Reclaiming George Town’s five-foot ways as a public space

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Photograph: Penny Wong

Apart from stepping up awareness-raising and enforcement, the authorities need the people’s support to once again open up five-foot ways for pedestrians to use, writes Penny Wong.

Take a walk down Penang Street in Little India today and you will find its five-foot ways present a story that is at odds with their colourful past.

For one thing, nasi kandar is now sold in mamak shops, some of them spruced up – no longer along the five-foot ways, where vendors once hoisted containers laden with cooked rice and spicy curries, dangling from both ends of a kandar (a long pole, from which the cuisine derived its name) balanced on their shoulders.

Children no longer play on the streets and five-foot ways. Instead, cars crawl along congested roads. People now rarely sit along the five-foot ways to unwind at day’s end.

Five-foot ways still serve as shared spaces but how these spaces are used has become more individualised. After World War Two, the enforcement to keep five-foot ways clear of obstructions declined, and people slowly built temporary and permanent obstructions.

Today, an estimated 10-15 per cent of five-foot ways has been blocked (Report on Accessible Tourism at George Town*). Years passed, and many have lost the awareness of five-foot ways as a public space.

Photograph: Penny Wong

Today’s five-foot ways hardly serve or benefit the public in a social or cultural sense. Some business owners have gone overboard by placing their goods along the five-foot ways to make them more appealing or noticeable to potential customers. With this practice becoming ‘the new normal’, these owners now feel that clearing the five-foot ways would result in a loss of character and heritage.

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Motorbikes are parked along the five-foot ways, and this forces pedestrians to walk on the road instead. A handful of George Town residents even ring-fence the five-foot ways outside their homes with metal grilles for greater security. In some case, vandals have damaged five-foot way tiles.

Something has to be done to reclaim our five-foot ways.

Five-foot ways were initially built for the public. In many parts of George Town, streets and lanes were not meant for cars. Increasing car ownership and the lack of safe shaded walkways for the public have made George Town a city that is constantly congested with cars. And so, pedestrians are exposed to a higher risk while walking along the road.

Ironically, according to a survey done on accessible tourism*, a great number of tourists find walking on the road comfortable – perhaps because that seems to be the easy way out. Perhaps they are not fully aware of the advantages of walking along five-foot ways.

Walking along five-foot ways would be a pleasure if the passageways were made more walkable. For one thing, the shade keeps away the blazing sun and the pouring rain.

Photograph: Penny Wong

When I stroll along these five-foot ways, I find myself observing and noticing the character of the shops. Likewise, I am able to make eye contact with the people I encounter: there is a kind of intimacy present.

If I am curious about a shop, I like to stop and pose questions to the shopkeepers. Most of the time, they are more than friendly and tell me their story. These five-foot ways also add to personal security as they make it more difficult for snatch-thieves on motorbikes.

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Five-foot ways have so much going for them… so what can we do to reclaim these walkways?

Thankfully, the MBPP infrastructure and traffic committee has initiated Kaki Lima George Town to progressively clear obstructed five-foot ways through education and awareness-raising of Act 133, Street Drainage & Building Act, 1974. All this is part of a heritage special area plan, implemented in 2016, to make five-foot ways barrier-free and more accessible to pedestrians to so that they feel safer and more comfortable.

Enforcement by the MBPP is also a way to ensure obstructions are swiftly removed. Currently, about 600 permanent obstructions can be found in George Town. It sounds overwhelming but a start has been made: to date, 15 permanent obstructions have been cleared.

It is not easy to turn the clock back and force people to remove their belongings or obstructions along five-foot ways. Neither is it easy to remind them that five-foot ways do not belong solely to them; they are a public space as well.

Reclaiming five-foot ways does not mean stripping off historical elements; it is to improve walkability. Perhaps a compromise between business owners and the authorities can be found: shop-owners could put their goods outside up to two feet across the five-foot way with the remaining three feet kept unobstructed for passing pedestrians, including those with wheelchairs.

As things stand, five-foot ways are a contested space between the personal and the public. So, what can we do as citizens?

First, we should experience walking along five-foot ways with consciousness while savouring our surroundings. By realising how beneficial these passageways are and sharing the experience with those around us, awareness will grow.

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Using five-foot ways means we need to walk – and, in so doing, create a walking culture. Walking is not only beneficial for our health, it also improves the liveability of the urban environment. If more people walk, cycle or take the bus, there will be less congestion on the road – and less noise and air pollution. So, opting to walk will have a positive impact on the city.

Apart from stepping up awareness-raising and enforcement, the authorities need the people’s support to once again open up five-foot ways for pedestrians to use. Let’s start revitalising and developing what we have: the kaki lima – five-foot ways.

Penny Wong is an anthropology and sociology student with a local university. She is currently doing an internship with Aliran.

*The Report on Accessible Tourism at George Town is a project by Kerry Toumbourou, Sharon Hu, Shamus Nash, Andrew Hannan and Dhishani Selvarantam conducted for Penang Island City Councillor Khoo Salma and supported by Lestari Heritage Network with the assistance of Jasmine Yeap Mei Yan.

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