Think City's big plans to help transform KL into a world-class city

KUALA LUMPUR, 25 Jan 2017 -  For a city to be truly world class, it needs to have several characteristics -- abundance of jobs and business opportunities; friendly government policies to attract investments and to do business; quality schools, colleges and universities; public safety and others. However, all these characteristics mentioned above would not complete the puzzle without the arts, culture and heritage (ACT) component.  After all, a city without a rich cultural offering is like a city without its soul. 

This is where Think City Sdn Bhd - a wholly-owned subsidiary of Khazanah Nasional Bhd can play a part – to strengthen the identity of Malaysian cities through arts, culture and heritage. Since it was first established, Think City has worked tirelessly to arrest the deterioration of cities and transform them into lively destinations that celebrate and protect its arts, culture and heritage.

George Town, Penang was its first success story where the organisation was first established and where their headquarters are currently located. It successfully completed over 240 projects which contributed to Penang’s current status as a destination of choice with a uniquely Penang identity. These works included building conservation and restoration, heritage interpretation, space activation and preservation of intangible heritage. 

With the achievements it scored in Penang, Think City now has a big mission -- to transform downtown Kuala Lumpur into a cultural district. To achieve the goal, Think City's Kuala Lumpur Programme Director Lee Jia Ping and her team believe that they will need to make small steps before achieving big successes, an approach they term as Power of Small – the practice of doing small things repeatedly over time leading to big changes.
A recap of Think City's achievements
Think City is a community-focused urban regeneration organisation that seeks to create more sustainable and livable cities. The company, established in 2009, started off by spearheading urban regeneration at Penang's George Town UNESCO World Heritage Site. Consequently, it was given the mandate to expand its initiatives in Kuala Lumpur, Butterworth and Johor Bahru.

Under Think City's George Town Grants Programme (GTGP), which started in 2010, there were 241 projects approved. These projects comprised of 81 physical restoration projects, 75 cultural mapping projects, 39 technical assistance and capacity projects, and 46 shared spaces projects.
Think City's game plan for Kuala Lumpur
One can’t be in the business of cities without taking on the capital city, and so today this is their challenge – what can Think City offer to Kuala Lumpur and KL-lites that is not currently being addressed through other means. It begins with a look back at where the city began and for Kuala Lumpur, it was the confluence of the two rivers – Gombak and Klang River. Masjid Jamek, one of the oldest mosques in Kuala Lumpur which is located near this confluence, marks the central point and a 1km surrounding this is where Think City has decided to focus its efforts.
However, Lee reminded that its efforts are not limited to that particular area. Although it has a proven track record in Penang, it does not mean that it will be a walk in the park for Think City in Kuala Lumpur. 
In fact, the journey is likely to be as challenging as its early days in Penang. Lee reminded that improving the capital's cultural appeal is a long-term journey, whereby one needs to secure many small successes and must not rush into it.

To achieve its aspirations in Kuala Lumpur, Lee and her team at Think City will have to work closely with several key stakeholders -- including the local authorities, the communities, and the private sector. 
Lee and her team started its Kuala Lumpur strategy by introducing itself to the relevant stakeholders.
"Our first 12 months in Kuala Lumpur was about devoting time to finding our feet and introducing ourselves. Although with accomplishments in Penang making it easier for us to form a partnership with DBKL, the reality is that we have never worked in a capital city context," Lee explained.

Therefore, in the early days, Think City was seeing stronger traction among the private sector and local communities. 

"During the early days, projects with the private sector and civil society are able to be implemented in greater numbers and efficiency. With the public sector, we have had to find a value-adding contribution that is not limited to capacity building and community organisation," she said.
Crowding in the locals
Like its past success formula, Think City will be focusing on three main efforts in Kuala Lumpur - providing grants, partnering with local councils and authorities, and partnerships with the private sector. Since 2015, Think City has  disbursed more than RM1 million worth of grants  These grants were offered to building owners (with buildings over 30 years old) to help them with their restoration works as well as projects aimed at preserving the city’s intangible heritage, activating public spaces with programmes, greening projects and adaptive reuse of underutilised buildings. 

"I am also very pleased that the awareness of our plans and activities have improved tremendously within the local communities," said Lee. 

For some years, the 1km radius around Masjid Jamek has been a common hang out place for foreign workers -- especially after working hours and weekend, said Lee. In fact, Lee revealed that there are some 55,000 people going to downtown Kuala Lumpur to work daily, but only 11,000 people remain after hours. This was revealed during the baseline study that Think City had carried out during the initial stages of the setup.

 “So the gap of 40,000 is a lost opportunity,” Lee said.

At one point in time, many business owners and Malaysians had moved out of the area. While the area is still a common hang out place for the foreign workers, Lee is happy to see that, thanks to its efforts, we are seeing more locals coming back to the area.

"It is just like a mall, it can only be successful if it has variety of products and offerings. For a city to be successful, you need diversity. In this case, diversity also refers to the people that occupy the space. The downtown KL we envision is one that serves the present migrant community but also has room for locals. If you don't have enough variety, and only the lower economy group, then you will see more people and companies moving out of the area. However, if you leave it purely to market forces, then this is what we get.

Therefore, we need to facilitate the process and start reversing the trend. We asked young entrepreneurs to take part in the rejuvenation of the area. We know that young entrepreneurs won't be able to afford the place, so we asked the owners if they could reduce the rent as part of the concerted effort to bring young energy back into space. Most of them are okay about it," said Lee.

"People want to come back to the city, but they don't have space. So, we try to match the entrepreneurs with the owners."
Building trust
To build a better relationship with the local councils, Lee stressed that it is important to build trust among one another.

 "Trust can only be built through genuine and transparent collaboration leading to successful project implementation. It took us four years to collaborate with Majlis Bandaraya Pulau Pinang (MBPP) and the local community to complete Armenian Park. In the context of Kuala Lumpur, the team has been able to introduce value-adding ways of thinking by assisting DBKL with stakeholder mapping and engagement programmes. In addition to this, we have also been working closely with them to identify pocket parks that and be upgraded. Meanwhile, there is also a growing momentum from the private sector’s participation.

Today, Prasarana Malaysia Bhd – a multi-modal public transport operator – is opening up some of its light rail transit (LRT) stations so that aspiring singers/ artists can perform or showcase their artwork at the stations.

 “We approached Prasarana because theirs was a high traffic space open to the public that we wanted to activate in our core zone. Our goal is to turn the historic core zone into an arts, culture and heritage destination, but to ensure success, you need to build an audience that will appreciate the culture and the arts. 

“But, many citizens don’t have the luxury to go to a high-quality cultural programme, so we have decided to reduce the barrier by bringing quality performances and exhibits to them,” said Lee.

Lee highlighted that this is part of Think City’s approach to city rejuvenation which involves turning spaces into places – also known as placemaking.

Lee believes that with the long-term strategy in place, Think City, and the relevant stakeholders will be able to help Kuala Lumpur to evolve into a world-class city.
Source: InvestKL