FACTORS ATTRIBUTED TO PLACELESSNESS OF A PUBLIC PLACE IN HISTORIC TOWN OF PENANG, MALAYSIA

Ismail Said¹ and Nor Zalina Harun²
1Associate Professor and 2Doctoral candidate
Department of Landscape Architecture, Faculty of Built Environment,
Universiti Teknologi Malaysia
b-ismail@utm.my

ABSTRACT

The goal of this research is to identify factors that influence placelessness of a public place and to better understand its effect to residents. In order to determine residents opinions related to these issues, a semi structured interview was conducted amongst a random sample of young adult to elderly residents in a historic town inscribed by UNESCO Heritage List – Georgetown, Penang. A content analysis was done to extract and determine the factors involved and how these had affected the residents. Discontinuity of experiences, insecurity and change of environment and physical character are three underlying dimensions identified to be of significance factors attributed to placelessness. This information is hoped can aid in determining public willingness and government support to incorporate preservation of public place as important scheme in planning report and plan. Simultaneously, this research may support communities in ensuring the continuity of place identity and quality of life.

Keywords: Placelessness, historic town, public place, discontinuity and changes.

1.     METHODS

This study seeks to identify the factors inattributing to placeless geography subjecting to changes and new development occurred in Padang Kota Lama (PKL) – a long established public space resided in a historic town, Georgetown in Penang, inscribed by UNESCO Heritage List on July 2008. The change of place that characterized placeless geography is termed as placelessness (Relph (1976) or no-place (Arefi, 1999). According to Arefi (1999) two types of implications warrant attention in placelessness: first, the geographies of nowhereness and otherness and secondly, the crisis of identity. Therefore, this study applied a mixed-method to elicit responses of residents on their experience with PKL, thus determine the existence of relationships of the experience to the residents’ knowledge and awareness of the place and its evolution. Hence, the study conducted the strategies of inquiry in the actual field setting by employing the techniques sequentially that include on-site surveys and interviews. In the survey, the residents were asked to identify factors attributed to placelessness of PKL that they considered as significant. The nominal, categorical and ordinal measures from the survey questionnaire were analyzed using the SPSS (Statistical Product and Services Solutions) version XIV. To determine resident’s opinions related to changes and loss of activities and physical characters which directed to placelessness of PKL in elaborative responds, semi structured interview was administered to a selected sample of young adults, adult and elderly who resided in Georgetown. Narrative analysis (Rogan et al., 2005), a non numerical analysis of data from the interview transcript, was employed to identify emergent themes and categorization representing factors attributed to this circumstances. The finding of this study is expected to aid in determining public willingness to incorporate preservation of public open space in high density and historic area with high land values and development pressure. Results of this survey will assist communities and local government as they cope with balancing issues of lack of public open spaces, cultural and historic significance and quality of life.

1.1  THE SITE STUDY

Padang Kota Lama is a field of lawn located on the eastern side of the Georgetown city centre in Penang, Malaysia. It was built in the early 19th century by the British during the colonial period. As an open space, it had been used initially for military drills and increasingly functioned as a public recreational ground after the relocation of the police barrack and British military ground. Even after the colonialisation, Padang Kota Lama remained as a large field set with numerous historical buildings and large trees fronting the beautiful South China Sea. Until today, it still becomes one of the most popular spot in Penang visited by residents and tourists.

2.     RESULTS AND DISCUSSIONS

This section focuses on the results concerning experiential contacts or the act of being involved amongst residents with PKL that entail the residents’ level of interaction and engagement. It indicates degree of attachment to PKL reflected in the visitor’s dependence on the place (Shuhana and Nursidah, 2008). At the same time, long period of engagement to PKL may develop sense of attachment, awareness and responsibility on the particular place (Walker and Ryan, 2008) while it loss and changes may create stressful feeling of disruption besides creating an inauthentic place (Brown and Perkins, 1992). The respondent’s profiles were obtained through sex, age, race, occupation and detail of residency. Place engagement is determined from the purpose of visit, frequency of visits and types of activity and participation.

Table 1: Background of residents

Background of residents

Modality

F

%

n=209

Survey:

 

 

 

 

Sex

M

F

122

86

59%

41%

208

Age

Adolescent

Young adult

Adult

Elderly

15

72

117

5

12%

30%

52%

5%

209

Race

Malay

Chinese

Indian

Others

153

25

23

2

75%

12%

11%

1%

203

Interview:

 

 

 

n=30

Sex

M

F

28

2

93%

7%

30

Age

Young adult

Adult

Elderly

4

15

11

13%

50%

37%

30

Race

Malay

Chinese

Indian

12

10

8

40%

33%

27%

30

 

A total of 239 respondents participated in the survey and interview with response rate of 95%.  Majority of the respondent’s age between 18-55 years old with higher participation received from the male residents. Three main ethnic: Malay, Chinese and Indian represented the respondents in both survey and interview with Malays represented the ethnic majority. For interview session the participants ranging from 19 to 84 years of age with almost fair distributions of participation among Malay (40%), Chinese (33%) and Indian (27%). Respondents for PKL were primarily born and resided in Penang (64%) and the remaining 36 per cent were immigrants, mostly not born in Penang however had engaged in Penang for an average of more than 10 years. There was a wide range in the respondents size who lived close to PKL (73%) compared to respondents who lived more than 20 kilometres away from PKL(27%).  The data provided from interview show that majority of the participants (90%) are natives who resided in Penang more than 25 years with the majority live less than 30 kilometers from PKL.

