Keeping the lights on after hours

Repurposed old buildings can help meet the challenge of bringing people back to live in downtown Kuala Lumpur.

For several decades, downtown Kuala Lumpur and its historic core has been hollowing out, with citizens commuting to work, but leaving the city to return to their homes in the suburbs.

According to a baseline study conducted by Think City, a community-based urban regeneration organisation, close to 55,000 people works within Kuala Lumpur’s historic core. However, only about 11,000 live there—a large percentage of who are migrant workers. This affects the balance of activities, communities and commerce within this core. Through working closely with the Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL), we have discovered a number of issues affecting the vibrancy of downtown Kuala Lumpur. We have been conducting studies and a number of place making programmes to improve the accessibility and liveability of this core downtown area, focusing on the 1-kilometre radius surrounding Masjid Jamek. However, the issue remains that this area becomes deserted after business hours, and there is an imbalance in the types of communities that populate downtown Kuala Lumpur after dark.

At the same time, it has come to our attention that there are a number of commercial buildings in the area that are unoccupied. So, taking these factors into consideration, and with further research, DBKL and Think City, together with our project advisor Ng Seksan, have come up with a concept that could potentially address the issue of bringing people back to live in downtown Kuala Lumpur.

We need to find a solution to potentially create a different kind of life for those who commute to the city every day. 

Studio Bikin’s pavilion forms the framework of future adaptive reuse projects

For many years, Malaysians have opted for more affordable homes and the relative comfort of the suburbs surrounding the city centre, with a small percentage of society—comprising high-income earners and expats—populating the high-end residential properties in the commercial centre of the city.

We need to find a solution to potentially create a different kind of life for those who commute to the city every day. It makes sense for them to live closer to their workplace, reduce their commuting time and perhaps even walk, take public transport or cycle to work. However, there is a distinct lack of housing solutions for middle-class white-collar workers in the city. With the rise of a male-only migrant population and homeless citizens, there are perceived safety issues deterring Malaysians from socialising or even living in the downtown area. In light of this, Think City together with DBKL’s local Agenda 21 are looking into mitigating issues of safety.

We have a Safe City programme, which we conduct with some partners, to regulate safe conditions in downtown KL. Based on one of the surveys we carried out, we found that public perceptions of safety in the city are quite far removed from reality; the city is safer than we all imagine it to be.

At the same time, it is important to position the housing solution in an appealing way—differently from ‘affordable housing’, a concept that people normally associate with low-cost government subsidised flats.

We looked at solutions from other cities around the world, from micro-housing solutions in New York City to affordable housing in Singapore, and also came across the concept of lykke, which means happiness or good fortune in Danish. Lykke refers to a sense of neighbourliness in a community environment, where everyone looks after each other—a concept that has been adopted in many Scandinavian and European countries.

This led our discussions for the project towards the concept of communal living, and it is this concept that drove the housing prototype that we showcased in conjunction with the recent World Urban Forum 9 in February 2018.

An urban micro shared village by Tetawowe Atelier and AMC Architects

With the possibility of repurposing unoccupied commercial buildings in the city centre—some built in the late ’80s or early ’90s—Think City developed the concept further to include the element of communal living within small spaces to maximise the spaces originally built for offices.

From our research, we realised that people in other parts of the world were working on similar solutions with spaces below 350 square feet. For our prototype, we looked at 250 to 350 square feet and furnishing solutions, such as multifunctional modular units, that can be manipulated for different uses and stowed away when not in use.

Research also tells us that there are dangers to mental health when it comes to living in small spaces, so we will ensure that there are enough spaces for people to interact in, with shared areas such as a TV room or library, dining areas and maybe a rooftop garden.

The team also created a set of guidelines for the project to ensure that it meets appropriate living standards. While DBKL has a minimum requirement for the floor area of residential units, this may be an opportunity to consider a new policy to address housing affordability in Kuala Lumpur.

Considering the main objective of bringing residents back, the communal living concept would target young Malaysian executives who have yet to buy homes or start their own families, and would benefit from the shorter commute time, yet still be able to enjoy a small living space.

Young executives are already fans of co-working spaces, so we feel that the idea of communal living will likely appeal to them as well, especially if the spirit of lykke—or the kampung spirit—of working together and helping each other were to be activated. We also feel strongly that the concept should not involve the development of a new building, so if this project were to become a reality, we would be looking at the adaptive reuse of mid- to highrise commercial buildings.

