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Future of History
Capitalizing on History
Above picture caption: Amphawa Floating Market, Samut Songkhram, Thailand. Copyright © 2011 PACEYES. All rights reserved.
Historic preservation; urban revitalization; gentrification; cultural mapping
As Southeast Asian cities continue to grow and become further integrated into the global economy, old urban artifacts and fabrics are being replaced with larger, modern structures. Glass skyscrapers continue to define urban skylines, and shopping malls and supermarkets expand their functional role as the central nodes for resource consumption. Among this macro-trend, a micro-trend has become noticeable. People are becoming nostalgic and yearn for their local past, and old urban corners and quaint rural towns are being revitalized to serve such this nostalgic desire. This trend has implications for the poor, as old and rustic areas are being gentrified without adequate support for the displaced. Capitalizing on history has its costs.
Modern urban planning and development practices in the context of globalization of trade, investment, and tourism have drastically changed the Southeast Asian urban fabric. Even though a wealth of historic structures with religious and governmental connections still remain, “ordinary” urban artifacts, such as shophouses, have been demolished and replaced by modern structures for commercial and residential purposes. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City’s heritage areas are gradually being replaced by shopping malls and modern buildings; so are Jakarta’s Kota Tua and SundaKelapa, and Manila’s Intramuros. In Bangkok’s older parts, through which transit lines are constructed, land prices have increased substantially and old shophouses are being torn down for higher-density development. This phenomenon is also happening in fast growing secondary cities. In Bandung, Indonesia the once vibrant and dynamic area of Braga Street has been replaced by modern shopping malls.
Many redevelopment projects have not only bulldozed physical remnants of the past but also have altered old community lifestyles and livelihoods. They usually displace the previous dwellers, many of whom are illegal squatters who are likely to become illegal settlers elsewhere. These negative consequences of large-scale projects are increasingly recognized by planners. But in Southeast Asia where the power of economic forces trumps social, aesthetic and other non-monetary values, the dual drivers of land-value maximization and architectural modernization seem irresistible and irreversible.
There is however a growing interest among planners and concerned citizens to preserve historical districts. Several reasons may explain this trend, including romanticism for the past, recognition of unique cultural identity and architectural value, and economic opportunities for the tourism industry that demand unique cultural products. Many cities now have historic preservation plans, which include restoration of old structures, and adaptive reuse initiatives, in which old buildings are restored and converted for new functions. For instance, in Singapore’s Boat Quay, Malaysia’s Georgetown, and Thailand’s Chiang Mai, old shophouses have been restored and adapted for restaurants, souvenir shops and other businesses.
Nostalgia-driven revitalization occurs not only in older areas of big cities, but also in small rustic towns. As transportation and communication networks expand and travel costs become more affordable, not only foreign backpackers but also local yuppies are flocking to these towns for short visits. They desire the experience of the old lifestyle no longer found in modern cities. The revitalization initiative in Amphawa, a water-based community in Thailand, has been boosted by its floating market and shophouses that cater to weekend visitors from Bangkok. Chiang Khan in Northeastern Thailand has become popular among tourists because of its wooden houses along the Mekong River, as has Van Vieng in Laos for its rustic atmosphere. Ironically, many of the goods and souvenirs sold in these places are not made locally, but brought in from wholesale markets in Bangkok or other big cities. Old shophouses have also been bought and gentrified by outsiders, who see investment opportunities in these old towns.
The nostalgic desire for old lifestyles and places among the urban middle-class has captured the interest of capitalists. Plernwan, a shopping mall in the resort town of HuaHin in Southern Thailand, was built with the theme of “play and learn in the past”, bringing old town feelings back to its modern shopping district. It has become a popular destination for weekend trips among middle-class Thais.
Preservation and restoration of historic structures is nothing new to this region. But the past initiatives usually stop short at conserving individual buildings, or at best, groups of buildings. They pay less attention to the non-physical aspects of history, such as community livelihoods and well-being. Many plans ignore basic problems faced by residents in the old areas, where urban problems are usually pronounced. In older, inner-city areas of Jakarta, Bangkok and other big cities in Southeast Asia, population densities are high compared to newer, outer areas. Jakarta’s Old Town covers 1.73 percent of the city, but its population represents 2.64 percent of the total. Likewise, Bangkok’s inner districts remain highly dense. Many of these residents are poor, without secure land tenure, and live in sub-standard housing units.
The Master Plan to develop and preserve the Rattanakosin area of Bangkok focused primarily on physical aspects, and paid little attention to the livelihoods of existing communities, especially those without land tenure. The plan was greatly resisted by the existing communities, which led the planners to reconsider their approach. Similarly, according to a study by Indonesia’s Urban and Regional Development Institute, the Jakarta Old Town’s spatial master plan had overlooked basic problems such as housing. Historic preservation initiatives that consider only historical value without the context of development and poverty have often resulted in restoration of functionless, isolated artifacts. Alternative pictures of older districts are being considered, as well as better methods to preserve and renew them.
Planners now consider wider areas for urban revitalization initiatives, including not only individual structures (the “point”), but also groups of buildings (the “line”) and the whole neighborhood (the “plane”). They also attempt to widen the scope of intervention, including not just physical aspects, but also social and economic issues in urban revitalization and regeneration. Housing issues for the displaced remain a key concern for a revitalization plan. There are still limited cases in Southeast Asia where the implementation of historic preservation plans is well integrated with affordable housing and other development issues. An attempt is being made by Thailand’s Community Organizations Development Institute (CODI) and a network of community savings groups in the UNESCO World Heritage city of Ayutthaya to develop a city-wide community reconstruction project in which historical monuments and poor people can cohabit in mutually beneficial ways.
Among many tools currently being explored in preservation and revitalization in Southeast Asia, cultural mapping is gaining popularity in areas where historical and cultural assets have potential as the entry point for intervention. Recognized by the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the tool utilizes community-based participatory data collection and management and mapping techniques, possibly including sophisticated Geographic Information Systems (GIS).
There are several examples in this region. As part of the Malaysia Urban Conservation Initiatives, a team of planners and students in Taiping have conducted cultural mapping workshops with city residents and school children to raise awareness about preservation issues. A similar project, led by the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Chulalongkorn University, has used the method to start revitalization initiatives in the Kudeejeen and Klongsan areas in Bangkok. In Vietnam, the “Cham Heritage Mapping Project,” which was led by the local and national governments of Vietnam and facilitated by UNESCO, adopted the participatory mapping method that utilizes GIS. The project “Our Heritage Our Future” in Chompet, Laos enhanced the linkages between a community-based cultural mapping activity and the development of a tourism management plan.
Historic preservation and community revitalization will not be financially sustainable, unless public-private partnerships are institutionalized between the local government, private property owners, and the residents. Examples include the Penang Heritage Trust in Malaysia and Old Phuket Foundation in Thailand, and the Sumatra Heritage Trust in Indonesia. Indonesia and Malaysia have national-level trust funds for heritage preservation, although they do not usually cover other related issues.
 Martokusumo, W. (2002). Urban heritage conservation: Experiences in Bandung and Jakarta. In Peter J.M. Nas (ed.): The Indonesian Town Revisited, pp. 374-389, LIT Verlag-Institute of Asian Studies, Münster/Singapore.
 The Jakarta Post, “Old Town revitalization overlooks the residents.” 06 June 2007.
 The Jakarta Post, “Old Town revitalization overlooks the residents.” 06 June 2007.