Placemaking as a Cure for City Living & Boost to Commerce

Kumpulan Wayang Kulit Sri Warisan Pusaka performing at Malam Wayang, a placemaking activity previously organised by Think City. Image courtesy Lab DNA.

The danger of many a public space is that it is underutilised, or worse, abandoned. Enter placemaking, where activities are programmed for the public to gather and enjoy in shared public spaces. The discovery – that placemaking can be a boost to the economy. CYNTHIA NIKITIN, Senior Vice President at Project for Public Spaces ( surveys the state of Malaysia’s public spaces, and illustrates how placemaking activities can bring jobs and opportunities for commerce.


Cynthia Nikitin’s key observation of Kuala Lumpur is that its public spaces are completely dominated by cars and traffic. This is not uncommon in large cities where about 80% of public space is taken up by streets and roads. In contrast, she outlines that some of the cities in Malaysia are more successful than others in cultivating good public spaces, such as the streets of George Town, Penang.

“The streets in George Town such as in Little India are amazing shared spaces where you have trishaws, pedestrians, bicycles, cars, delivery vans all in one space, and everyone travels at the speed of a pedestrian. They’re self regulating in terms of speed, and dispersion of roadway space for people. They’re a bit crowded which lends vitality to a city – so those streets are quite wonderful,” says Cynthia.

“Other wonderful shared spaces would be the markets such as The Chowrasta Market, in George Town. There are markets all over Penang that serve as a place where people mix, gather and socialise — it’s more than just about buying fresh produce or food for dinner — it’s really where the shared life of a city happens,” she adds.

This shared life is replicated in Kuala Lumpur, except that it happens in shopping malls. Due to the fabricated nature of malls, Cynthia states that they are not true public spaces particularly as they are privately owned and operated. Although the malls in Malaysia have the added public benefit of providing comfort with its climate- controlled environments, which, according to Cynthia is one up on malls in the United States, there remains a strong consumerist overlay.

“While you might enjoy a concert, an art exhibition or a cooking demonstration at a mall, your purpose there really is to purchase something. Where the person should ideally have an opportunity to create an experience for themselves, in malls — it’s all more pre-packaged for public consumption.”


Cynthia Nikitin, Senior Vice President, Image courtesy



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Cynthia cites the benefits of active shared public spaces as multifold.

“Public spaces are vital components of any prosperous city. Well-designed and well-managed public spaces are a key asset for a city’s functioning and they have a positive impact on a city’s economy, health, climate, safety integration, inclusion and connectivity; connectivity of people to each other, and connectivity of people to place,” she says.

“The quality of life is closely related to the state of its public spaces, but it needs appropriate economic measures that promote public revenue, private income and livelihood creation, investment and wealth.”

She highlights that good public spaces should be able to provide people with a safe and welcoming place to gather.

“People have the right to the city. They should be able to create a safe and welcome environment for women and girls, and vulnerable populations. They should be places where people feel free to express opinions, express their creativity. And they should give people who use the public space an opportunity to make it better and more successful, through their being there, through their ideas and knowledge.”


Markets make wonderful shared public spaces. Photo by Angeline Teh.


Kuala Lumpur, like many cities in the United States, are transient places where most urban workers leave after hours for their homes in the suburbs. The same goes for gentrified cities such as Amsterdam. In a recent BBC report, companies such as Airbnb have become so popular with Dutch homeowners that it has pushed the cost of rentals and real estate so high, residents have had no choice but to move out to the suburbs, leaving the city centre for tourists and the wealthy.

However, in KL the main challenge for Cynthia is still the fact that the streets and roads dominate the city, without concern for the pedestrian experience.

She emphasises: “A lot of it has to do with the programming and the management of the spaces that exist and converting some streets, really looking to see if you actually need the roads to be that wide, to move that much traffic every day, all the time. When you design your city around cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic, and when you design your city around people and places, you get more people and places.

“It requires modifying some of those roads, making them more multi-modal, even closing them like they do all over the world – perhaps one Sunday a month for bicycling or other activities – to get people accustomed to using those spaces in a different way, and looking at it from a different perspective. It’s a tremendous amount of real estate that’s given over to just one target user, which is the motorist.”

While many urbanists would argue that the hot and humid weather is a deterrent to many local citizens, opting to drive even for the smallest of distances, Cynthia says that it is about changing the pedestrian experience.

“At PPS, we work in a lot of very hot and very cold places and we have always found that climate can be mitigated. It’s about giving people a reason to walk and making it comfortable for them to do so.”

Approximately 80% of Kuala Lumpur is taken over by streets and roads, with vehicles encroaching upon pedestrian pathways. Photo by Jeff Lim.




In looking at some of the most successful placemaking activities that PPS has been involved in, Cynthia cites that placemaking and commerce are closely interrelated. Programmed activities that bring people together usually create opportunities for business and work.

The developers of Sunsuria City — a housing project which includes the Salak Tinggi train station, Xiamen University, and a mall — organised placemaking activities even before construction had begun.

