The Role Of Heritage Conservation In Future-proofing Cities

By: Dr Keith Tan Kay Hin

Throughout history, human settlement has taken the form of patterns. As soon as people discovered the advantages of living in groups, our entire premise of being has been to form social connections, which we later termed ‘society’. We then emerged from the forest and cave to craft our own shelters, marking the beginnings of architecture, and as some would argue, civilisation. 

To become ‘civilised’, early human settlements were tied to needs. First came the need for food and water. Early villages were often built near rivers, lakes, fertile valleys, or shallow bays. Next came safety, which contributed to the development of the fort, castle and walled city. Only when our needs were satisfied could we move towards fulfilling our desires, including wanting a sense of belonging and developing our self-esteem. These are also the foundations of the 1943 premise by the psychologist Abraham Maslow, who explained human behaviour via a pyramidal ‘hierarchy of needs’. The more secure people become, the more their desires move beyond survival to self-fulfilment. 

Cities are without a doubt a reflection of humanity’s hierarchy of needs, especially since the global population has had an urban majority since 2008, with Malaysia’s urbanisation rate exceeding 75% in 2024. Our urbanity is however a relatively new phenomenon, barely one generation old in many cases. This can be seen in the seasonal rush to ‘balik kampung’ during Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, Deepavali, or Gawai celebrations, because many city-folk still link their identity to an ancestral home – a place where tangible and intangible reminders of the past have survived the waves of change enveloping our constantly evolving cities. 

Once urbanisation reaches its zenith, and once living memories of village life fade into moderate obscurity, this trend to ‘balik kampung’ to a literal place of rural idyl will gradually fade. The city itself will eventually become the place of historic memory and identity for the millennial generation, whose childhood memories will be mainly of sub-urban neighbourhoods, shopping malls and tall buildings. They will also be of inner-city schools, law-courts, palaces, places of worship, shop-houses, museums, and the villas of the wealthy. Together, these older and newer buildings form the inventory of our urban built environment. 

The older buildings of primary interest to tourists, architects, and families with direct connections are increasingly being listed as invaluable heritage structures to be conserved. This is because the human brain is hard-wired to enjoy stories, and architecture is one of life’s greatest storytellers. For a city made up of buildings from many eras of history, the stories can be quite compelling, from an ancient past to an interesting present to a hopeful future. 

Cities like Istanbul with the Hagia Sophia, Paris with its Eiffel Tower, London with its Medieval Tower, and even New York are good examples of major international cities whose success has come about not because the past has been preserved like a museum, or been erased by development, but because the past has scaffolded the present. This allows both to flourish in tandem, offering inspiration and hope for the future. Heritage conservation, when done well, is more about building a sustainable future than preserving the past. 

In Malaysia, Melaka is synonymous with the ‘Dutch Square’ around the Stadthuys building, and in Penang, the Cheong Fatt Tze mansion has pride of place as an award-winning building much praised by UNESCO. In both our UNESCO world-heritage cities, conservation has generally been a boon for the local economy, although balancing local residents’ needs with ‘touristification’ is a subject of continuing discussion. In Singapore, the recent redevelopment of the central district around the historic padang is focused on the heritage conservation of the colonial-era supreme court and city hall, which are now both open to the public as museums. 

Heritage buildings and neighbourhoods are the anchor-places of identity for many cities. In a globalised world where there are increasing opportunities to work from anywhere, cities whose built environment creates an interesting, exciting and fascinating sense of place will be more appealing to live in. To retain talent, cities must offer their residents alluring places to live, where museums, art galleries and streetscapes create a sense of belonging even love. There has never been a more important time to celebrate our architectural heritage.

Empowering the next generation to be guardians of our historically built environment, be it through formal teaching and learning, or professional development training is not to serve the past for selfish or sentimental reasons, but rather to offer the young an opportunity to build a future that will be brighter, richer and more fulfilling than our present. 

It is sometimes suggested that old people remember the past, whereas young people look to the future. It is this very fact that makes the appreciation of architectural heritage of particular importance for our youth. The young are the ‘flower of Malaysia’ – let them plant for themselves a richly beautiful garden.        

The author is an Associate Professor at the School of Architecture, Building and Design at the Faculty of Innovation & Technology, Taylor’s University

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