In more ways than one, the void deck has come to be seen as a symbol representing community life in public housing in Singapore. However, this symbol has varied interpretations amongst a different demographic, where it means play space to kids, it is also a place of celebration and mourning to others. For some, it is also the extension of communal living, beyond one’s front doors. It can be seen as the front lawn without physical boundaries, where a commune of residents from the same block and precinct can gather on a daily basis to exchange experiences of life.

In a recent experience, this was made all the more obvious during a community walk from Bishan to Potong Pasir. Whilst the blocks in one estate seemed to give the impression of being very sterile, very much planned from the top down, where the public housing authority provided everything for the community’s use, everything from community garden patches to seating in the void decks, the latter proved to be what seemed to be a tight community, despite having what seemed to be less well maintained buildings.

 

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The Golden Jasmine viewed from across the road.

In Bishan, a visit to the Golden Jasmine (Block 152B Bishan Street 11), showed an example of a top-down approach, where everything from community gardens to furniture and seating are provided. A private healthcare centre is also built into the ground floor of the point block, and provides not only healthcare assistance, but also seating and tables where the majority elderly residents gather on a daily basis for chitchat sessions and to share food. A group of about 10-12 residents, led by a block head, colloquially also known as the ‘kepala’, tend to their community garden patch on the 2nd storey environmental deck on a daily basis. This community garden was built-in by the authorities. As an initiative of the residents who tend to the garden, all produce is shared amongst neighbours, not just raw from the garden, but even after being used to cook dishes, these are shared.

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Community Garden on the 2nd storey e-deck of Golden Jasmine, with trellis pavilion and fish tank.

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Community garden patches, this was one of four on site. Total area of all growing space was about 15sqm.

An in-built system comprising of alarms within each studio apartment, and a digital sign on the ground floor help notify neighbours and visitors should a resident in an apartment need immediate assistance. A feature specific to the elderly, this, in its own way helps to foster neighbourliness amongst residents where they are expected to help one another in a time of need. Residents also organise their own festival celebrations and partake in community activities within their block together.

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The red text digital display shows the unit number if someone in one of the flats raises the alarm.

The Golden Jasmine, completed in 2010, comprises of 176 units of 35 and 45 sqm flats that come with 30 year leases, and are meant for Singaporeans who are at least 55 years of age and above, and have a monthly household income of up to $8000. Being in such an environment, with fellow senior citizens, community is forged not just by initiatives of the residents but also by the built environment. Facilities are provided for, and facilitate community activities, but ultimately the motivation comes from the residents to initiate activities as a community.

A walk further down from Golden Jasmine brought us through several older blocks in Bishan, and then across Braddell Road, to Toa Payoh Lorong 1, a part of Potong Pasir. The blocks here are less well maintained; paint was peeling off the walls and cracks were apparent in some areas. The void decks of most of the blocks we passed were spartan, with only the minimal stone table and chairs around.

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Spartan and empty void decks, devoid of life, activity and programme. Where in other HDB estates you would see kindergardens or other amenities in the void deck, these were left completely empty.

To a complete stranger, this would have looked like an abandoned block of flats, except that there was clear evidence of spatial agency orchestrated by residents themselves. While exploring the area, it was observed that residents found little cosy corners to set up their ‘havens’ where they brought their own furniture down to spend time with other residents. These happened either in corners that were more hidden, or areas where there seemed to be a motivator for activity, such as outside the local ‘mama’ shop beneath the block. In other areas, residents not only personalised the seating areas for their own use, but even initiated their own community gardens, which eventually became a little too messy and needed the local RC’s support to erect fences and organise the garden. Another community garden was less than 30metres away, fully self-initiated by the residents of Pertapis Home, which was in the void deck of Block 221, and according to the supervisor, was maintained only by residents and no one else. We were also told that the local town council acknowledged the benefits of such activities for the residents, and did not remove the garden despite it being a sort of guerilla attempt at personalising green space, and in fact does nothing more than frequent checks to ensure no mosquitoes were breeding.

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The local ‘mama’ shop, or provision shop, beneath the block, where residents also gather.

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Evidence of colonization of space in the hidden corners of the void deck by residents at other times of the day

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Personalisation of the provided amenities by residents.

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Self-initiated community garden by residents at the Pertapis Home, in the void deck of Block 221

Having seen these for myself, it brought to mind some thoughts; how does the built environment, the hardware, play a role in community building, when in these 2 scenarios, it was apparent that both the lack of hardware, and the provision of hardware, both had a role to play in the community building of both localities. So does the built environment actually play a role, and what role is this? It also highlighted the need to have a bottom-up approach, also known colloquially as the ‘gotong royong’ approach, loosely translated as the idea of communal work in order to build a community. The fact that the Potong Pasir neighbourhood seemed to be in a more derelict condition perhaps required its residents to initiate more activities on their own, and hence, be forced to come together as a community and perform communal work to enhance and beautify their neighbourhood, turning their communal spaces in places of enjoyment and gathering. This element of communal work was also apparent, when, in passing the neighbourhood, we also saw children and staff from a nearby kindergarten helping to clear litter and dead leaves around the precinct.

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Kindergarten children and staff helping to clear the green areas of litter.

The idea is thus reinforced, that perhaps community building does not lie in the hardware, but also in the inculcation of the necessity to do something together, communally, in order to effect a change in the community. Social apathy is hence probably not a norm in this estate, much unlike in many other parts of Singapore. It seemed that the residents in this area were quick to enact initiatives to maintain and beautify their immediate environment and surroundings. In comparison, a quick survey of the members of the community walk revealed that, while everyone enjoyed the provided amenities in Bishan, where everything was relatively new, clean and well maintained, it may have felt too sterile and artificial, as compared to this old, dirty-looking estate which in spite of this, seemed to impress upon everyone the need for communal participation in order to make it feel like home. The impact on us as visitors was also apparent, as most of those on the walk mentioned in passing that this was a community that we all wish to have in the places we live, and this made it feel like home.

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All images are the author’s own.