It’s a Catch-22 situation. In being declared by Unesco as a World Heritage Site, George Town and Melaka, both historic cities of the Straits of Melaka, have experienced higher tourist arrivals.
Which is great for the economy, but that puts pressure on the intangible living heritage of the cities – the people living there. For instance, the sheer number of tourist vising the popular Melaka riverside area (pictured above) affects the everyday lives of Melakans living there. Issues like heavy traffic congestion and high rentals put a strain on the community and may cause some of them to relocate.
When that happens, they take away with them the culture and traditional craftsmanship associated with the city, which may then affect the cities’ heritage status.
July 7 marks the 10th anniversary of George Town and Melaka being declared as a World Heritage Site by Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation).
Last September, the 100 Resilient Cities – an organisation set up by the US-based Rockefeller Foundation to help cities around the world become more resilient in the face of physical, social and economic challenges – appointed Malaysia’s first chief resilience officer.
Mohd Ridhwan Mohd Ali – who joins 96 other officers in other cities across the globe – works closely with the local mayor, Datuk Azmi Hussain, in devising the city’s first resilience strategy.
Urban resilience basically means the ability of a city to survive, adapt and grow stronger should they face challenges that include high unemployment, endemic violence and chronic water shortage, natural disasters, disease outbreaks or even terrorist attacks.
In a recent e-mail interview, Ridhwan shares that one aspect of a successful resilient agenda is the ability to help the community absorb and adjust to the pressures mentioned above while continuing their normal activities.
He also talks about his role as chief resilience officer and the plans to create a resilient Melaka.
How would you describe your journey so far since being appointed Melaka’s – and Malaysia’s first – chief resilience officer last September?
It has been an interesting journey. Throughout the timeline, I gained a deeper understanding of the importance of urban planning, especially in a vibrant town like Melaka.
My work requires me to engage with and meet many people from various backgrounds and that has shown me that Melaka citizens are hungry for improvement in their city surroundings that impact their daily routine. The strong will and their openness to share their thoughts has inspired me to increase the effort involved in developing resilient strategies for Melaka.
What has been your main challenge?
Getting the right information from local agencies is part of our main challenge. Repetitive engagement sessions had to be conducted to bring out the right information concerning the various issues in the city.
Part of your task includes preparing an assessment of the city’s key ‘shocks and stresses’. What are the key shocks and stresses that you have pinpointed in Melaka, in layman’s terms?
The definition of acute shocks is sudden events that threaten a city. Chronic stresses are slow moving disasters that weaken the fabric of a city.
From the information and data gathered, significant acute shocks facing Melaka city are disease outbreak (dengue), hazardous material release (chlorine gas leak), rainfall flooding (pluvial) and coastal flooding (fluvial).
The significant chronic stresses facing Melaka city are ageing infrastructure in the world heritage site area, insufficient transportation network, unclear impact of the high speed rail project, loss of diversity at coastal areas, and water pollution and shortage.
What are some actions listed so far and how will they make Melaka a resilient city?
One initiative that we are currently looking at is improving walkability in the city, especially in tourist attraction areas such as at Stadthuys and Jonker Street heritage areas.
Upgrading and improving the visibility of existing back lanes as alternative routes to move around in is seen as a potential pilot project that can be a catalyst to start pedestrianising the road in the world heritage site area.
Visitors tend to move from one point to another by using their private vehicles. Long distances between places of interest might discourage them to walk. Narrow roads and small walking paths make walking difficult and increase the risk of vehicular accidents.
Strategy and action to encourage visitors to walk would help to reduce the number of moving vehicles in the city and increase the number of visitors in the areas. This scenario would have a positive impact on the local businesses in the area and be able to encourage more small local entrepreneurs to open businesses. Walking is also a good way to exercise and has good health benefits and improves quality of life.
Increased demand for business spaces in the world heritage site area would help to revive the abandoned premises and prevent them from becoming a nuisance to the city. Well-maintained and occupied premises would help in reducing dengue cases and pest problems in the areas.
In your opinion, what are three things that need to be done in Melaka to make it a truly resilient city?
Any initiative we implement needs to have buy-in from the citizens of Melaka. Public participation is vital to ensure the efforts are long lasting. A well-informed and self-sustained community will be better prepared to face any challenge that might threaten them.
We need to deepen collaboration across the board. Breaking down silos among stakeholders from various backgrounds such as government agencies, business owners, non-governmental organisations, educational institutions and residents associations in tackling issues is vital to ensure we are thinking and planning holistically.
Integrated efforts need to be coordinated to ensure the funds are being utilised to tackle our biggest issues.
We should also reconsider our spending priorities. Many agencies have allocated funds to carry out upgrading and improvement in their respective jurisdictions.
However, priority and effort should be given to projects that could close the gap between what people need compared with what the agencies desire. Prioritising spending in a way that maximises multiple benefits will allow Melaka to use its resources more efficiently and with greater impact.