“We told them — it’s 3 to 5 years before you actually have completed buildings — so start attracting the target audience and make them remember. When the houses and units are available people will remember because they had an experience there,” Cynthia says.

PPS guided Sunsuria to imagine the needs of their target audience — families and students who would populate the development. The outcome: a biking race, a walkathon, and food trucks. “They got a lot of publicity, and they managed to get people to understand what was going to happen. They were able to share their vision for this community — they didn’t just build it and then hope people would show up,” she explains.

Further away from home, Cynthia recounts the Discovery Green project in Texas, a public urban park in Downtown Houston, which had met with positive outcomes as a result of placemaking. Just like in Kuala Lumpur, many people would come into the city to work but get on the highway to go home after business hours and the core of the city would be empty.

Because they wanted more people living in the city, instead of building luxury towers and hotels and giving developers tax breaks and incentives, the city authorities and their partners put two parking lots and several vacant parcels together, converting the space into a beautiful public park.

Many citizens were against the move, criticising the development, and declaring that no one would use the park. However, the city of Houston was in for a surprise.

“People said that no one would go to the park, but the weekend that it opened they had 15,000 people. So they built the public space first, and then all of a sudden people wanted to buy up buildings, land and housing based on the fact that they were next to Discovery Green.

“The lesson here is that the amenity can generate wealth, and bring people in, who then spend more time in Houston and want to live there. And people were starting to market the park and the properties around it. They didn’t even need a marketing department because the residents were doing it for them. Public spaces have that ability to create public relations for a city when they are well programmed and well managed,” says Cynthia.


“Build and they will come…” The Gateway Fountain at Discovery Green in downtown Houston. Photo by Paul Duron /Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-3.0




Instrumental in the art of placemaking is a concept known as ‘the Spirit of Place.’ Cynthia explains that the spirit of place is what the people of a community understand.

She says: “In any project, we work with the community, with stakeholders, institutions, local leaders, municipal leaders, cultural leaders, religious leaders — to have them explain to us what is the spirit of their place, what is their vision for the community, what are its assets, what are the important defining features that create or blend into that spirit of place.”

This first crucial step is essential in determining what the community holds dear. This could be in the form of a natural landscape or scenic view, cultural traditions and crafts, an institution, or a historic building or neighbourhood.

She explains: “That’s one of our first interventions or interrogations when we work with a community – to identify what elements can recreate the spirit of their place. Also, discovering what is working about them, what is not working and what opportunities there are to strengthen them, looking at what people hold to be the most sacred elements, places or aspects of their community and their culture, and how we can actually — through physical, design or management changes and programming — impact and enhance them.”


“The spirit of place is what the people of a community understand.” Photo by Angeline Teh




One of Cynthia’s chief beliefs, and one that has repeatedly held up well in placemaking design, is that the community is the expert, that the people who live in the community have tremendous quantities of information and innate knowledge that can help the process.

Unfortunately, Cynthia states that most planning processes are not set up to gather that knowledge or the community’s ideas, either ever, or until it’s too late.

“It’s often left to professionals and designers, people who are educated and schooled to figure out what’s the best thing for a community when actually the community is the one that knows what’s best for itself. And there probably will be disagreements, so as professionals we are there to facilitate that conversation and to draw out what the elements are, what the ideas are that contribute to the spirit of the place. Things such as what used to be there 20 years ago that was well-loved but went out of business, or a policy that was changed and was removed that worked, that we could bring back,” she adds.

Cynthia stresses that preserving heritage properties is also a key move as it forms part of the long term identity and visual memory of a place.

Other aspects that are important include focusing on creating comfort, amenities that support use, programming and connecting people to other destinations.

“People sometimes call us space doctors; we evaluate a place to see if it’s sick, what’s wrong with it and what are the changes that need to be made to make it healthy and better functioning. The community is the one that knows what’s best for itself.”


“Community knows best.” The neighbourhood community at the launch of the facelift of Lorong Bandar 13 ,spearheaded by Kuala Lumpur City Hall and Think City. Photo by Maya Tan




With every public space, there are usually many stakeholders and authorities, and navigating the systems for approvals on placemaking and programming can be daunting. The PPS solution is silo busting.

“Silo busting is one of our major campaigns. Having city governments much more horizontal and making sure that each project has a ‘Place Team’ where every agency that touches that project meet and work together — that’s the ideal we always strive for,” she says.

The key to that, as far as the PPS philosophy goes, is in making the various institutions see placemaking as a collective responsibility, and that no one city department, municipal or ministry is in charge of placemaking alone.

“It’s a partnership among different city agencies working with the community and at PPS, we really are promoting this idea of place governance which is getting city departments and ministry departments out of their silos so that Engineering doesn’t just look at engineering, and Transportation doesn’t just look at traffic. Rather, they all work together on a place.

“In an infrastructure context it saves tremendous quantities of time and money. In coordinating the different departments, they have more resources and expedite the process, and with public spaces, it’s easier to bring in the community when they’re all working together.”


This story was first published under the now-defunct “Think City Channel”.

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