Creative And Cultural Districts: Imagination – The Roadmap To Recovery

Photo by Benson Low on Unsplash

Think City recently announced the launch of the first part of an ambitious new urban regeneration project, the Kuala Lumpur Creative and Cultural District, a wide-ranging initiative that it is spearheading in the downtown areas of KL. That phase, a Community Grants Programme linked to the landmark Merdeka 118 development, was created by PNB Merdeka Ventures Sdn. Berhad (PMVSB), a wholly owned subsidiary of Permodalan Nasional Berhad (PNB). Concentrating on sports, arts, heritage and business, its focus is on initiatives that will have a positive impact on the local community in the precincts surrounding Merdeka 118.

As Think City Managing Director Hamdan Abdul Majeed commented, “Downtown Kuala Lumpur, in the heritage core of the city, holds immense untapped potential. The area has hollowed out with administrative centres and residents moving to suburbs in Greater Kuala Lumpur. Nevertheless, despite the pandemic, we have seen a recent rejuvenation in the area with a number of creative small business owners generating buzz and local traffic, demonstrating a wider interest in the area.”

The downtown areas of Kuala Lumpur have long been a focus for Think City’s work in Kuala Lumpur. As we prepare to launch the wider part of the KLCCD regeneration and a separate grants programme to accompany it, we caught up Think City Programme Director Matt Benson to tell us about Think City’s roadmap for the downtown district, the communities and economic activities that this ambitious regeneration plan hopes to create. 

Photo by Johen Redman on Unsplash

Matt Benson: The concept of the KL Creative and Cultural District has its genesis in our preliminary work in downtown KL. We launched our programme in downtown KL, the heritage core of KL, in 2014 or 2015. And we soon came to realize that there was suffering like a lot of Malaysian inner cities and it had to been hollowed out. The traditional functions of government and finance had moved to the outskirts of the city, likewise we saw residents in the 1970s and 1980s move to those suburban areas in the outskirts of KL.

So, as a result of that, the economic and social function of the inner city had been eroded. Our thought was that you’ve got all these great heritage assets, and wouldn’t it be a shame if we couldn’t make a better use of them? And deliver social cultural and economic benefits for KL residents and Malaysia as a whole.

In a nutshell, what it is is to inject new creative, and cultural content into those disused buildings in the heritage centre, there two zones, basically. If you imagine an area that stretches from Taman Tugu in the north-west, down to Muzium Negara across Stadium Merdeka and up to Bukit Nanas that’s an area about eight square kilometres [and] that’s broadly what we refer to as the KL Creative and Cultural District.

You touched on the hollowing out that the downtown district has experienced over the last 40 years. Why does downtown KL need a strategy like this and how will it differ from previous and ad hoc regeneration programmes? 

Matt Benson: The downtown KL area, or the KL Creative and Cultural District area, has not actually had a rejuvenation programme that is connected to this idea. Yes, we have the River of Life that’s been seen there for several years. And that was very much a physically orientated project. It’s different in scope as well. In terms of true rejuvenation of this area, this is the main programme that’s happened after the hollowing out really started to kick in and get felt in the early 2000s, when you had the likes of Putrajaya and Cyberaya come on board. KLCC was also completed around that time. So, you have what we call these new centralities happening in that greater Klang Valley. 

There are multiple reasons that we want to inject this new life into the city centre. One is that it’s a geographic space in the city that would otherwise go to disuse. There’s some significant heritage and cultural assets in that area, including Dataran Merdeka, where independence was declared. We have some grand colonial buildings there, many of which are disused and some of them are in a state of disrepair.

Also, we think there’s an economic opportunity here as well, to help create new types of economic activity, new types of jobs and spaces that will help transform the Malaysian economy, increasingly into that knowledge space. 

When you talk about those new economic opportunities, what kind of opportunities are we talking about? And what could we be looking at in terms of transformations?

Matt Benson: First one is what we call the cultural-based regeneration. This is idea of using culture to leverage new economic opportunities. In the simplest terms, what it means is attracting a new type of tourist, a tourist that’s more interested in immersive cultural experiences rather than sort of just a merely a transactional type of experience where they come in, they buy something and move on. We believe that, in the post-COVID environment, that for the tourist of the future it will be such a headache to get to different places, they’ll be looking to stay longer. And really there’s an opportunity here to capture them [within] this space and keep them there for three or four days, rather than just one or two days. So, there’s an obvious economic kick here. 

The second one is what we might call the creative industries. This is the opportunity to bring creative types who work in an ecosystem of co-creation and collaboration with one another, into a more geographically-focused space where they can share ideas. They can share experiences and they can work together to create new ideas and innovate.

Sort of related to that is increasingly what we’re focusing on this year, that’s the potential to incubate technological types of economic activity. For an example, are there ways of using this landscape in a virtual reality aspect? Can you look at some of those spaces, some of those historic landscapes, and incorporate them into a digital space that can be used for anything from museum type experiences through to possibly even gaming? So, that was what we would call creating a digital twin of the city. And there’s a potential there to create virtual economic activity.

