October 2013 – A great deal of human wisdom and ingenuity is lost when a language becomes extinct. As our world becomes increasingly more connected, the globe’s most spoken languages will absorb our regional languages and we risk losing the knowledge embedded within each disappearing language. This same paradigm exists for our human built environments. The built environment holds wisdom of its own – it has stories to tell, truths to share and lessons to teach us. If we replace the traditions of our older human settlements for the newest trends in development, then we sacrifice a piece of our human history and a piece of our human memory.
Penang is a city balancing rapid modernization with an improved effort to preserve its historic architectural heritage. Sprawling out from its historic city center, Penang stretches across a hilly island and onto mainland Malaysia. George Town, Penang’s historical district, was recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 and the George Town World Heritage Inc. was established in 2010 to preserve and protect the legacy of the city’s built environment.
Penang’s architectural legacy is mostly of British, Chinese and Islamic heritage. The stock of historic buildings in George Town ranges from pristinely preserved to deteriorating and decrepit. Development policy designed for preservation, efforts by the GTWH Inc. and growing public awareness are guiding Penang’s urban growth in a healthy direction as Malaysia welcomes increasing modernity.
Throughout human history, each generation has believed itself to be living on the edge of modernity as if its time period was experiencing the height of modern times in a way that previous generations had not. The reality is that we are always on the cusp of modernity because modernity walks hand-in-hand with the each passing moment. This means every second that has ever been and every second that will ever be has the right to be labeled the height of modern times. Modernity relates equally to the past as it does to the future, so a modern city is a city that honors the traditions of its past while preparing for future growth.
Without the foundation of the past, modernity is an empty term that refers to some context-less contemporary situation. Our cities and settlements are indeed built upon a concrete historical foundation and we should honor that. This begins by celebrating our unique cultural heritages and preserving the traditions of our built environments. From the stability of this position, we’re able to move towards designing our cities for the future. Penang is headed in this direction
It’s important in countries like Malaysia which are racing towards modernity, for the most influential cities in these nations to grow from the stable position of historic awareness. If not, our global cities stand to lose the beauty of their historic past and instead adopt the false idols and destructive habits of empty consumer-oriented development. Honoring the historic roots of our urban centers fortifies this stable foundation and allows our cities to grow from a healthy position.
It was easy to distinguish between developed and developing nations throughout most of the 20th century. This simple dynamic no longer exists in the 21st century. On the sliding scale of development, nations ascend and descend in ways that call us to redefine what it means to be a developed nation. Improved infrastructure, rising GDP and fair political rights are widely accepted as traits of development but as our human civilization evolves and expands, it’s important for us to consider historic preservation as a crucial marker for modernity as well.