From port city to World Heritage site: case study of George Town (Malaysia)
The multi-cultural historic city of George Town developed a strategy to build on its rich and diverse cultural heritage as a resource for local development and livelihoods after its free trade port status was revoked in 1969. The strategy led to the inscription of the city on the World Heritage List in 2008 and the establishment of a multi-stakeholder management framework, including local communities’ stewardship and key guidance documents outlining conservation and development goals. Different actions developed by local partners and stakeholders, such as heritage conservation initiatives or grants programmes, bring these goals to reality. The long-running efforts of local actors have led to enhanced conservation on site and the development of burgeoning cultural and tourism industries.
About George Town
The Historic City of George Town is located in the State of Penang in peninsular Malaysia. It is one of the components of the serial property Melaka and George Town, Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca, inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2008 under criteria (ii), (iii) and (iv).
Melaka and George Town have developed over 500 years of trading and cultural exchanges between East and West in the Straits of Malacca. The influences of Asia and Europe have endowed the towns with a specific multicultural heritage that is both tangible and intangible. Featuring residential and commercial buildings, George Town represents the British era from the end of the 18th century. The two towns constitute a unique architectural and cultural townscape without parallel anywhere in East and Southeast Asia.
In 2009 and 2011, two State of Conservation reports were presented to the World Heritage Committee, highlighting issues in relation to the protection and management of the property. Thanks to the proactive efforts by the State Party with strong commitments from the local governments, the issues were resolved by 2013, when the World Heritage Committee noted with satisfaction the measures taken to address previous requests to mitigate the threats on the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV), and no further reporting was required (Decision 37 COM 7B.103).
From port city to World Heritage site: case study of George Town
George Town was founded in 1786 as a free port to serve British interest in South-East Asia. The establishment of the port made George Town a centre for global trading, attracting foreign merchants, largely from China, India and Arab countries. As a result, George Town developed a multi-ethnic society that still exists today. This diversity is reflected in the architecture of the city, as well as its rich intangible cultural heritage.
Today, the different cultural and religious communities that inhabit George Town continue to live in harmonious coexistence through the understanding of multicultural traditions that have been passed down through generations despite cultural and ethnic differences. The local communities have a very strong sense of ownership of their cultural identity, acting as safekeepers and guardians of this unique heritage.
Like many port cities, the historical development of George Town has been closely linked to global events. For instance, air raids during World War II destroyed many historic buildings in the enclave. The independence of Malaya in 1957 and the formation of Federation of Malaysia in 1963 have had a significant impact on the political, economic and social activities in George Town. In particular, the revocation of the free trade port status in 1969 and the relocation of major port activities to Seberang Perai, in mainland Penang, led to high unemployment rates. The economic crisis was addressed through the establishment of the Bayan Lepas Free Industrial Zone at the south-eastern end of Penang Island in 1972, and the transformation of George Town from an industrial, productive city into a service-oriented economy.
The economic and political developments were accompanied by new legal frameworks, affecting the conservation of the historic city. For instance, the Control of Rent Act of 1966 aimed to address the shortage of housing during the Post-War period by regulating the rental market, specifically of buildings built before February 1948. The enforcement of this legislative framework led to the increase of population in the historic centre. The Act was repealed by 31 December 1999 as affordable housing was developed at satellite cities with the expansion of the city, leading to changes in the demographics and activities in the historic town.
World Heritage site management framework
The different communities that inhabit George Town are the main safekeepers and guardians of its heritage. Through the continuation of traditional businesses, traditions and activities, the local communities and community associations ensure that George Town is preserved not only in its physical form, but also in its rich social and cultural aspects. The government has supported these activities since the 1990s, as it contributes to the unique multiculturalism of Penang, and increases its attractiveness as a heritage city.
At the same time, different regional, national and international institutional actors are active in George Town. Their actions are realised on site through local organisations, including:
- George Town World Heritage Incorporated (GTWHI), established in 2010 by the Penang State Government as the main management body for the Historic City of George Town. The mission of GTWHI is to mobilise local stakeholders, in particular the local community, to spearhead efforts in safeguarding the Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) of the World Heritage site.
- The Department of Heritage Conservation at the City Council of Penang Island was established to execute the statutory heritage-related matters.
- George Town Conservation & Development Corporation (GTCDC) was created by the Penang State Government, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and Think City, a fully owned subsidiary of Khazanah Nasional. The mission of GTCDC is to complete landscape and restoration interventions in public spaces and buildings in the historic areas.
Other institutional partners such as the Department of PLANMalaysia Penang, the National Heritage Department of Malaysia, Malaysian National Commission for UNESCO, UNESCO, UN-Habitat, the Advisory Bodies, UNESCO Category II centres, local and international universities and NGOs are also present.