Another key condition is that the communal living units would only be available for rent. We spoke to a property developer recently and discovered that despite being the target audience, young executives and first-time home owners are unable to afford small apartments and studio units in the city. Instead the units are being bought by investors for rental income, and as a result, many of the units are left uninhabited. This goes against our objective to populate the city, so to avoid this, we will look at rental arrangements only, operated by a trusted facility manager.

In the event that the concept is accepted by DBKL, Think City will continue to consult and monitor the project with the owners and operators of the building. If there is great interest from building owners, we may consider expanding our grants programme to cover this or provide technical expertise. As the project is still in the experimental stage, feedback from public will shape our next steps.

One of the micro-housing prototypes
displayed at Medan Pasar

Think City invited eight designers and architects with compatible portfolios to submit concept designs for affordable micro-housing. After a fourweek design period, six of the firms submitted their designs. An expert panel, comprising Think City, DBKL and other related experts, came together to comprehensively assess the designs and settle on two winning concepts.

The first design is an urban micro shared village by Tetawowe Atelier and AMC Architects. It comprises a cluster of two micro house units (with a footprint size equivalent to two standard car parks) with flexible semi-public outdoor space for a shared communal experience.

The second design is by Studio Bikin and comprises a pavilion with easy insertion of fixed elements—prefabricated bathrooms, service stacks and vertical circulation, which form the framework of future adaptive reuse projects.

Young executives are already fans of co-working spaces, so we feel that the idea of communal living will likely appeal to them as well.

The selected architects had a matter of weeks to build the prototypes, which were displayed at Medan Pasar in conjunction with the World Urban Forum 9. The prototypes were part of a social experiment to gauge the public’s reaction to the concept of communal living in a 250-square foot space in the inner city.

With more residents living in the city, the amount of vehicle traffic can be reduced, and more roads, perhaps even parking lots, could be returned to the public.

The city council, along with their partners, have been working to enhance walkability and making the city cycle-friendly. More areas can be landscaped and converted into parks or recreational spaces, and the city will see more life.

In terms of life after dark, a city’s economy corresponds directly to how many hours the city stays awake. It is for this reason that the city of Amsterdam has a night mayor. If a city stays open for 12 hours, there would be 12 hours of life and contribution to the economy, but if the city stays open for 24 hours, all that could well be doubled. This is why we are researching how we can convert downtown KL, so that people can come back to get their needs for recreation, exercise, food or entertainment met.

DBKL has already begun some activities in front of Dataran Merdeka, where the roads are closed on weekends. However, shops aren’t open during that time, so we are looking to organise a series of activities, working with local businesses to ensure they stay open a little bit longer. We’ve organised night runs, for example, so that people can get to know the city better and create opportunities for vendors.

To create greater retail diversity, Think City has also offered matching grants to support and enable entrepreneurs wishing to set up businesses downtown. As part of the ongoing Think City Grants Programme, which offers several categories of grants, many start-ups have flourished, including galleries OUR ArtProjects and the Malaysian Design Archive, as well as vinyl record peddler and music archive Tandang Store—all of which are housed in the repurposed Zhongshan building (also the product of a Think City grant).

Both the public and private sectors need to work on these things concurrently, not one at a time. All these elements have to come together to ensure the communal living project is aligned with this mission.

A registered architect with the NSW Architects Registration Board in Australia, Joanne Mun has extensive involvement in both brownfield and greenfield precinct master planning and experience, from regional structure planning to detailed design and preparation of plans and guidelines.

Mun worked on Sydney’s Growth Centre Precincts, the Urban Design DCP for Oran Park Town Centre and the Bowden Urban Village Design Guidelines and Stage One Controls for the urban renewal site in Adelaide.

She was involved in the master plan and feasibility studies for the former Kenmore Psychiatric Hospital in Goulburn, as well as the new residential, employment and campus development at North Werrington for the University of Western Sydney.

At Think City, Mun leads a small team of urban designers and architects, cultural historians, and young executives in the development of action plans. She has worked extensively in Butterworth Old Town, George Town, and downtown Kuala Lumpur to influence land use, conservation, development, traffic, infrastructure, and institutional management policies.

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