By Ooi Kee Beng [Editorial in Penang Monthly, October 2012]
One thing that strikes me when I travel from city to city nowadays is that the ones I enjoy most and have the fondest memories of are simply those that boast some huge and central public space where the local population – the citizens literally – and visitors congregate in order to step outside the fast pace of the streets or the transport system.
This is where they “get away”, to use a glib phrase. But to be sure, this so-called “getting away” is central to city life, and is not as peripheral to city living as the phase would have us think.
If I were given the job of planning a new city from the ground up, I would, taking the lead from existent cities, put in a huge public space first before building anything else. For without it, a city is doomed to be drab, cold and unwelcoming.
No old town was without a town square. This need of urban dwellers has not changed. They require a space where they can go with no money in pocket, and no social role to act; a spot where some psychological nourishment for sane urban living can be had.
Imagine New York without Central Park, London without Hyde Park, Dublin without St Stephen’s Green, Singapore without its Botanic Gardens, Hong Kong without Victoria Peak, Istanbul without its mosques, Stockholm without Kungstradgarden, Shanghai without the Bund or even little Vientiane por Phnom Penh without the Mekong River bank. The list can be quite almost endless.
What this boils down to is, beyond level of development, income standards and population size, the availability and accessibility of public space are what gives life to a city.
What about Penang? We have Gurney Drive; we have the Botanic Gardens, and we have Penang Hill, to name a few. But each of them, you will have realized, do not seem able to live up to their potential.
In mentioning these places, the discussion has to include something else. Having public space is one thing. Consciousness about the general need for this is another. City authorities and all others concerned have to realize how important to the welfare of citizens a well-kept and well-planned area is to the well-being of a city.
A third thing is accessibility. Where huge public space is not centrally placed for whatever reason; easy public transportation to that space must be available.
The problem for most cities wishing to raise their level of livability is that and space is already scarce—and expensive, and spoken for. Too many vested interests are already in contention. But with a clear urban vision, such matters are run-of-the-mill.
Car-free thoroughfares are another relatively easy way of creating public space. Imagine Istanbul without its Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Street), Dublin without Grafton Street or Shanghai without Nanjing Lu. These may necessarily become shopping streets, but they do provide open space where pedestrians are liberated from threatening cars.
And tourists can’t stay away from them.