The different partners have worked together to preserve the OUV of the property, carrying out the urban conservation and regeneration process following an evidence-based approach. The George Town Special Area Plan (SAP) was gazetted in 2016 as the Conservation Management Plan for the World Heritage site in George Town. This document is the main statutory reference in the planning and conservation of the historic city and contains management strategies and action plans to protect its OUV. The document also details the economic and social aspects of town planning, as well as guidelines on protecting urban heritage attributes.
George Town conservation activities often involve partnership of government and community actors. Examples of these initiatives include:
- The rehabilitation of public spaces such as the Armenian Park, China Street Ghaut, and Lebuh Light. The design of the landscape interventions, developed by Think City with funding by the City Council of Penang Island, was based on historic photographs and documentation with a particular focus on community uses and habitability.
- Conservation and restoration works at Fort Cornwallis, which involved archaeological excavations by the Universiti Sains Malaysia Global Archaeological Research Centre, and the restoration of the former storerooms.
- Conservation and restoration of Category I heritage buildings by the local community, such as the Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi clan house at Cannon Square, Seh Tek Tong Cheah Kongsi clan house at Lebuh Armenian, Tua Pek Kong Temple on King Street, Penang Chinese Chamber of Commerce at Lebuh Light, and many more.
- Restauration of private dwellings: community members received free consultations from GTWHI, before they submitted their applications to the City Council. The applications are reviewed by a Technical Review Panel before being granted application approval.
This wide range of initiatives is possible thanks to a combination of public and private funding and community participation. Many projects were publicly funded by the federal government, the State Government of Penang and the local council. For instance, in 2009, Think City launched the George Town Grants Programme, which disbursed 240 grants worth MYR 16 million (approximately US$4 million) in special projects related to improving the public realm, conservation, capacity building and content development. GTWHI, through its Heritage Habitat Seeds Fund, provided MYR 3 million (approximately US$710,000) for the restoration of Category II shophouses, in collaboration with the tenants and building owners. Additionally, local residents and business owners have carried out conservation and adaptive reuse interventions in historical buildings. Many restoration interventions in private dwellings are funded by residents themselves. Local businesses often sponsor cultural events and festivals, with community members volunteering on their preparation and execution.
As a result, the economic and social dynamics in George Town have centred on culture-related and service industries, especially following its World Heritage listing. The increasing tourism within the site has brought in new dynamics and economic growth. New businesses such as hotels, cafés, restaurants and services businesses have bloomed, contributing to the rise of users and daytime population in the historic city. Family businesses, which form an important part of the economic network of suppliers and buyers, especially in the wholesale market, have survived due to the perseverance of local families and their capacity to adapt to new market demands. Many of these businesses have operated from the same shophouses or heritage buildings for generations, adding another layer to the rich urban heritage of George Town.
Some new challenges and opportunities have emerged in this context. For instance, the increasing dependence on tourism threatens the long-term balance of the historic areas of George Town. Gentrification has historically been an issue that must continue to be addressed.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, George Town was put under its hardest test, with a drop in tourism arrivals due to travel restrictions. Although the impact of the pandemic on tourism was devastating, the town also witnessed the resiliency demonstrated by some of the long-standing business operators in the city, who have adapted to the New Normal by advancing into the digital world in promoting and selling their products.
Sources: Mr Hamdan Majeed, Executive Director, Think City, 2021; Dr Ang Ming Chee, General Manager, George Town World Heritage Incorporated, 2021.
For more information, see Long Zhao, Wun Bin Wong, Zulkifli Bin Hanafi, The evolution of George Town's urban morphology in the Straits of Malacca, late 18th century-early 21st century, Frontiers of Architectural Research, Volume 8, Issue 4, 2019, Pages 513-534.
Contribution towards the implementation of the 2011 Recommendation on the Historic Urban Landscape
The project aims to contribute to the implementation of the Historic Urban Landscape approach by promoting urban heritage conservation, developing management frameworks which include local communities, delivering urban interventions to enhance local residents’ quality of life, integrating urban development and conservation plans and finding partnerships and innovative financing models for the implementation of these plans.
Historic Urban Landscape Tools
Contribution towards Sustainable Development
If fully implemented in accordance with the described plans, the initiative could contribute towards Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals.
Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.
- Target 8.3: the initiative aims to promote development-oriented policies that support productive activities, decent job creation and local economic development.
- Target 8.9: the initiative aims to implement policies to promote sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products.
Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable
- Target 11.3: the initiative aims to enhance inclusive and sustainable urbanisation.
- Target 11.4: the initiative aims to strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage.
- Target 11.7: the initiative aims to increase universal access to safe, inclusive and accessible, green and public spaces.
Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development
- Target 17.16: the initiative aims to enhance the global partnership for sustainable development, complemented by multi-stakeholder partnerships that mobilise and share knowledge, expertise and financial resources, to support the achievement of the sustainable development goals in all countries, in particular developing countries.
- Target 17.17: the initiative aims to encourage and promote effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships.
Note: the described potential impacts of the projects are only indicative and based on submitted and available information. UNESCO does not endorse the specific initiatives nor ratifies their positive impact.
To learn more
- Connect with the City Council of Penang Island, George Town World Heritage Incorporated, or George Town Conservation and Development Corporation (GTCDC) on Facebook.
- Read the press release Regeneration of Penang's George Town World Heritage Site, published by the Aga Khan Development Network.
- Read about the George Town Heritage Celebrations, a yearly festival where local communities come together to celebrate and showcase their own cultural practices, performances, food and crafts.
- Visit the website of project partners George Town World Heritage Incorporated, Think City, Penang Island City Council, Penang State Government, and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.
- Lim, Y., Khoo, S. and Ch’ng, K., 2020. Residents’ perspectives towards conservation in George Town World Heritage City: A post-UNESCO listing scenario. Journal of Urban and Regional Analysis, 6(2), pp.161-180.
- Chan, J., Lean, H. and Qi, X., 2017. Transition of economic structure and demography: The case of tourism gentrification in George Town, Penang. In: International Society for the Study of Chinese Overseas Conference.
- Zhao, L., Wong, W. and Hanafi, Z., 2019. The evolution of George Town's urban morphology in the Straits of Malacca, late 18th century-early 21st century. Frontiers of Architectural Research, 8(4), pp.513-534.
- Six Heritage Cities from Asia, Pacific and Africa Gather in Penang to Exchange Knowledge about Strengthening Resilience Against Disaster Risks.
- Striving toward Sustainable Tourism at the World Heritage sites in Southeast Asia.
- Celebrating community and heritage through the George Town Heritage Celebrations (Malaysia).
- Supporting Community-Based Management and Sustainable Tourism at World Heritage Sites in Southeast Asia.
© UNESCO, 2021. Project team: Jyoti Hosagrahar, Alba Zamarbide, Carlota Marijuán Rodríguez, with the support of Mr Hamdan Majeed and Dr Ang Ming Chee.
Image credit: © Earthstar Geographic via ESRI
Note: The cases shared in this platform address heritage protection practices in World Heritage sites and beyond. Items being showcased in this website do not entail any type of recognition or inclusion in the World Heritage list or any of its thematic programmes. The practices shared are not assessed in any way by the World Heritage Centre or presented here as model practices nor do they represent complete solutions to heritage management problems. The views expressed by experts and site managers are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Heritage Centre. The practices and views shared here are included as a way to provide insights and expand the dialogue on heritage conservation with a view to further urban heritage management practice in general.
Decisions / Resolutions (3)
World Heritage Committee,
1. Having examined Document WHC-13/37.COM/7B.Add,
2. Recalling Decisions 34 COM 8B.6, 35 COM 7B.42, 35 COM 7B.63, 35 COM 7B.67, 35 COM 7B.68, 35 COM 7B.69, 35 COM 7B.73, 35 COM 7B.88, 35 COM 7B.94, 35 COM 7B.98, 35 COM 7B.102, 35 COM 7B.106, 35 COM 7B.109, 35 COM 7B.122, 35 COM 7B.127, 35 COM 7B.128, 35 COM 7B.131 and 35 COM 7B.133 , adopted at its 34th (Brasilia, 2010) and 35th (UNESCO, 2011) sessions respectively,
3. Takes note with satisfaction of the measures taken by the States Parties concerned to address its previous requests to mitigate the threats on the Outstanding Universal Value of the following World Heritage properties :
- Old Town of Lijiang (China)
- Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace, Lhasa (China)
- San Augustin Arhcaeological Park (Colombia)
- Historic Centre of Český Krumlov (Czech Republic)
- Tokaj Wine Region Historic Cultural Landscape (Hungary)
- Taj Mahal (India)
- Agra Fort (India)
- Fatehpur Sikri (India)
- Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park (India)
- Prambanan Temple Compounds (Indonesia)
- Monte San Giorgio (Italy / Switzerland)
- Vilnius Historic centre (Lithuania)
- Melaka and George Town, Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca (Malaysia)
- Historic centre of Mexico City and Xochimilco (Mexico)
- Camino real de Tierra Adentro (Mexico)
- Lines and Geoglyphs of Nasca and Pampas de Jumana (Peru)
- City of Cuzco (Peru)
- Churches of Moldavia (Romania)
- Ensemble of the Ferrapontov Monastery (Russian Federation)
- Island of Gorée (Senegal)
- Works of Antoni Gaudi (Spain)
4. Encourages the States Parties concerned to pursue their efforts to ensure the conservation of World Heritage properties;
5. Reminds the States Parties concerned to inform the World Heritage Centre in due course about any major development project which may affect the Outstanding Universal Value of a property, before any irreversible commitments are made, in line with Paragraph 172 of the Operational Guidelines .Read more about the decision
The World Heritage Committee,
1. Having examined Document WHC-11/35.COM/7B,
