The Unmet Potential of Singapore’s Common Spaces

By Julienne Chen and Cheryl Low

Singapore’s route to urban transformation is often narrated as a success story that gave rise to a sleek cityscape of modern skyscrapers, preserved shophouses and iconic public housing estates. What used to be a society housed primarily in low-density village-like ‘kampungs’ in the pre-independence era was quickly transformed into dense residential high rises where roughly 80% of the population now lives. In doing so, the Housing Development Board (HDB) tried to balance the need for density and land optimization with maintaining the close-knit bonds and communities common in the kampungs. This translated spatially into the creation of central playgrounds and parks, void decks (open spaces on the ground floor of each residential building), and wide corridors meant to promote social interaction.

However, in a city that has been characterised by its legality and careful administrative planning, there has traditionally been little room provided for individual expression and creativity in these spaces. Indeed, some housing estates have gone to significant lengths to ensure that public spaces do not generate noise and activity that might disturb neighbours, or otherwise invite vices or so-called anti-social behaviours.

Source: Screenshot Straits Times

This tendency has been countered in recent years by a growing demand for place-making and a human-centeredness approach towards public spaces. Championed by critical urban thinkers such as Jane Jacobs, Kevin Lynch and William Whyte, placemaking has been one response to the homogenization of space over time, a byproduct of industrialization and modernity oftentimes characterized by cookie-cutter development, devoid of historic and personal identity. The dual notions of space and place thus are meant to differentiate physical land (space) from the lived experiences and qualities that provide these geographic locations with both identity and meaning (place). Hence, placemaking can be defined as an intentional approach towards inclusive and quality urban design, that creates meaningful places out of physical spaces.

Given this definition, ground-up initiatives can serve as a potent pairing with placemaking projects, allowing for the creation of places that reflect a collective, shared meaning amongst local residents. In Singapore, where the notion of community-led placemaking is still in relative infancy, we explore the trajectory of a bottom-up and top-down implementation of placemaking projects, and the contradictions and opportunities that are inherent within each.

Martin Silva’s Patio

In Singapore, resident-led placemaking projects are still novel enough that even small interventions can be widely featured in national media outlets. From simple decorations, to unauthorized public art, to temporary parks and void deck activation, these projects are generally free of state intervention and funding. They exhibit a wide range of aims, ranging from personal expressions of creativity to creating stronger community ties, but do not necessarily have any long-term goals and may be impermanent or seasonal in nature.

One example is Martin Silva’s makeshift patio in Toa Payoh Lorong 7. Silva appropriated the empty grass median in front of his home, using furniture, planks and decorations to construct an informal ‘third space’ open for passers-by to use and congregate. While the patio was successful in creating a lively environment – a contrast from the bare, often empty seating areas around the estate – the usage of the space was not uncontested. Complaints from some residents to the local Town Council resulted in Mr. Silva being handed more than $2000 in fines.

The fines, although meant to force the project to closure, also did something useful: they opened up a public conversation about by whom, and how, public space should be used, and who has rights to make those decisions on behalf of the community. This debate was ultimately concluded by Mr. Silva receiving official permission to continue his project, after making a few modifications for safety. Thus, while this project was initially viewed with suspicion and as a challenge to the state’s law, through a public conversation (largely played out in social media), it became reframed by the local authorities as a “project which promotes community bonding.” The first instinct of viewing such projects punitively, before being considered for their merits and even alignment with existing government goals, speaks to the need to cultivate a broader conversation about how, and whether, individual appropriations of space can and should be facilitated in the future. Particular to Singapore, such projects can be an effective metaphor for how we balance a centralized, efficient top-down system with the inherent messiness and creativity of local, ground-up initiatives.

Tampines Community Café

In contrast to the prior example, we look at a placemaking project that was initiated by the government, for the community. While the intentions are similar to resident-led projects, generally there is a greater emphasis on professional standards and procedures for daily operations, maintenance, logistics and programming. In turn, we question the trade-off with the spontaneous creativity and authentic drive of resident-led initiatives, and ask if top-down approaches can be equally effective in generating shared meanings of place.

Envisioned as a platform to increase resident engagement and social networks, the Palmwalk Tampines Community Café was initiated through a community planning project by the Housing Development Board, and included broad efforts to engage local residents to envision and design more active, community spaces. Through an open process, the space was designed as a community café, to provide seating, community boards, a small kitchen with free drinks in the morning and space for free activities such as haircutting and cooking sessions. This café was subsequently developed by the local authority, and is managed by the Resident’s Committee – an official institution with support from the Town Council, as well as resident volunteers and paid workers. The Resident’s Committee is in charge of programming, staffing, supplies and the enforcement of local rules, such as a strict ‘no gambling’ rule at the Mahjong tables.

Tampines Community Cafe (bottom right). Photo credit: Cheryl Low

Even as a local placemaking project, the structures in place are evident. The space is often empty when there is no programming organized by the Resident Committee. And while functional, the space does not feel personalized – it has tables and chairs and a bulletin board, but their style and materials tend towards institutional, and the community board has few resident entries. During the morning hours, when free tea and coffee is offered, we observed that most of the people using the space were ethnic Chinese. Meanwhile, a Malay group was seen gathering in the next block, in an unprogrammed area of the void deck. Once the morning drinks ended, the residents largely dispersed. These observations raise the question of how to strike an appropriate balance between the orderliness and broader ownership of top-down approaches, and the creativity and spontaneity of ground-up initiatives such as Mr. Silva’s patio, where residents across backgrounds and ethnicities were seen to gather and interact of their own accord. This is made even starker knowing the inclusive, participatory process that was behind the community café, compared to the individual effort that Mr. Silva forged largely on his own.

While resident projects are typically envisioned in placemaking literature as powerful tools to empower communities and provide a sense of meaning to lived spaces, the examples highlighted here illustrate varied experiences and challenges that can embed in bottom-up and top down approaches. Further, there appears to be a tension between the government rhetoric of promoting nation-building activities, and the on-the-ground contradictions and conflicts that are generated when these local initiatives are actualized. The bottom-up project is favored for its creativity, inclusiveness and resourcefulness, but is oftentimes challenged by neighbours and authorities; while an effort to replicate the community building experience through a top-down approach falls short in these areas, but gets high marks for longevity and acceptance. We do not argue necessarily for one approach, but at the risk of being too conciliatory, suggest that there is something that each can learn from the other, and potentially, that what we actually need is more of both.

Perhaps what the government can consider is to take a step back and relook conventional boundaries and principles on what is considered acceptable, and define an appropriate response to the unauthorised use of public space. We wonder the extent to which a more permissive, forgiving attitude both by local authorities as well as neighbours would encourage more authentic and ground-up initiatives to materialize. Before enacting surveillance and punitive mechanisms, we can encourage more conversations among all stakeholders to forge a common consensus on experimentation within public places, and how to co-construct (and possibly reconstruct) solutions for the unmet potential of Singapore’s common spaces.