The main purpose of engagement with PKL was recreation, picnic, watching games, meeting friends and relatives, community service and business. The intensity of recreational activities was the highest (56%) while activities mean for social and community service received the lowest score (2%). The preference for activities took place most regularly with families (44%), friends (42%), alone (8%) and in a big group more than five (6%). Most respondents in the survey claimed that they had a close association with PKL (60% of more than once a month). Whilst results from the interview reveal that most participants had extensive engagement with PKL as they visited PKL more than once a month (90%) with vast majority of participants in visited PKL to conduct recreation, business, relaxation and meeting friends. Therefore, the result suggests that the residents prefer to visit PKL and implies that the residents are familiar with it physical surrounding and that the properties of the place appeal to them and they attract them to engage with it.

The results for respondents profile and detail of visit to PKL also suggest that the engagement at PKL does not depend on the respondents’ gender, length of residency and type of occupation. Similar conclusion can be drawn on the distant of residency where it seems that respondents who live close to PKL (less than 30 kilometers) became the majority users. In summary, the survey respondents and participants are varied in their personal and socio-cultural characteristics. They were those engaged with relaxation, recreation, socio-cultural interaction, economic transaction and particular job commitment such as street vendors and trading. The survey result also shows that all activities identified were strongly related to the role of PKL as huge open space in the middle of a city. Thus it implies that PKL has important meanings that may influence the level of attachment amongst residents despite of different background and it changes may imply placelessness and loss of sense of place amongst residents.

2.2        Placelessness of PKL

This section presents the results gathered from survey and interview that entail the residents’ perception on what change of place and placeless geography that imply placelessness and place disruption amongst residents (Tables 1 and Table 2).

Table 2.1 Factors of  placelessness in PKL

Factors attributing to placelessness

 

 

 

Survey

F

%

 

Change of environment and physical character

The original look is no longer there

Poor maintenance

There used to be more huge trees

Dirty surrounding

 

 

 

31

25

19

15

 

 

 

15%

12%

9%

7%

 

 

Discontinuity of experiences

This area used to more peaceful

The changes are too dramatic

Youth loitering

 

 

 

35

30

9

 

 

17%

15%

4%

 

 

Insecurity

Vandalism

Presence of theft

 

 

 

20

20

 

 

10%

10%

Source: Survey (2009)

 

Table 2:  Indicators of placelessness in PKL

Category

Example of responses from the interview

 

Change of environment and physical character

·       I like it better last time… The grasses used to be fine, and the field was in good condition. It is worse now. They didn't even complete the project, it is muddy and dirty.

 

·       The field is ruin because of it (tennis court). They should replant the grass, and make it greener. They should rebuild the whole place…the whole field is damaged.

 

·       Sooner or later, no one is going to come. It used to be nothing but fields here. It was beautiful. Now it is all covered in stones… what happens if one of the kids falls? Last time all you can see was the water and the field. It is ruined now. It used to be beautiful, but everything is yellow now.

 

Discontinuity of experiences

·       On the lighter side the development is good…but the value is gone…the field has lost its sparkle. It used to be lively here…many would come. These days it’s a little bit more formal and modernised. If they could, they should upgrade the development, but only towards the greeneries. We don't want any additional buildings. You could find everything here…

 

·       It brought us back our childhood memories, I used to play football there, and now it is all gone. It feels as though a part of us is gone with it.

 

Insecurity

·       The roads all I can tell you is if I walk on them you can find potholes everywhere. It is not fun at all. They don't take in consideration of the old people who come here. They might trip and fall. It shouldn't be like this.

·       These days all the historical landmarks are disturbed. A lot of stealing has been going on. And it is all done by locals. Every day you can see people stealing something…and it is not good

 

Source: Survey (2009)

Analysis from the survey and interview reveals three main dimensions recognized as: 1) change of environment and physical characters, 2) discontinuity of experience, and 3) insecurity as salient factors contributed to placelessness in PKL.

2.2.1     Change of environment and physical character

The change of the original look of PKL due to reduction of its size during an upgrading project taken place on the early 1990 has been perceived as the most significant factor contributed to placelessness. Poor maintenance, lack of naturalness or greeneries, domination of hardscape and dirty surrounding has been addressed by residents as additional factors which change the environment of PKL. Results from the interviews suggested that the greeneries and neat surrounding environment have become the central values for PKL and the reduction of its size have contributed to a dramatic physical change and environment. The findings imply that changes of environment and physical character in PKL were grounded in discomfort and disruptive to a particular ways of being in a place.