2. Recalling Decision 33 COM 7B.129, adopted at its 33rd session (Seville, 2009),
3. Acknowledges the measures taken in the resolution of the road closure and the visitor facilities issues, in particular the approval of the English Heritage Full Planning Application by Wiltshire Council in June 2010;
4. Requests the State Party to provide the World Heritage Centre with details of the location and plans of the proposed visitor centre for evaluation by ICOMOS;
5. Notes that the funding for the implementation of the development project has almost been ensured;
6. Also requests the State Party to keep the World Heritage Centre informed about any development related to the road closure and the visitor facilities and to report any implementation activities within the Periodic Reporting exercise to be launched in 2012.Read more about the decision
The World Heritage Committee,
1. Having examined Documents WHC-09/33.COM/7B.Add,
2. Recalling Decision 32 COM 8B.25, adopted at its 32nd session (Quebec City, 2008),
3. Considering that the proposed developments within the inscribed area of George Town, particularly the AGB project near the clock tower, are in contradiction with the protective measures described in the Nomination File and would, if constructed, have a significant adverse impact on the Outstanding Universal Value of the property,
4. Also considering the potential impacts of the two approved developments in the buffer zone;
5. Further considering that the introduction of a provision in the protective measures for George Town allowing for buildings higher than 18 metres in the World Heritage property and its buffer zone under certain circumstances, as well as the lack of legal mechanisms that would enable the Federal Government to exercise control on the property constitute a potential threat for the Outstanding Universal Value of the property,
6. Regrets that adequate information on these development proposals and the status of their approval, as well as on the modification of the protective regulations, was not provided by the State Party in the Nomination File and during the evaluation process;
7. Takes note with satisfaction of the official letter dated 15 June 2009 and oral statement by the State Party of Malaysia during its 33rd session, informing the Committee that:
a) The height of the two proposed development projects within the inscribed area, Bousted and AGB, will be reduced to 18 metres,
b) The impact of the two projects in the buffer zone, E&O and Bintang, has been reduced through the implementation of the modifications negotiated between the Council and the developers,
c) The provision allowing building higher than 18 metres within the inscribed property under certain circumstances in Georgetown has been abolished,
d) The existing "Guidelines for Conservation Areas & Heritage Buildings" will be renamed "Regulations for Conservation Areas & Heritage Buildings",
e) Special Area Plans for the inscribed property and its buffer zone that would provide planning controls and guidance at a more detailed level, will be prepared,
f) There will be no approval given for developments higher than 18 metres in the buffer zone until such time as the Special Area Plans are adopted,
g) A Technical Review Committee will be established, including a representative of the Federal Government (Department of National Heritage) to review all major development proposals and proposed planning controls and policies that could impact adversely on the Outstanding Universal Value,
h) Other measures to support the conservation of Georgetown have been taken, including the creation of a World Heritage Office, the strengthening of the Heritage Department within the City Council of Penang, and the creation of a World Heritage Day in Penang;
8. Commends the State Party for its efforts to negotiate with the developers with an aim to identify alternative solutions to the approved projects and reduce their adverse effect, including by commissioning heritage impact studies, as well as for the spirit of genuine concern and cooperation manifested in its attempts to clarify the issues with the World Heritage Centre and ICOMOS ;
9. Requests the State Party to continue its efforts to implement the recommendations made by the joint World Heritage Centre/ICOMOS mission, and notably to:
a) Develop the above-mentioned Special Area Plans for the inscribed property and its buffer zone, based on a careful analysis of important views, typologies and urban fabric the composition of the social fabric of George Town, and submit these to the World Heritage Centre and ICOMOS by 1 February 2011, for review,
b) Introduce new legal provisions in the protection and management system for the World Heritage property that would enable the central authorities at the level of the Federal Government to review and, if necessary veto proposals for major development projects, draft Special Area Plans and other relevant planning controls and policies both for George Town and Melaka;
10. Reiterates its request to the State Party to submit a comprehensive conservation plan dealing with all the buildings and its schedule for implementation in both cities, to develop measures for decreasing motor traffic, and to improve the definition of key indicators for monitoring the urban and architectural heritage components;
11. Also requests the State Party to submit to the World Heritage Centre, by 1 February 2011, a report on the progress made in the implementation of the recommendations contained in the points above, for examination by the World Heritage Committee at its 35th session in 2011.Read more about the decision