Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

Integrating Cultural and Natural Heritage for Sustainable Urban Development

by Creighton Connolly, University of Lincoln

Heritage is increasingly recognised as central to planetary wellbeing and sustainability initiatives. For instance, the United Nations (UN) sustainable development goals (SDGs), launched in 2015, make specific reference to heritage conservation as a key component of sustainable development. This is justified given that intensive urbanization has created a number of challenges and opportunities for the conservation of natural and cultural heritage; and various stakeholders have argued that heritage landscapes can play an important role in shaping new approaches to sustainable urbanization. 

One of the challenges for heritage-led approaches to urbanization, however, is the often-inadequate integration of heritage considerations into urban planning. There tends to be a lack of understanding about the interconnections between cultural and natural forms of heritage in urban planning, which need to be integrated in order to develop effective heritage conservation strategies and more sustainable cities in general.

As I have argued in a recent paper published in Transactions of the IBG, in order to do this, we need to break down the distinctions between nature and culture, recognizing, as others have, that people have long interacted with and shaped the physical environment, including the management of natural resources, ecosystems, and landscapes. Urban landscapes are therefore produced through a combination of social and ecological processes.  Writing on the political ecology of landscape has also been useful to understanding such relationships, as landscape is a holistic concept that captures the web of cultural, environmental, and historical associations that are integral components in the formation of place attachment.

Penang Hill: A symbol of cultural and natural heritage in Malaysia

My paper uses the case of Penang Hill (pictured above) in the city of Penang, Malaysia, to provide a concrete example of how particular urban landscapes can come to have cultural and natural heritage significance, and how this can provide the basis for developing more sustainable urban futures. The Hill was initially built as a resort during the British colonial era, and has since been developed and conserved as a site for recreation and tourism. It is famous for its swaths of primary tropical rainforest, the wide variety of flora and fauna found within them, as well as its historic bungalows reflecting the island’s colonial history. Many Penangites have developed a strong cultural attachment to the Hill, and therefore consider it a symbol of the island’s identity, central to the unique atmosphere, heritage and cultural value of Penang.

However, the Hill has been threatened by increasing encroachment of urban development, as well as recurring plans proposed by the Penang State Government to develop it into an international tourist resort with modern infrastructure including a cable car, luxury hotels and other ‘attractions’. Such plans have been highly controversial in Penang, generating resistance from various grassroots social movements seeking to conserve the cultural and natural significance of the hill, while also maintaining its role as a tourist site. One possible route to achieve this is the designation of Penang Hill as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, which seek to “promote solutions reconciling the conservation of biodiversity with its sustainable use”. Biosphere Reserve nominations must come from the Malaysian (Federal) Government, which requires active cooperation between the government, scientists, and other stakeholders.

One stakeholder is The Habitat at Penang Hill – a private sector eco-tourism attraction which opened in 2016. It consists of a walking path, canopy walkway and zip line, which allows the visitor to experience the natural environment of the Hill and its intrinsic identity, unique features and attributes. The Habitat Foundation which manages the site is actively involved in conducting research necessary to support and justify Biosphere Reserve listing. The Penang State Government has promoted the Biosphere nomination, but continues to pursue conflicting interests in the development of the hill through new hotels, and even a new pan-island highway which would literally cut through it.

Protests to save Penang’s hill’s, in response to the announcement of plans for the pan-island in August 2018 (Photo by Dave Lim)

Heritage landscapes should thus be seen as crucial sites in fostering sustainable development initiatives. This is seen in the way in which heritage local activists and civil society groups in Penang have become increasingly concerned with emerging threats to Penang Hill, and how these have facilitated the emergence of more sustainable approaches to urban development that prioritise the conservation of cultural and natural heritage. This is the focus of a recent collaboration between ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) and the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) known as the ‘culture-nature journey’  which aims to better recognise the relationship between cultural and natural components of heritage sites world-wide, and develop approaches to manage them. Such initiatives are important to develop new approaches to urban planning and development that can produce more sustainable socio‐ecological conditions, and imagine possible alternative urban natures. They are also a crucial step in understanding the great potential of heritage to contribute to contemporary social, economic and environmental goals.

Feature image caption: View from Penang Hill (photo by author)

About the author: Dr Creighton Connolly is a Senior Lecturer in Development Studies and the Global South at the University of Lincoln, UK. His work focuses on urban geography and political ecology, primarily in Malaysia and Singapore.

Connolly, C. (2019). Urban political ecologies of heritage: Integrating cultural and natural landscapes in Penang, Malaysia. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 00, 1 – 13.

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