2.2.2     Discontinuity of experiences

The decline of peacefulness in PKL and change which transformed its original character was perceived as discontinuity of experience amongst residents. The presence of youth loitering at the surrounding area simultaneously appeared as another distressing factors described by residents in featuring discontinuity of experiences at PKL. The findings suggest that discontinuity of experiences reflects not only concern about the loss of peaceful environment and the change of sense of place but it is also conceived as loss of privacy and freedom due to the presence of loitering youth and change of activities in the surrounding area. The comments of residents on the ‘formal and modernised’ look of PKL suggest a loss sense of place which obliterate its diverse social, natural and built properties.

2.2.3     Insecurity

Finally, the presence of snatchers and vandalism were rated fairly significant in contributing to insecure feeling amongst residents in the public space. This perception has been elaborated in the interview by a general dissatisfaction with the domination of hard surfaces and hardscape elements which were seen as hazardous to visitors. This result implies that all group of residents need to have safe and easy access to all angles in PKL. Despite worries on possible injury while conducting activities at PKL, the residents identified safety concern linked with crime cases such as stealing activities that have taken place at PKL almost in daily basis. Crime and fear of crime manifest themselves in a variety of deleterious ways, but the overarching effect is a reduction in the well being and quality of life for the majority of the residents.    

3. Summary

It can be summarised that the factors attributed to placelesness in PKL are varies suggesting that PKL is not just an open space which is physically recognised as a void in the middle of Georgetown, Penang.Instead it is a combination of an experientially-based understanding and awareness where its changes caused different environment and feelings to its users. The finding of this study supports the proposition that place function as more than a mere ‘backdrop’ to experience (Twigger-Ross and Uzell, 1996; Rogan et al. 2005). The result suggests a resistance towards changes and receptivity for preservation was reflected upon resident’s responses as they relentlessly requested for only minimal to zero development allowed for PKL. Change of surrounding environment and physical character also manifesting as a salient indicator of the resident’s awareness and high appreciation towards the old and historical physical properties of the surrounding area. Such changes and loss of historical built and natural properties nonetheless may imbue the sign of historical decline as what the residents termed the disruption and changes as ‘erosion and loss of heritage’ and ‘the forgotten of history’. This interplay of loss of heritage clearly shows that PKL later on might face another threat such as decreasing number of tourist. Discontinuity of experience due to the presence of loitering youth as a new social group in PKL has created different experience that resulted to loss of privacy or personal freedom amongst the residents particularly the elderly group. In addition, the presence of snatchers and the act of vandalism have been observed as the infraction of the society’s legal, moral and conduct norms.  These findings reemphasize Low et al., 2006) findings that the existence of new social group in a long established public place may destroyed social ecological balance besides creating a dangerous and even more undesirable environment.

The changes of physical characters and social group trigger and evoke resident’s undesired emotional state which can be stipulated as placelessness. This implies that experiences at PKL are a fundamental component of resident’s relationship with place and the loss of activities and routine action are among the most serious forms externally-imposed psychological disruption and discontinuities. These also suggest that respondents in PKL have a thorough understanding of the padang as it is evident from the respondent’s awareness and sensitivity about the characteristic of the padang and their feelings despite the fact that they perceived and experienced only modest changes.

To summarise, being located in the middle of the city, PKL is under tremendous pressure from development and change of it use as people are drawn to the tourism oriented and commercialization of spaces. The three dimensions identified as attributable to placelessness in this study could be taken into consideration in urban and tourism planning effort in maintaining the identity and sense of place particularly in the historic old towns. Likewise, circumventing the factors with proper planning and protection is a challenge for planners, municipality as well as the residents. Beside the negative effects, there appears to be a strong appreciation and support of a place by residents upon changes and loss that occurred. This positive account is hoped could be capitalized on to build support for planning efforts in the future.

REFERENCES:

Arefi, M. (1999). Non-place and placelessness as narrative of loss: Rethinking the notion of place. Journal of Urban Design, vol.4, no.2.

Relph, E. (1976). Place and placelessness. Pion Limited, London.

Shuhana S. and Norsidah U. (2008). Making places: the role of attachment in creating the sense of place for traditional streets in Malaysia. Journal of Habitat International 14, 1-11.

Twigger-Ross, C.L and Uzell, DL. (1996). Place and identity processes. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 16, 205-220.

Rogan R, O’Connor M and Horwitz P. (2005). Nowhere to hide: Awareness and perceptions of environmental change and their influence on relationship with place. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 25, 147-158.

Brown, B.B and Perkins, D.D. (1992). Disruptions in place attachment. In I. Altman and S. Low, Eds., Place Attachment. New York: Plenum Press.

Low, S., Taplin, D. and Scheld S. (2005). Rethinking urban parks: Public space and cultural diversity. The University Texas Press, Austin.

Walker, A.J and Ryan, R.L. (2008). Place attachment and landscape preservation in rural England: A Maine case study. Journal of Landscape and Urban planning, 86, 141-152.

 

 

 

 

 

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