Facilitating social mixing in public spaces

Elissa G Hartanto, Gian Jian Xiang, Toh Sing Yee and Samuel Mok

This research was conducted as part of the Research Studio, a core module of the Masters of Science in Urban Science, Policy and Planning, at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

Public spaces are shared spaces where people from all walks of life encounter one another as they go about their daily activities. As a space of encounter, they hold considerable potential as a platform for community building and strengthening social resilience. But the challenge for public spaces to realise that potential is twofold. First, for public spaces to be truly “shared” by the community, it should be utilised by diverse groups within the community, instead of being the preserve of a particular group. Second, there needs to be repeated encounters among the users to engender opportunities for meaningful interactions. According to Gehl Institute’s Public Life Diversity Toolkit, interactions can be classified into five broad levels – no contact, passive contact, chance contact, familiar stranger and friends. Meaningful interactions hence refer to ones that go beyond the superficial, generally considered familiar stranger and higher.

Therefore, in considering the two challenges, we embarked on this project to discover how public spaces can facilitate social mixing among individuals of different backgrounds and socioeconomic status, and thus strengthen social resilience. In essence, our research question was, “What factors of a public space contribute to social mixing?”

From the list of about 20 potential public spaces the team visited, two sites were shortlisted as the final choices for this study. The two main criteria for selection are that the sites must:

  1. straddle between public and private housing types so that users of different backgrounds and socioeconomic status might use them, and
  2. be used by residents on a day-to-day basis.

Hence, the two selected sites are the open space between Empress Market and Food Centre and the adjoining HDB Block 8 (hereby known simply as Empress Market and Food Centre) and Buangkok Sports Park. Empress Market and Food Centre is a commercial node, where the activities are commercial-related, whereas Buangkok Sports Park is a community fitness area, which hosts hobby or sports-driven activities.

Empress Market & Food Centre (left), Buangkok Sports Park (right)

The team then conducted a combination of research methods to identify factors in these sites that facilitate social mixing:

  1. Non-participant observations: The team mapped stationary activities and traced users’ movements within the spaces on maps we created, noting down other information such as type of activities and user demographics.
  2. Participant observations: By partaking in the respective activities on-site, the team observed and created fieldnotes of interactions between individuals and groups of people, as well as struck casual conversations with other users of the space to find out what they were doing, what they thought of the spaces, and establish contact with some for interviews later.
  3. Digital ethnography: We trawled through Instagram posts with geotags of the two sites and manually encoded data such as profile of posters and types of content in posts. This method was also used to identify certain key characters of the space as potential candidates for interview later.
  4. Interviews: The team conducted formal interviews with certain key users of the space. Some questions asked include how often they use the space, if they know other users, their thoughts of the spaces and areas for improvement.

 

Factors of public spaces that facilitate social mixing

We identified five factors of public spaces that could facilitate social mixing.

1) Seating and Shading

Seating is said to encourage gatherings and thus increases opportunities for social interaction. Shading provides comfort for users, further encouraging interactions.

Picture of people sitting on the floor under a sheltered pavilion

Users of Buangkok Sports Park sitting on the floor under the sheltered pavilion

2) Connectivity

Refers to how well a public space can be accessed from the immediate surrounding pedestrian or vehicular links. Good connectivity is believed to attract more users to the space, affecting opportunities for social mixing.

Picture of a flight of stairs leading to a bus stop

Users must climb up or down a flight of steps to get to or from the adjacent bus stop to Empress, reducing the place’s connectivity.

3) Visibility of amenities

Based on our observations, lack of visibility of amenities may render them underutilized or even become disamenities, discouraging social interaction in the area.

Row of outdoor hawker tables at Empress.

4) Passionate users

Certain users of the space are invested in the community and are passionate about improving the space.

An Instagram post by the owner of a famous bakery at Empress. She is one of the passionate users of the space.

5) Typology of the space itself

The team notes that the nature and characteristics of interactions among users in Empress Market and Food Centre tended to be more casual and shorter in duration, whereas the interactions in Buangkok Sports Park are centred around an activity carried out at the site and more extended in duration.

Picture of people skating under a sheltered pavilion

Close bonds observed among skaters.

 

Proposed Interventions

Through these factors, the team proposed six interventions that either directly facilitate social mixing or seek to improve the quality of a public space to attract users and engender opportunities for social mixing.

Empress Market and Food Centre

  1. Inject interactivity in the variety of seating
  2. Relocate outdoor hawker tables and repurpose vacated space
  3. Pioneer a Heartland Improvement District (HID) programme

These programmatic interventions facilitate social mixing by creating opportunities for interaction during visits in the area and the strengthening of ‘familiar stranger’ relationships that exist today.

Buangkok Sports Park

  1. Regenerate space: Open space, extend shelter and include hybrid furnishing
  2. Create second access point into the park
  3. Better visibility, maintenance and surveillance

These proposals facilitate social mixing indirectly by improving the quality of the space, thereby increasing its appeal and affordance for longer visits at Buangkok Sports Park.

Further elaboration of the proposed interventions and details about the research can be accessed here: Facilitating Social Mixing in Public Spaces (PDF).


Elissa G Hartanto, Gian Jian Xiang, Toh Sing Yee and Samuel Mok are students of the Masters of Science in Urban Science, Policy and Planning, a programme is jointly organized by the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities (LKYCIC) and the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences (HASS) cluster at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.
The research topic was sponsored by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) as part of the Research Studio led by Dr. Samuel Chng and Dr. Sylvain Remy. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of URA.