As we’ve seen around the world, rejuvenation projects often go hand in glove with gentrification, sometimes leading to local residents and business owners being priced out of the area. How will the KLCCD improve both conditions and opportunities for downtown’s existing residents? 

Matt Benson: We’ve been thinking about the of the term inclusive gentrification and it might sound like a contradiction in terms, but we’re mindful that in order for these assets to be rejuvenated – in other words, to not go into a continuous state of dilapidation and decay – it needs to be an economic argument. You can’t expect the private sector to invest in spaces where they can’t get an economic return. So, there has to be some level of gentrification. The key here is to make sure that it’s not exclusive, that it’s not just for a select few. To make sure that more than a select few benefit in terms of the financial returns and the economic returns. 

It means in practice that your spaces need to be inclusive, that they can’t be exclusive places. They can’t be club-like. It means that you have to have diversification of activities. Yes, you want some high-end stuff. You’ll want to also want to keep the things that are more accessible and affordable to a wider population. And then we also want to make sure that out of the jobs that are generated out of this, and other types of spin-offs, there are opportunities there for all to be involved. That can mean making sure that you have inclusive or coworking spaces that are available for different individuals to rent or use to help benefit their own enterprises. 

In this particular area, part of the hollowing out has been the loss of residents. It’s coming back now through the near completion of several high-rise residential developments in that sort of peripheral area. But the inner-city population has gone from something like around 120,000 in the 1980s to probably a low about 80,000 a few years ago. In this sort of heritage enclave this KL cultural district, we don’t believe it’s much more than 5,000 residents.

This is also one of the issues. We don’t have the residential population yet. And you see that particularly at night. As a result of not having residents living in area, you don’t have ownership of spaces. And then because most of our activities are around the daytime economy, what you’re ending up with is a landscape that is unsafe or perceived to be unsafe anyway at night. 

On the subject of that potential to bring different kinds of tourism into the area: how will these projects help to create the economic diversity that allows them to make the most of the tourism potential of the cultural and heritage and assets in the area, yet retains a sufficiently independent core in terms of tourism yet retains that core of economic activity that can sustain them without the tourists. 

Matt Benson: Places like Melaka and George Town in particular have seen the consequences of what I would call an over-reliance on tourism. George Town is going through what we may now call a second hollowing out as a result of the pandemic, no cruise ships, essentially zero international tourists and the different waves of domestic tourism has allowed surges in economic activity over the last 18 months.

I wouldn’t say downtown KL’s overly reliant on tourism. It has still has banks there, it still has government offices there in big numbers. Even though the residents are small, the daytime working population is actually quite significant. But there’s a risk also that may decline in the years ahead, particularly with the banks moving to TRX. So, we need to make sure that we have economic diversification. and that’s what the whole point of district is about.

It’s not just about the ‘KL Cultural Tourism District’, it’s the Creative and Cultural District. The idea is that you are bringing in additional types of economic activity beyond just tourism. It could be architecture firms opening up studios in the downtown area. It could be young fashion start-ups that come in and start occupying the upstairs spaces of buildings. It could be that you have technology companies moving in. 

Who knows, you might get one of those big international tech companies that might say, you know what I want to attach my identity, my brand identity, to that sort of space? The go-to answer for ‘there’s an empty building, what are we going to use it for?’ should not be ‘let’s try and get a hotel there’ which is the obvious thing. The other options would be sort of co-creation spaces, technology type companies, and possibly even some sort of retrofitted space that would allow for a new type of residential building.

Another important aspect of this programme is that grants will be available. Who can apply for those grants and when are going to be available?

Matt Benson: The smallest grants programme Think City has been running nationally since 2009 has been proved to being incredibly successful. In George Town, we we seeded over 200 small projects that helped to transform the space. So here, the key is to give catalytic small funding to multiple entities. So that we can I guess put multiple acupuncture points into the landscape.

There are grant streams that we’re looking at, the sort of priorities that we have. We sort of have three broad streams. One that we call Sparking Creativity, which is really about getting new content into the area. It could through food and people and places or wayfinding. It could be digitalization of content. It could be activation spaces through festivals or bazaars or the like. It could be a community arts program. It could be something around capacity building in the creative and tech spaces or makerspaces, workshops, et cetera. 

Stream two is what we call Empower People where we’re looking for individuals or organizations or even businesses that are keen to deliver life-changing tools that use technology to address the challenges of vulnerable communities. That might be people with disabilities or declining businesses. And this is a very much about resilience. We’re thinking about vocational training. We’ll think about innovative educational programmes and we’re thinking about vocational training for vulnerable communities. 

The third stream is the Transformation of Spaces. This is the more traditional restoration and adaptive reuse, but here we’re not purely focused on conservation per se. We’re interested in people that may want to refurbish a building to get it ready to allow new types of content to come in. That might be any range of activities, including upgrading the interiors or perhaps making it building more responsive to the impacts of climate change.

That gives you a broad sense of what we’re after. We have a very competent and experienced grants team on the ground. So, the advice to anybody is to get in contact with Think City and work with the team so they can best advise you how to apply and how to articulate your idea.

We will continue to bring you the latest KLCCD developments over coming weeks. If you want to get involved now, join our Downtown KL community on Facebook and take part in the movement!