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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rich and diverse cultural heritage as a resource for local development and livelihoods after its free trade port status was revoked in 1969.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.[1]

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.

Conservation initiatives

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. 

[1]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

Civic engagement tools Knowledge and Planning tools Regulatory systems Financial 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
To learn more in depth about the different perspectives on the urban development of George Town, read:
To learn more about other activities in the Historic City of George Town, read:
© 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.

Décisions / Résolutions (3)
Code : 37COM 7B.103

Le Comité du patrimoine mondial,

1.  Ayant examiné le document WHC-13/37.COM/7B.Add,

2.  Rappelant les décisions 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 et 35 COM 7B.133 ,adoptées respectivement à ses 34e (Brasilia, 2010) et 35e (UNESCO, 2011) sessions,

3.  Prend note avec satisfaction des mesures prises par les États parties concernés pour répondre à ses demandes antérieures visant à atténuer les menaces qui pèsent sur la valeur universelle exceptionnelle des biens du patrimoine mondial suivants:

  • Vieille ville de Lijiang (Chine)
  • Ensemble historique du Palais du Potala, Lhasa (Chine)
  • Parc archéologique de San Augustin (Colombie)
  • Centre historique de Český Krumlov (République tchèque)
  • Région viticole de Tokaj Paysage culturel historique (Hongrie)
  • Taj Mahal (Inde)
  • Fort d'Agra (Inde)
  • Fatehpur Sikri (Inde)
  • Parc archéologique de Champaner-Pavagadh (Inde)
  • Ensemble de Prambanan (Indonésie)
  • Monte San Giorgio (Italie / Suisse)
  • Centre historique de Vilnius (Lituanie)
  • Melaka et George Town, villes historiques du détroit de Malacca (Malaisie)
  • Centre historique de Mexico et Xochimilco (Mexique)
  • Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (Mexique)
  • Lignes et géoglyphes de Nasca et de Pampas de Jumana (Pérou)
  • Ville de Cuzco (Pérou)
  • Eglises de Moldavie (Roumanie)
  • Ensemble du monastère de Ferapontov (Fédération de Russie)
  • Ile de Gorée (Sénégal)
  • Travaux d'Antoni Gaudi (Espagne)

4.  Encourage les États parties concernés à poursuivre leurs efforts visant à assurer la conservation des biens du patrimoine mondial ;

5.  Rappelle aux États parties concernés d'informer le Centre du patrimoine mondial en temps utile de tout projet de développement majeur qui pourrait nuire à la valeur universelle exceptionnelle d'un bien, avant tout engagement irréversible, conformément au Paragraphe 172 des Orientations .

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Code : 35COM 7B.116

Le Comité du patrimoine mondial,

1. Ayant examiné le document WHC-11/35.COM/7B,

2. Rappelant la décision 33 COM 7B.129, adoptée à sa 33e session (Séville, 2009),

3. Prend acte des mesures prises afin de résoudre les problèmes de la fermeture de la route et ceux liés au centre d'accueil des visiteurs, en particulier de l'autorisation accordée par le Conseil local du comté de Wiltshire en juin 2010 à la demande de travaux présentés par English Heritage ;

4. Demande à l'État partie de remettre au Centre du patrimoine mondial les détails de la localisation et des plans du projet de centre d'accueil des visiteurs pour examen par l'ICOMOS ;

5. Note que le financement pour la mise en œuvre des projets d'aménagement est presque assuré ;

6. Demande également à L'État partie de tenir le Centre du patrimoine mondial informé de tout événement lié à la fermeture de la route et au centre d'accueil des visiteurs et de faire état de toute activité mise en œuvre dans l'exercice des rapports périodiques qui sera lancé en 2012.

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Code : 33COM 7B.78

Le Comité du patrimoine mondial,

1. Ayant examiné le document WHC-09/33.COM/7B.Add,

2. Rappelant la décision 32 COM 8B.25, adoptée à sa 32e session (Québec, 2008),

3. Considérant que les projets d'aménagement dans la zone inscrite de George Town, en particulier le projet AGB près de la tour de l'horloge, sont en contradiction avec les mesures de protection décrites dans le dossier d'inscription et, qu'en cas de construction, ils auraient un impact significatif et préjudiciable pour la valeur universelle exceptionnelle du bien ;

