, urban renewal has been identified in the 11th Malaysia Plan, which focuses on the years from 2016 to 2020, as a key "game-changer" for economic rejuvenation.


Think City's projects include helping Mr Ee create a community "pocket park" within his grandfather's Art Printing Works in Penang and (above) making a community arts space in a restored heritage building in KL.  PHOTOS: CAROLYN HONG

Think City began operations in 2007 in George Town, Penang, before expanding to Butterworth on mainland Penang and Kuala Lumpur last year, and to Johor Baru this June.

"City regions have become major drivers of growth. It's not just countries that compete. Cities compete as well to attract technology and talent, both its own people and foreigners," Mr Hamdan said.

Capital often follows talent, he said, and talent can choose where they want to go. Cities have to compete, not just as a place to work but also a place to live and play.

GIVING POWER TO THE PEOPLE

We want people to become active participants, not just bystanders. For this to happen, some level of decentralisation has to take place but it can't happen overnight.

THINK CITY'S EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR HAMDAN ABDUL MAJEED

All cities need good basic urban services but, to stand out, it also needs character, identity and soul.

"It's not just the built environment, but how the environment is utilised," said Mr Hamdan.

George Town today is a Malaysian city with oodles of character and decent amenities. But it wasn't always like that. Just a decade ago, it was riddled with rundown buildings that came with unaffordable rentals.

Think City played a role in its transformation from derelict to charming. Since 2009, it has worked with private organisations to undertake city regeneration projects such as the restoration of a heritage mosque.

Most of its projects are small ones at the community level, like landscaping courtyards used by locals to dry fish. This focus on the small and the micro is a novel approach in Malaysia.

Mr Hamdan said it is these community-level efforts that give a city its energy and showcase its unique identity: "Small things can make a big difference. In these lie the soul of the city, the spirit of the place."

REJUVENATING KUALA LUMPUR
Can such an approach work beyond George Town in the national capital?

Think City began operations in KL last year to augment mega projects such as the multi billion-ringgit Mass Rail Transit system that starts in December, or the River of Life project that aims to rehabilitate the rivers that flow through the city.

Think City's focus is to rejuvenate the inner city, in particular the area around the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers which gave KL its evocative name (Kuala Lumpur literally means muddy estuary).

Although still packed with history and heritage sites, this area has become rundown due to neglect and haphazard planning. Now mostly populated by migrant workers, it has also lost much of the vibrancy of city life and the culture of Malaysia.

To get Malaysians back into the area, Think City leased a heritage building on the old Market Square and turned it into a community arts space. It has also organised three cultural festivals that celebrate Malaysia's diversity over the past year, drawing over 30,000 people, eight of 10 of whom were Malaysians.

To liven up a city train station in this area, it commissioned a rotating exhibition on KL, its history, people and culture spread out over a 100m wall in the station, and also organised quality arts performances for free, as part of the Arts on the Move programme.

It now plans to turn underused areas like rooftops, traffic islands and back lanes into pocket parks to serve as community open spaces.

Besides its own projects in KL, Think City also crowdsources ideas for urban renewal in the city, and provides small grants ranging from RM10,000 to RM300,000 for them. Such projects include APW's pocket park, a workshop series on creating edible home gardens, and the restoration of heritage buildings.

This part of its work is very important, said Mr Hamdan, because it can help turn the local community into engaged "city-zens", as he described it, and in turn inspire more community projects.

"We want people to become active participants, not just bystanders," he said. "For this to happen, some level of decentralisation has to take place but it can't happen overnight."

Think City disburses RM8 million to RM10 million a year in grants, with around 330 grants given out since 2009.

There is already a discernible difference in KL, although Think City cannot take all the credit.

The KL City Hall has been actively upgrading public infrastructure like walkways and reclaiming space from cars for pedestrians, while the reforms agency Pemandu has overseen the quirky landscaping in the inner city under its Greater KL initiative.

Ms Ezaira Ezaty Hamzah, a 22-year-old graphics design student who goes to the city centre daily, finds the newly widened and landscaped walkways, in particular, to be a real boon for pedestrians. 

Said landscape architect Ng Seksan, who is active in building urban community projects such as neighbourhood vegetable gardens: "You can see the results already. Change and development will always occur in any city, but Think City tries to ensure that some thought is given to the process," he said.

He said its grants for the restoration of heritage buildings have also made development more egalitarian because it's no longer just the rich who can afford to restore their inherited properties.

These grants allow more people to rejuvenate their properties which have heritage value, instead of leaving them derelict or selling the land to developers.

Mr Ng has also received a Think City grant to restore an abandoned house into an eco-friendly and chic co-working and co-living space, which promotes the idea of sharing facilities and resources.

"I have great hopes for KL. It is a beautiful city with a beautiful land form, and it is also a manageable one because of its small size," said Mr Ng.

Photographer David Lok, who is working on a Think City-funded photography exhibition for a city train station, finds the gradual return of a "city culture" to be energising. He lamented that the city has lost its character compared to 30 years ago, when many people still lived in shophouses.

"It's good that Think City is trying to bring activities back to the city," said Mr Lok. Every small bit, he said, can be the start of something big as it can inspire renewed consciousness.

Think City is aware, though, that its work can be seen as elitist, and that it can be accused of blithely creating arts spaces in places where the homeless congregate.

Mr Hamdan said that Think City has a narrow focus because its mandate is urban renewal, while poverty alleviation is managed by other agencies.

It, however, strives to be inclusive by holding its events in public areas such as train stations, including an upcoming photography exhibition by refugees.

It is also working with refugee children to upgrade a pedestrian bridge in their neighbourhood, as well as planning a potential programme in public housing zones.

While the inner city is already looking much better, there is still a long way to go before KL can be described as charming.

Mr Y. C. Ang, 36, who works in the inner city, pointed out that there are still serious issues to be tackled, such as cleanliness. This, he said, is more important than installing quirky art in public squares.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 08, 2016, with the headline 'KL thinks big with small projects'. Print Edition | Subscribe