Are alley businesses making a big comeback in Malaysia?

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By Joseph Wong

In the recent recovery period after the Covid-19 pandemic, Malaysia is witnessing a re-emergence of vibrancy in its underutilised laneways as sidewalk businesses again begin to take a hold, transforming a dead alley into happening places, drawing in locals and tourists alike.

At the same time, this interesting transformation is also elevating the real estate in their vicinity as well as their value, not just in terms of pricing but also in rental value. Traditionally overlooked as service routes for drainage and fire access, laneways in Malaysia often face neglect, resulting in spaces perceived as unsafe and unsanitary. However, initiatives driven by organisations like Think City are challenging these perceptions, aiming to turn laneways into vibrant, shared community spaces.

Initiating change

Think City's Laneway Improvement Programme was conceived as a response to the need for transforming dilapidated laneways into healthy, communal spaces. By fostering community involvement and awareness about the management of public spaces, the initiative seeks to catalyse an urban solution movement. The ongoing programme not only envisions vibrant community spaces but also serves as a platform for addressing the needs of diverse community groups, including the homeless and migrant workers.

While such programmes work to transform dilapidated laneways, it is up to the general public at large to carry through as revitalising such areas requires continued maintenance and upkeep to ensure their continued viability. There is no point revitalising an area only to see it fall back into a dilapidated state later.

One way to keep such laneways alive and thriving is to incorporate activities into them and having quaint businesses like food and beverage (F&B) enterprises to continue drawing a group of new and repeated customers. 

For example, in many places in George Town, Penang, there are thriving businesses like Toh Soon Cafe which remains a hot spot even until today. Similarly, in other Malaysian cities like Coffin Lane in Kuching, Sarawak or Jalan Bunga Raya in Melaka or the lorong off Jalan 21/17 in Petaling Jaya famous for their night time Nasi Lemak Bumbung. Not forgetting the famous Concubine Lane in Ipoh, Perak, each state has its own flavour.

Thriving back lanes like these not only add flavour to the cities but also serve to keep the real estate in those areas in demand as other enterprises seek to take advantage of the crowds drawn there. 

Similarly, hotels also do better in such areas as folks from other states and even international travellers are drawn to these laneways to experience the street food. After all, not all local and foreign visitors are after luxury accommodation and up-market cuisine.

While no actual studies have been conducted on alley and laneway F&B businesses’ impact on real estate prices, it is at best estimated to have marginal influence over the pricing, possibly 1% to 2%, since a myriad of other factors also come into play. One reason is that residents in the vicinity that are used to having the convenience of having easy access to good food at cheap prices are reluctant to move out, thereby reducing the supply in the market for those seeking the same access. On a similar vein, business operators who are tapping into the famous laneway F&B operators are also reluctant to leave, meaning whoever wants to vie for the limited space will have to pay higher rental.

Key learnings

One key takeaway from the Laneway Improvement Programme is that such programmes need a comprehensive, community-driven approach. The process involves site selection, observation, investigation, understanding the site through baseline studies and cultural mapping, stakeholder engagements, demonstrative projects, implementation and post-mortem analysis. Key learnings emphasise the necessity of understanding local contexts, fostering collaborative partnerships and maintaining an open mind throughout the improvement process.

Another crucial takeaway from the programme is the need for multi-layered participation and commitment beyond community involvement. Collaborative efforts involving local authorities, politicians and various community groups are essential for success. The importance of adaptability and an open mind is highlighted, emphasising the dynamic nature of community commitment.

As Malaysia continues to evolve, the laneways are ripe for urban revitalization. The transformation of neglected laneways into vibrant community spaces not only changes the physical landscape but also fosters a sense of community and belonging, contributing to the broader mission of making Malaysian cities more people-friendly and resilient.

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