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Issue #6 Past as Future
How Adaptive Reuse is Anchoring Innovation and Circular Strategies in Asian Cities
Welcome to Issue #6 of the Cities in Mind Newsletter. From now on, I will alternate (on a weekly basis) between a written article and a podcast episode.
In this post, we’ll speak about urban regeneration and adaptive reuse, and how to connect the past with the future, or the other way around. This is a follow-up of my great podcast conversation with Ben Gattie, founder of Singapore’s Working Capitol and community builder of the Keong Saik district.
Following this episode, some of you have asked me about other iconic initiatives in the region so I’ll quickly share some examples of adaptive reuse projects and what we can learn from them. Please continue to reach out to me with suggestions and ideas!
🔗 At the end of the letter, I am also sharing what caught my interest in the news this week, from China’s urbanization patterns to the discovery of a new colour paint to cool down cities, or the rise of the Milk Tea Alliance in Southeast and South Asia.
Let’s go and explore other examples of heritage transformation in Asia-Pacific. 3 cases. 3 different scales: a building, a campus, a city centre.
I guess I’m adding some cool places to your travel bucket list, once (and who knows when..) we will be able to travel again 😬
“Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.”
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961
Adaptive Reuse, what for?
First, let’s go back to the definition of adaptive reuse and explain why it matters for planners.
🏙 As cities keep transforming, many buildings which were built for uses that no longer exist today become problematic. When a building becomes vacant or redundant, it also becomes vulnerable to neglect and eventual demolition.
Malaysia-based Think City’s team has developed a very comprehensive and practical guide for adaptive reuse in Asian heritage cities, using the following definition:
“Adaptive Reuse of a heritage building may continue the existing use, or involve a change of use that ensures an ongoing future for the building, where the existing use is no longer viable. It can also involve extending the building, when the current space is not sufficient for the proposed use.”
Adaptive Reuse can be a powerful strategy to retain identity and leverage both tangible and intangible heritage, including the fabric, setting, use, associations, activities and meanings of a specific place.
♻️ It is also in line with circular and sustainable building strategies, that aim to make use of the old, regenerate existing assets and diversify their functions.
Reused buildings have the potential to become magnets for innovators - entrepreneurs, digital nomads, makers, artists, designers - who are sensitive to the story and spirit of a place and who want to be actors of the local economy.
Ready for our mini selection of adaptive reuse projects in Asia Pacific? ➡️
First stop: Police Married Quarters (PMQ), Hong Kong 🇭🇰
🚔 Saved from redevelopment by neighbourhood activists, Hong Kong’s former Central Police Married Quarters was built in 1951 as a dormitory for police officers and their families. It is an imposing modernist structure, typical of Hong Kong’s postwar housing typologies, with two parallel blocks of small living units that are linked by communal balconies with shared kitchens.
Not your typical adaptable structure, but then came a solution: convert the former flats into shops and studios for local designers and makers.
The rebranded PMQ is now a lively design hub with a mix of retail, workspaces, bars and restaurants. “The key word is community,” says architect Billy Tam, who has supported PMQ Management Co, the non-profit social enterprise that runs the complex which opened mid 2014.
What is interesting about PMQ:
It is offering affordable space and support for creative designers, small retailers, new F&B concepts, in a very expensive city such as Hong Kong.
It is adding public space to a space-constrained city. When I was living in Hong Kong for a couple of months before moving to Singapore, I have seen many pop-up public events in PMQ’s main public square.
It contributes to elevate the appreciation of the value created by design and innovation. Home to now 100+ local young “create-preneurs”, PMQ acts as a magnet for innovators and small creative businesses.
2nd stop: Lindfield Learning Village, Sydney, Australia 🇦🇺
🏫 The Lindfield Learning Village in Sydney, Australia, is set in a former brutalist campus of the University Technology of Sydney (UTS), in the leafy northern suburbs of Australia’s biggest city.
While its university days may be over, the campus’s education legacy continues, with the building now reborn as a public school for kindergarten to year 12.
