Neighbourhood schools have been an important part of our life since independence. It had produced an educated and productive work force for our economy. These neighbourhood schools are usually designed using a list of design guidelines set by MOE, while HDB & URA played a role in the bigger town planning, to incoporate schools in every precinct in public housing estates such that they are within walkable distances.


However, one thing in common we can observe across schools from all precincts is that, we see similar typology of schools: a “fenced up fortress” as a end result of its design guidelines. Most schools have little or no relation to the community it is situated next to.


Although the HDB have programmes such as the Heartland Ambassador Programmes, the SPHERE Programmes, in which schools adopt a community and care for them, it seem much of a re-branding of the existing Community Involvement Programme, which is mostly a one-off activity with little follow up most of the time. Schools also co-share their spaces, but is seen as a good will gesture for the community, rather than really building bonds and partnership with the community.


So one may question, is there anything wrong with a fence? Afterall, it is to ensure security of our school children. While a school which opens up to the community may not seem to be that relevant in most of our public housing estates which most middle class family reside in Singapore, we seem to have forgotten a group of community: the community in Public Rental Flat Estates.


Issues regarding poverty and low income family group are almost non existent to many who comes from the middle income family. Singapore’s Prime minister Lee Hsien Loong said in an interview earlier in the World Economic Forum that Singaporeans are considered “less badly off” than the poor in other countries. However, poor still exist in our community, and there are definitely more our school can do to help these communities. But, the current design and planning of our schools are the same for all public housing estates. Such design of school with no relation to the community may deem as inappropriate especially so in Rental Flat Estates like those in Circuit Road, Jalan Kukoh, etc.


Why is that so? Let me use the following diagrams to explain my point.


Social Situation-01

In the typical housing estates, we have the middle income family. These family have domestic helpers at home, to supervise their children after school. Alternatively, they have the financial capability to send their children to attend classes after school to keep them in check. Parents from these families also spend relatively decent amount of time with their kids. After school, these kids could also choose to spend leisure time at home, or around their neighbourhood, which is safe for them to play.


In short, whether or not the school opens up to them (the community) in this case, is seen as a “good to have” but not as a pressing need. This is simply because children in these families have the financial means to do things that are deemed as appropriate and benefitial for them.


Now, let’s take a look at the situation in our rental housing flat estates


Social Situation-02

For the rental housing estate, families who stay here are mostly low income families. Their parents work long hours, with little time for them. So kids are left alone most of these time, and because of the accumulative effect of the people who stay there (Mostly with complex backgrounds), the neighbourhood becomes a problematic “concentration camp” where drug dealers, gangsters hang out.


The homes these children stay in are very small, so most of them if given a choice, would rather spend time out of their homes. Since in this context, the school, being the most healthy space in the precinct, is a fenced architecture which do not open up to the community, these kids have no healthy environment to dwell in, other than hanging out in their problemetic neighbourhood. Moreover, given their limited financial ability, they could hardly afford to head anywhere else other than in their precinct.Therefore. most kids end up wasting their time with bad company and become individuals causing society problems in the long run.


In this case, relation of community with the school are of greater importance, and great relevance to provide the community with a safer environment and neighbourhood. However, due to the nature of our guidelines, currently the same set of design guidelines are proposed even for schools situated in these rental flat estates. There are currently no different set of design principles or guidelines, which cater for schools situated in these estates with low income communities, which needs to play a bigger role in the community.


Moreover, because of such lack of relation to the community, most children from the middle income do not understand where these low income children are coming from. Most of these children will choose to stay away from these kids from low income group, because they may not have a common topic. This actually widens the social differences in our society. But we could not blame these children for their ignorance, because our design speaks that way. We are creating the notion of Not in my backyard (NIMBY) attitude: Whatever happens beyond the school fence, is not our issue. Question to ask ourselves is, is this what we wish to teach our next generation? Is this the kind of society we wish to live in?


Therefore, there needs to be a rethinking of how schools design and planning are in these estates. Participatory design along with an integration of schools with community in these estates, not only has the power to create a safer neighbourhood, it could also bring residents together to build a better living environment. It could also be seen as a solution for a reviving of such a problematic rental housing estate. Such projects have already seen its success in places like the Netherlands in the project WIMBY (Welcome into my backyard) Project initiated in 2003. It is time Singapore should also take our first step in making projects like these happen and do something positive for our community.


Such a missed opportunity could be a golden opportunity in the long run for a more inclusive, and equal Singapore. Provided we choose to get out of our comfort zones, and do something. It is never too late to start.




HI 5

This abstract is written in conjunction with the “Heart Initiative 5 (H.I. 5) Community Outreach Movement initiated by a group of National University of Singapore, Master in Architecture Thesis Students who focus on rethinking public rental housing design & planning in Singapore through community participatory design.



Learn more about Heart Initiative 5 (H.I. 5) @ & 



All Diagrams above are Author’s Own