Every Sunday, the strip of land flanking a long canal way in Singapore becomes the site for ‘insurgent spatial practices’ – a concept popularized by Jeffrey Hou in his book, ”Insurgent Public Space: Guerilla Urbanism and the Remaking of Contemporary Cities”.
Hou describes insurgent public space as a mode of city-making that is different from conventional notions of urban design and master planning. The insurgent spatial practices reveal the ability of citizen groups and individuals to play a distinctive role in shaping the contemporary urban environment in defiance of the official rules and regulations. (Hou, 2010)
In this case, the form of spatial insurgency carried out is through the reclaiming of what could be described as “unofficial” or “unconventional” space by foreign workers living in that area. Every Sunday, it is not uncommon to see foreign workers (whose dormitories are located just behind the canal ways) setting up temporary ‘barber shops’ in the form of chairs along the canal, just to make some extra cash for themselves. Not only do fellow foreign workers engage their ‘services’, but a handful of locals living around the area as well. In addition, the larger grass patches along the canal become transformed by groups of foreign workers into soccer and cricket fields every Sunday evening, with others choosing to sit around watching or chatting over a meal. A normally abandoned, unused piece of “state land” suddenly becomes transformed into a bustling zone of activity, and is precisely what Hou describes as insurgent public space.
The spatial practices enacted can be seen as a form of resistance enacted by foreign workers, who are often viewed as a marginalized and discriminated group in Singapore. With many of the recent debates regarding their contested presence in local public spaces such as void decks and even tourist hotspots like Sentosa, this ‘reclaimed’ piece of land seems to present a space in the city where these foreign workers have truly appropriated for themselves, albeit defying official planning and regulations in place.
For one, street vending without license is prohibited in Singapore. Secondly, these activities are carried out on designated State Land, which prohibits any unauthorized usage, in this case for recreational use. In addition, the vast number of foreign workers that congregate regularly in that space would spark concerns for a government that deems the “gathering of 5 or more persons” as potentially an “illegal assembly”.
However, as much as these spatial practices have shown to “defy” certain official rules and regulations, the issue of greater interest is in how such spatial practices challenge conventional thinking regarding top-down urban planning and design. With foreign workers being politicized as a “transient” population in Singapore, it has negated the need for the government to actively plan and design social and even more permanent spatial infrastructure for this marginalized group. Much of the housing for foreign workers come in the form of temporary on-site and commercial dormitories, as well as converted industrial premises. Even recreational spaces for this group are stipulated to be located within dormitory compounds, and are often limited in meeting the spatial demands of certain activities. Therefore, the adapting of such a space by foreign workers can be seen to highlight the “lack” within existing ways of planning, thereby challenging the government to see the need to allocate certain spatial rights to this spatially marginalized group in Singapore. Moreover, the appropriation of spaces not normally considered public space with a system of spatial practice, serves to produce a whole new topography of public space. It serves to reveal the potentials for sites and uses that have been overlooked by top-down urban planning processes.
The vibrancy of use and activity within this strip of land, often left abandoned and underused in other areas of Singapore, is definitely an interesting sight. Much of the “official” public space in Singapore hardly sees this kind of activity and interaction, with most of the spaces simply standing as symbolic physical spaces. Such a phenomena is something to be valued rather than quickly stamped down by government intervention, as it serves as a reminder of the potential of ground-up spatial practices in creating new and exciting interpretations of space and program.