BiodiverCity to transform Penang Islands into sustainable destination

BIG, Hijjas and Ramboll have won the Penang state government’s competition to design Penang South Islands (PSI) masterplan in Malaysia. The three partners propose a vision for a new sustainable destination called BiodiverCity, which supports the Penang 2030 vision with a clear focus on liveability, on stimulating a socially and economically inclusive development, and on environmentally sustainability for future generations.

The Penang state government initiated an international design competition in January 2020 to transform Penang South Islands into a sustainable, global destination, providing residents with approximately 4.6 km of public beaches, 600 acres of parks and a 25 km waterfront. Watch the video of the masterplan here.

“The state government hereby announces and congratulates BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group for PSI. BIG’s team together with Hijjas and Ramboll, brings together the best global and local expertise, and background in projects which are designed at the intersection of society, ecology and economy. The team’s sustainably focused philosophy is rooted in the belief that projects can be good for people, and for the environment,” said Chow Kon Yeow, chief minister of Penang.

“The BiodiverCity Penang masterplan envisions three biodiverse and sustainable islands designed to secure economic, cultural and ecological growth using local and global technologies, and collective knowledge. By preserving and developing an ecologically diverse landscape, the islands promote coexistence with nature.”

Mr Chow mentioned that BIG, Ramboll and Hijjas will now be working closely with the Penang state government, collaborators and stakeholders to finalise the masterplan and develop a set of urban design guidelines for PSI. “The team will also be in close collaboration with the state to ensure that all facets of the project celebrate both the heritage and innovation that characterise Penang, while creating a home for its growing communities, economies and ecologies.” 

“Penang’s vast biodiversity spans various topographies and protected environments which, in recent years, have seen its coastal zones and natural habitats disrupted by urban developments,” said BIG in its statement. “In contrast, BiodiverCity is conceived as an Urban Mosaic of three diverse islands, and a set of urban design guidelines for mixing programmes, addressing pedestrian and mobility networks, building sustainably and harvesting resources.

“The three islands bring together mixed-use districts of 15,000 to 18,000 residents across 50 to 500 acres, and a continuous 50 to 100 m buffer around each district, establishing habitat connectivity and supporting edge ecologies in reserves, parks, corridors and urban plazas.”

Bjarke Ingels, founder and creative director of BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group, explained, “BiodiverCity will have an integrated system of localised water resources, renewable energy and waste management, tied altogether in a human-made ecosystem. Rather than design a city for cars, we designed BiodiverCity for waterways, rail and different kinds of personal mobility, forming a multi-modal environment of movement. The resultant urban landscape will be a celebration of Penang’s position as a truly global crossroads of the world - economically, ecologically and socially.” 

Three diverse islands of BiodiverCity

The Channels, BiodiverCity’s first island, is constructed in three phases: in Phase 1, Active Destinations include a wave pool and technology park; in Phase 2, a Civic Heart establishes governance and research institutions in the area; and in Phase 3, a Cultural Coast builds upon the heritage and vibrant creative energy of Penang’s George Town to create a regional and international draw. 

As the heart of the district, the Channels’ 500-acre digital park includes spaces for research, development and local business opportunities. Malaysia’s newest public destination will be the future home for conferences, education centres and a family-oriented park where locals and guests can explore the world of technology, robotics and virtual reality.

The Mangroves, BiodiverCity’s second and central island dedicated to businesses, is organised around a network of sheltered urban wetlands, creating suitable environments for its namesake Mangrove forests - an important natural infrastructure that doubles as effective powerhouses for sequestering more than four times as much carbon as a typical forest.

"Penang’s vibrant multicultural society and biodiverse ecosystem plays a vital role in the social, economic and physical well-being of its inhabitants. As the local architect and planner, we worked together with BIG and Ramboll to secure inclusivity across all levels, including people, culture, nature and land for Penangites,” said Serina Hijjas, principal architect at HIJJAS.

“BiodiverCity is designed on this premise of ensuring a sound future and a new normal based on a social contract that puts us in harmony with nature and ensures inclusivity for all, both Penangites and the environment.”

At the centre of the Mangroves, the Bamboo Beacon hosts meetings, conferences and major events. In addition, civic amenities are distributed throughout the city to promote inclusive growth and participation in urban life.

BIG further revealed that the buildings in BiodiverCity will be designed to perform efficiently and to a large extent, they will be constructed by low-carbon materials such as bamboo and Malaysian timber in combination with green concrete, a sustainable alternative comprised of industrial waste and recycled materials.

Shonn Mills, global director of Ramboll said, “The Penang South Island vision includes an adaptive infrastructure management platform to harness the site’s renewable resources provided by the sun, wind, rain and ocean. The platform will be ‘plug-and-play’ and include governance to incentivise the use of emerging green technologies as part of an evolving resource management solution.”

The Laguna, BiodiverCity’s westernmost island, is organised around a central marina. Eight smaller islands form a miniature archipelago, where floating, stilted and terraced housing takes advantage of the natural setting of Tanjung Gertak Sanggul, and where fisherman landing points can easily access the open waters by navigating each of the island’s waterways. Meanwhile, newly established marine habitats support biodiversity underwater by providing spawning grounds for native species, and recreational points and hatcheries support the local communities along Penang’s southern coast.

A web of ecological corridors connects forest reserves to coastal beaches while supporting habitats and communities across the islands. Within human-populated areas, animals are given safe passage through the continuous canopy and waterways, and within natural habitats, people can safely access elevated boardwalks.

BiodiverCity supports a water, air and land-based autonomous public transportation network, aiming for a car-free environment where streets serve as a safe and welcoming thoroughfare for bikers and pedestrians. Districts are efficiently connected below platforms to increase the efficiency of goods, services and regional mobility, while maximising pedestrian safety throughout the public realm.

BiodiverCity is BIG’s latest masterplan unveiling following Toyota Woven City at the CES conference earlier this year. Last year, BIG presented Oceanix City at the United Nations high-level roundtable on Sustainable Floating Cities, bringing together innovators, explorers, marine engineers and scientists at the UN Headquarters to share ideas and solutions to the threat faced by coastal cities and countries due to rising sea levels.

Images: BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group