Design & planning of communal spaces in public housing estates are getting more attention in recent years. This is especially so in Singapore, where strong community bonds among residents of various races and nationalities are important in maintaining social security in our metropolitan city with high influx of global citizens. Furthermore, 80% of Singapore’s population stay in Public Housing Estates[1]. This further justifies the need for effective utilization and planning of these communal spaces.


Consistent with the study done by Dempsey, Brown, & Bramley, communal spaces in residential estates play an important role in fostering social cohesion and creating strong social bonding (Dempsey, Brown, & Bramley, 2012). However, although such spaces are used by the community at large, design and planning of such spaces in Singapore public housing estates at present are ironically much heavily influenced by capitalism and political agendas (Hee & Giok, 2003). Such a planning process sparked off much debates and issues in regards to spatial justice and also created problems such as a diminishing community identity.



The Reality of Design & Planning of Communal Spaces

The Housing Development Board of Singapore (HDB) had been designing and planning communal spaces in public housing estates through emphasis on developing distinctive identity & character as well as developing community centric public spaces (Lee, 2012). However, such design and planning strategy still see a much top down and capitalism centric approach as adopted by the HDB. Such strategy not only poses various problems to the community but also resulted in an adverse spatial quality of communal spaces.



Understanding Impact of Capitalism on Public Spaces

To first understand how capitalism is a driving force in design and planning of communal spaces in Singapore Public Housing Estates, there needs to be an understanding of how capitalism has the power of shaping public spaces.   Harvey in ‘The Enigma of Capitalism and the Crises of Capitalism’ recognised that capitalism created wealth but at the price of exploiting our natural environment as well as humans in the form of labour. It is a system that must keep growing (at least 3% annually) and this created uneven geographical development (Harvey, 2010). Such an emphasis on growth and profits put economic emphasis above society interest in our urban planning in major cities.


Public spaces inevitably could not escape from such ill fate as well. Social value of public spaces needs to be quantified and justified with economic value before it could be brought to reality. Therefore, the challenge today in designing public communal spaces is no longer just merely designing a socially viable space, but to design a space which connect aesthetics with the social, political and economic discourse (Jones, 2011). Such complications are the result of capitalism.


Capitalism as key driving force for Design & Planning in Singapore Context

Such complications and challenge are evident in our Singapore Context. This is especially so, in our design and planning of communal spaces in public housing estates. To bring this discussion further, it is necessary to first understand how HDB plan their communal and public spaces in public housing estates.


According to HDB (2010), When planning of communal spaces are concerned, a central communal space is first identified. Following which a school is usually placed next to it, before placing in the residential blocks. Often, a commercial complex will also be placed in selective precinct to attend to daily needs of the residents.  These are the basic strategy that HDB had adopted in planning new towns.   This strategy is seen to be happening in Coral Edge Precinct in Punggol (Fig. 1). Of note, concentration of economic and social activities into the Commercial Plaza (In Blue) and Community Center (In Red) can be seen demonstrated in this particular case study estate.


fig 1

Figure 1: Spatial Planning in Punggol Coral Edge Precinct

In such design and planning strategy, instead of bringing the communal activities to the residents by distributing them around the HDB estate, the planners have chosen to concentrate them. Same for the commercial plaza, instead of spreading the commercial activities across the estate to create livelier streets, the planners have again chose to concentrate all of such activities in one complex. Such a planning process is driven by capitalism.


Capitalism is profit focused and emphasised on the liquidity in market (Harvey, 2010). Therefore, during the planning process of a commercial complex, there first needs to be a clear demand from the residents before such a complex could be realised.   Spreading of commercial activities dilutes the profit that can be derived from the residents as opposed to concentrating it in one area. Therefore, in terms of planning for such commercial spaces, although spreading out commercial activities could be more effective in promoting bonding among the community, and creating a better identity for each precinct, it is not economically sound. Moreover, to exercise more control over the tenants, such concentration gives authority much better control over rent collection as well as supervision of activities going on.


Next, shops in these commercial plazas are usually higher in rent. This encouraged bigger enterprises, which had interest in the heartlanders’ market to occupy such spaces. This resulted in a disappearance of small local businesses which could not afford such higher rents and changed the dynamics of communal spaces in these estates. Capitalism in this case had changed not only the dynamics, but also the quality of these public communal spaces, destroying any form of potential that local small enterprises could contribute in shaping a more community centric estate.


This situation is clearly reflected in the commercial complex, Punggol Plaza in Coral Edge Precinct, where one would find big companies occupying the premise (Fig 2) and local small businesses only occupy a small percentage of the units within the complex.

fig 2

Figure 2: Punggol Plaza and the existence of big enterprises (Eg. KFC, Pizza Hut, etc.)