According to DesignInc, the architectural practice which led the project:
“The original design for the building was based on a hilltop village concept with an internal ‘street’. The design team capitalised on this feature to weave multiple activities together, creating innovative education zones for learners of all ages while fostering the close collection of teachers and students as a social entity.”
What is so unique about the Lindfield Learning Village:
Brutalist buildings and layouts have been conserved and reconverted, something worth noting as brutalist architecture is fast-disappearing worldwide.
The main mission of the space (innovation in education) remains, while adapting to a different (younger) public.
New designs have been added to maximize the potential of the current campus and offer new learning opportunities for kids. This idea of adding new features to the building’s original character is central in adaptive reuse strategies across Asia-Pacific.
3rd stop: George Town, Penang, Malaysia 🇲🇾
🎨 George Town is the capital city of the Malaysian state of Penang. The historical core of George Town has been inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008.
The city centre is full of heritage buildings converted into boutique hotels, trendy cafés and art galleries. You will also find amazing murals, steel sculptures, and wall paintings on every street corner. It is definitely worth a visit.
If George Town offers in itself a good case for adaptive reuse, the economic potential of heritage properties in the city has not gone unnoticed, particularly among foreign investors who have in recent years taken a keen interest in acquiring pre-war shophouses and quickly converting them, introducing new businesses that yield fast returns.
Three interesting dimensions:
Thanks to this large-scale adaptive reuse strategy, George Town and Penang have become hotspots for international tourists, but also for digital entrepreneurs and digital nomads as the Penang island rebrands itself “From Second City to Startup City”.
George Town has its fair share of “Instagrammable” cafés and lookalike boutique hotels and risks of gentrification are seriously considered by the local authorities. Different schemes are being tested to support local tenants, for example through a Community Development Fund. Not an “Unesco-cide” here, but a reminder of the two-sided impacts that world heritage status can have on cities and local communities.
The transition from a port city to a cultural and innovation hub has put George Town and Penang Island in the spotlight, leading to new urban development plans, such as the southern islands reclamation project and the Penang Bay international ideas competition - a project we will cover soon in our podcast series.
I’m a big fan of these adaptive reuse projects and I am convinced that they can be strong cultural and social anchors, foster local innovation, circular thinking and be an alternative to generic spaces that are sprouting in many cities in the region.
🚧 In order to happen, those projects require innovative approaches and creativity (and convictions) to overcome typical obstacles, such as: building codes and zoning rules, lack of awareness on adaptive reuse opportunities, commercial risks and uncertainty, non-availability of materials or shortage of local workers skilled in conservation work, limited response to a circular agenda, direct and indirect costs of conservation (maintenance), etc..
Not that these obstacles cannot be overcome but they can weigh in on the decision to carry out an adaptive reuse project. I also believe we should focus on the real benefits such reuse approaches trigger: which kind of economic development do they generate? can they offer shelters and support to local entrepreneurs and creative industries? do they help address environmental concerns, by foregrounding new circular strategies? do they improve social cohesion, inclusiveness and identity?
The movement is only starting, let’s watch this exciting space.
💙 This week, what I liked (or found interesting… or surprising… or odd):
According to the WashPost, China’s rapid urbanization will make another pandemic more likely Patterns described in the article are not limited to China, though.
You thought digital business parks were outmoded? Well, check how Indonesia and Singapore are teaming up to build Southeast Asia’s digital hub of the future on the island of Batam
The first 3D-printed net-zero energy entire urban neighbourhood will be built in California. Beyond the buzz, could there be replication potential in fast-growing developing cities?
How to cool down our cities? Check how a new paint could reflect 98% of sunlight as well as radiating infrared heat into space, reducing need for air conditioning
Some insights about the “Milk Tea Alliance” that sees youth in Southeast Asia and South Asia challenges entrenched authoritarian regimes, drawing inspirations from the Hunger Games’ protest sign
That’s it for today. As usual, a small 🧡 at the bottom of the article goes a long way !
Thanks for your support and see you next week for a new podcast episode!