4. Considérant également l'impact potentiel des deux projets d'aménagement approuvés dans la zone tampon,

5. Considérant en outre que la mise en place d'une disposition, dans les mesures destinées à la protection de George Town, autorisant dans certaines conditions des immeubles de plus de 18 mètres de haut à l'intérieur du bien du patrimoine mondial et de sa zone tampon, ainsi que l'absence d'un mécanisme juridique permettant au Gouvernement fédéral d'exercer un contrôle sur le bien, constituent une menace potentielle pour la valeur universelle exceptionnelle du bien,

6. Regrette que des informations suffisantes sur ces projets d'aménagement et le statut de leur approbation, ainsi que sur la modification des règles de protection, n'aient pas été communiquées par l'État partie dans le dossier de proposition d'inscription ni au cours du processus d'évaluation ;

7. Prend note avec satisfaction de la lettre officielle datée du 15 juin 2009 et de la déclaration orale de l'État partie malais à sa 33e session, informant le Comité que :

a) La hauteur des deux projets de construction proposés dans la zone inscrite, Bousted et AGB, sera réduite à 18 mètres,

b) L'impact des deux projets dans la zone tampon, E&O et Bintang, a été atténué grâce à la mise en oeuvre des modifications négociées entre le Conseil et les promoteurs,

c) La clause autorisant la construction de bâtiments d'une hauteur supérieure à 18 mètres à l'intérieur du bien inscrit, dans certaines conditions, à Georgetown a été abolie,

d) Les « Directives concernant les zones de conservation & les bâtiments du patrimoine » existantes seront renommées « Règlementations sur les zones de conservation & les bâtiments du patrimoine »,

e) Des plans spéciaux de secteurs seront préparés pour le bien inscrit et sa zone tampon de manière à assurer des contrôles de planification et des orientations à un niveau plus détaillé,

f) Aucun permis de construire ne sera accordé à des bâtiments d'une hauteur supérieure à 18 mètres dans la zone tampon tant que les plans spéciaux de secteurs n'auront pas été adoptés,

g) Un Conseil technique consultatif sera créé, comprenant un représentant du Gouvernement fédéral (Service du Patrimoine national) chargé d'examiner tous les grands projets d'aménagement et les contrôles et politiques de planification proposés qui pourraient avoir un effet préjudiciable sur la valeur universelle exceptionnelle,

h) D'autres mesures ont été prises pour soutenir la conservation de Georgetown, telles que la création d'un Office du patrimoine mondial, le renforcement du Service du Patrimoine au sein du Conseil municipal de Penang et la création d'une Journée du Patrimoine mondial à Penang ;

8. Félicite l'État partie de ses efforts pour négocier avec les promoteurs afin de trouver des solutions alternatives aux projets approuvés et d'en réduire les conséquences néfastes, y compris en mandatant des études d'impact sur le patrimoine, ainsi que pour l'esprit de coopération et le réel intérêt manifestés dans ses tentatives de clarification des dossiers avec le Centre du patrimoine mondial et l'ICOMOS ;

9. Demande à l'État partie de poursuivre ses efforts pour mettre en oeuvre les recommandations faites par la mission conjointe Centre du patrimoine mondial/ICOMOS, et notamment de :

a) Etablir les plans des secteurs spéciaux susmentionnés pour le bien inscrit et sa zone tampon, basés sur une analyse approfondie des principales perspectives visuelles, des typologies et tissus urbains, et de la composition du tissu social de George Town, et les soumettre à l'examen du Centre du patrimoine mondial et de l'ICOMOS d'ici le 1er février 2011,

b) Introduire de nouvelles dispositions légales dans le système de protection et de gestion du bien du patrimoine mondial, ce qui permettrait aux autorités centrales au niveau du Gouvernement fédéral d'examiner et, si nécessaire, d'opposer leur véto aux grands projets de développement et d'établir des plans des secteurs spéciaux et autres contrôles et politiques de planification pertinents pour George Town et Melaka ;

10. Réitère sa demande à l'État partie de soumettre un plan de conservation global recouvrant tous les bâtiments et son calendrier de mise en oeuvre dans les deux villes, de concevoir des mesures propres à réduire la circulation automobile et d'améliorer la définition d'indicateurs clés pour contrôler les éléments du patrimoine urbain et architectural ;

11. Demande également à l'État partie de soumettre au Centre du patrimoine mondial, d'ici le 1er février 2011, un rapport sur les progrès réalisés dans la mise en oeuvre des recommandations des points ci-dessus, pour examen par le Comité du patrimoine mondial à sa 35e session en 2011.

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