Moving on to the planning and design of the community center, concentration of activities within a single complex is also a result of capitalism and political supervision (Seah, 1973).

With a single community center, this allows a better supervision of activities across the estate to ensure all activities are in check. In addition, concentration too, allows for easier maintenance of activity spaces. Should activity spaces be spread out across the estate, more cost may be incurred for maintenance of spaces, and this would not be viable for the People’s Association (PA), who are responsible for maintaining them.   Therefore, although spreading out of activities indeed reach out more to the community per say, capitalism, which emphasised on returns, do not allow for such dynamic communal space to exist.


This resulted in a rather dull and generic communal space and pathways as observed in the Punggol Coral Edge Precinct (Figure 3). This is, as how Harvey puts it, the social cost of capitalism, and can be clearly seen in our Singapore context.   Such a phenomenon brings on to our next discussion on how such planning process brought about a denial and controversy of spatial justice.


fig 3

Figure 3: Lifeless Communal Spaces and Streets in Punggol Coral Edge Precinct

The Controversy of Spatial Justice

William Lim in ‘Asian Ethical Urbanism’ highlighted that the uneven development of society is a result of capitalism. Such development favoured only a minority of people in society, and brought about disputes with regards to social benefits and opportunities deprived for the masses who were unable to shape their built environment (Lim, 2005). In short, this phenomenon could be defined as a denial in spatial justice.


To discuss on spatial justice, a clear understanding of Spatial Justice is needed. Based on William Lim’s discussion on spatial justice, spatial justice can be defined as the right in which one is entitled to: to have an equal say in designing and determining their function of the spaces they live in as well as having a fair share of the built environment.   To achieve spatial justice, various issues and concerns of the various stake holders in that common built environment needs to be addressed. Only when a compromise is reached among these various stake holders, can spatial justice be said to be met.   However, the methodology which HDB is adopting right now to design and plan our communal spaces in public housing estate puts capitalism on first priority over community, and this deprived the community of spatial justice.



Communal Spaces Design & Planning in Singapore

One scenario in which design and planning of communal spaces demonstrates a denial of spatial justice lies in its top down planning approach. Communal spaces during the design stage were pre determined by the planners and authorities based on market needs and the assumption on what the masses envision  (Hee & Giok, 2003). Once again, due to capitalism, such planning process usually place emphasis on economics and efficiency before other factors. Thus, although facilities within the precinct were designed to develop community interaction among neighbours, there was no apparent relationship with the daily routine or activities characterizing public housing residents’ need for public spaces (Hee & Giok, 2003) .


Such a lack of involvement from the community is a real reflection of denial in spatial justice in the context of Singapore public housing estates as they are not entitled the right to decide what goes on in their built environment.   Such denial in spatial justice is also reflected in the restrictive usage of spaces by the community. Rules and regulations often governs such communal spaces, and even using them for their own needs, the community is often restricted in the kind of activity they could engage in.   For example, playing of soccer and riding of bicycles are strictly prohibited in many of these communal spaces, despite their vacant and low usages. Not forgetting the void deck spaces, where one must seek approval from authorities before it can be used for any form of events. These spaces, although belongs to the community, do not allow them to have the full right to use these spaces, depriving them of the right of usage of communal spaces in their own estates and built environment.  Similarly, one must also abide by the many rules and regulations set by the authority to personalize their own corridor. For example, items must not obstruct the passage way such that it poses a fire safety hazard, etc. Such strict management of spaces once again demonstrates a denial in spatial justice.   All the above mentioned are just the tip of the ice berg.


The list can go on, but such a top down design and planning process, as a result of capitalism, had shaped our communal spaces in an undesirable way, in which our communal spaces lacked an identity and life. Such irony of our communal spaces is a clear reflection of denial of spatial justice, whereby a communal spaces is one that is not shaped by the community themselves, but instead shaped by the authorities and planning agencies.   Such planning process although has its merits economically and management wise, but came at a social cost of a lost in identity and sense of community.   As a result of capitalism, the design and planning of communal spaces have no doubt impacted the community and other key actors involved in various ways economically, environmentally as well as socially.   Economically, with such spatial planning of communal spaces, it brings about better profits for big businesses as well as more earnings for the property market. However, environmentally and socially, the community suffered a loss of diversity and dynamics within their built environment.


Although this existing method of planning and design of communal spaces in public housing estates had proved to be economically viable and efficient through the years, such a capitalist focused way of planning is getting out of context in recent years. With such degrading quality of communal spaces, although there is much effort by the authorities to plan successful communal spaces, these spaces do not work well any more, as the community themselves no longer feel for these spaces due to the lack of involvement and outreach.   It is therefore important to recognise the adverse effect such planning method is bringing to the community and rethink such design and planning process to not over emphasise on the economic output, but rather focus more on the community themselves.


An Alternate Future

In recent years the rising power of community engagement in shaping the built environment has become increasingly evident in Singapore. Besides the ‘Community In Bloom (CIB)’ programme led by Singapore National Parks Board (Nparks), many bottom-up initiatives have sprung up in Singapore Public Housing Estates, especially among young Singaporeans (Cho , 2012). Such a trend calls for a pressing need to rethink the current design and planning strategies of communal spaces as these top down approaches and strategies  may soon be irrelevant and out of context given this fast rising trend.


More consultation should be taken into consideration when designing and planning of communal spaces are concerned. By involving the residents and the community in designing these spaces, not only spatial justice is being returned to the community themselves, but this also enhances the quality of life and promotes social integration among the residents. Such participatory design has proven to be successful in promoting a much close knitted community in other high density metropolitan city. For example in Hong Kong Ngau Tau Kok Estate, such participatory move have seen a higher increase in usage of communal spaces, and a greater sense of community among the local community (Hong Kong Housing Authority, 2009).


Next, less restriction should be placed on communal spaces usage to encourage a more dynamic community. For example at present, getting a plot of land for community gardening requires approval from HDB, and Nparks and this application could take months. Such a complication discourages informal usage of communal spaces. With less rigid regulations in place, the communal spaces definitely can realise its full potential in encouraging more communal activities and bonding to take pace.


Although capitalism is something that should not be neglected one should also not overlook the social sustainability and well being of the community when design and planning of communal spaces are concerned. Ultimately, communal spaces should serve the community, and not deny them of their right for a vibrant and dynamic community.




In summary, social cohesion and community attachment can be strengthened through physical design of communal spaces. But currently, there is a dearth of effort done in prioritising social well being of the community in the design and planning process of communal spaces in Singapore Public Housing Estates.   As discussed earlier, the current design and planning process focused too much on capitalism, and denied the community of spatial justice that the community deserve. This resulted in an aesthetically beautiful community space, but which the community do not relate to.


Like every other concept , there are limitations to the success of spatial justice as there will always be a conflict of interest within the different key actors when design and planning of communal spaces is concerned. Granting full spatial justice to the community may not be practical in our capitalist influenced society. However, a compromise should still be reached for the various stake holders and emphasis should not only be placed on capitalism. Only when such compromise, led by the authorities, planners and community, is reached, social justice can be achieved within a community.


In conclusion, the current design and planning relies too much on capitalism as a guiding principle in determining its final outcome. Given the current context of our community today, such design and planning is proven out of context. Only by emphasising more on the real needs of the community in Singapore public housing estates as discussed, will such communal spaces prove meaningful and effective in creating a more close knitted and dynamic community for the future generations of Singaporeans.


[1] “Reflections on Housing a Nation”. Ministry of National Development, accessed 20 April 2013,

Fig 2: (Last Accesed on 1 May 2013)


References & Bibliography
  • Cho, I.S. (2012). S.L.U.M. Lab Magazine (Sustainable Living Urban Model) / Edition 7 / Spring 2012, Urban- Think Tank Research Chair ETHZ, Future Cities Lab Singapore, Zurich/Singapore (2012)  as “Sustainable Living Kampung”
  • Dempsey, N., Brown, C., & Bramley, G. (2012). The key to sustainable urban development in UK cities? The influence of density on social sustainability. Progress in Planning, 77(3), 89 141. doi:10.1016/j.progress.2012.01.001
  •  Harvey, D. (2010). The Enigma of Capitalism and the Crises of Capitalism. UK: Profile Books. {Excerpts: Chapter 4: Capital Goes to Market, and Chapter 6: The Geography of It All}
  • Hong Kong Housing Authority (2009). From Lower to Upper Ngau Tau Kok Estate, Produced by Information and Community Relations Sub-division (Published in November 2009)
  • Housing Development Board (HDB) Research Institute (2010). Sustainable Neighbourhoods HDB Development.
  • Hee, Limin, and Giok Ling Ooi. (2003)”The politics of public space planning in Singapore.” Planning Perspectives 18, no. 1: 79-103.
  • Jones, P. (2011). The Sociology of Architecture: Constructing Identities. UK: Liverpool University Press. {Excerpts: Chapter 6: Iconic Architecture and Regeneration: The Form is the Function}
  •  Lee Y.S. (2012) Speech by Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry and National Development Lee Yi Shyan. HDB CEO Peak Forum (2012),
  • Lim, W.S.W. (2005). Asian Ethical Urbanism: A Radical Postmodern Perspective. Singapore: World Scientific. {Excerpt: pp.27-37 on spatial justice}
  • Seah, C. M. (1973). Community centres in Singapore: Their political involvement. Singapore: Singapore University Press.