In a dialogue with Singapore Perspectives 2013, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong expressed that “It is our responsibility as a government to try and help Singapore society come to a consensus on issues. We must all have a stake in growth and progress, and feel that society is going in the right direction.”(Koh 2013) His words are echoed in the gradual loosening of the top-down planning of Singapore’s built environment, which has been criticised to be “orderly, efficient but boring”(Lim 2006) as a large proportion of Singapore’s pre-independence urban fabric had been swept away by tabula rasa and redevelopment.
Realising that a well-planned city is no longer enough to remain globally competitive, planning authorities have been experimenting with community participatory design (CPD) – a process of engaging citizens in shaping the urban environment (Soh and Yuen 2006). With 80.1% of citizens residing in public housing flats (Department of Statistics Singapore 2016), the Housing and Development Board (HDB) is a major player in the planning of Singapore’s built environment. Its Estate Renewal Strategy programme has come a long way since the first Main Upgrading Programme introduced in 1989, with the Neighbourhood Renewal Programme (NRP) and Remaking Our Heartland (ROH) programme as its most recent initiatives. To-date, 35 out of 59 NRP sites have carried out public consultation, which averages 87 percent of support from residents (HDB 2011). The third batch of ROH towns (Toa Payoh, Woodlands and Pasir Ris) introduced in 2015 had invited 400 residents to 11 Focus Group Discussions during the early stages of the planning. The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) has also recently initiated the Our Favourite Place programme to financially support projects initiated by the people to turn public areas into active community spaces, in the hope that having Singaporeans involved would strengthen their sense of ownership and belonging (San Jo 2016).
Apart from government organisations, non-profit organisation Participate in Design (P!D) has been a pioneer in extending CPD within Singapore’s housing estates. P!D partners with grassroots organisations, educational institutions and statutory boards to test for appropriate participatory methods in engaging local communities. Its notable projects so far include “Welcome to Our Backyard” (WOBY!) at Aljunied Crescent, an on-going project with Macpherson Community Club. Unlike conventional public housing building projects, this project adopts a bottom-up approach whereby the architects focus on finding out the true needs and aspirations of residents first even before coming up with a design. The residents participated in the generation of ideas and co-designing with architects. Although their participatory projects have yet to materialise in built form, P!D continues to spark interest in the CPD movement within the design community and general public.
Despite commendable efforts so far, a common problem continues to plague every project – the lack of enthusiasm from the ground. CPD might have just started in Singapore, but it is not a new concept. Since its beginnings in the 1960s when Western societies demanded more say in political decision-making, CPD has been traditionally triggered by people’s discontent which evoked a ground-up collective action by the people themselves (Simonsen and Robertson 2013). In Singapore, PAP’s authoritative regime has created a passive society rooted in communitarianism – the governed places societal welfare over one’s own interests in the faith that the government is morally upright and acts in the best interests of the nation (Chua and Murdoch University 2002). An example is the Building Our Neighbourhoods’ Dream (BOND!) project led by HDB in 2013. The main challenges were getting residents to participate, whose response was mild due to the lack of exposure to CPD and that most do not feel an urgent need to participate (Cho et al. 2013). Another reason was that the project was initiated by the government and not an urgency from the ground, hence the lack of motivation within the community.
Instead of depending on a gradually loosening authoritative hand that shaped Singapore’s society into “a disciplined labour force” (Chua and Murdoch University 2002) or a society which is largely unmotivated , the push for greater levels of CPD in Singapore’s built environment could come from a group of professionals instead – the planners and architects.
Designers can be considered as a neutral intermediary between the larger community and the government. Compared to the larger society, designers are equipped with technical knowledge of built environments thus they are confident of making informed choices and proposals. Compared to the government, the designer’s intention is untainted by the need to maintain political power. As a professional, the designer is inclined towards understanding the needs of the user to come up with the best possible solution. P!D has been a pioneering example showing how a design firm could facilitate CPD projects that involve more genuine participation; more private designs firms should be encouraged to adopt participatory practice in order to extend the potential of CPD in Singapore.
One notable case study which illustrated the potential of designers in facilitating CPD projects is the Comprehensive Redevelopment Program (CRP) of the Lower Ngau Tau Kok Estate (II), one of the oldest public housing estates in Hong Kong. Triggered by the news that their estate was to be demolished by 2004, residents banded together to protest against this decision and managed to reach a consensus with the government that the whole community would be relocated to a nearby reception estate rather than somewhere further from their current estate (Lee et al. 2005). In their bid to know more about the design of their future estate, the residents then invited Lee as their advisor. As a trained architectural designer and researcher, Lee took up the role of a catalyst and designed the participatory process with an intention to work with the users and not just for them. Her role was vital in presenting design knowledge in a manner that the residents understood and could associate their everyday life experience with the design of spaces, hence communicating clearly what residents wanted. These design workshops offered a collective learning experience that generated more discussions about the overall estate planning. This project had successfully opened up Hong Kong’s housing development to voices of the community in their housing preferences, which is largely attributed to the residents’ passionate drive and facilitation by Lee. This illustrates how designers could utilise their technical knowledge to greater social impact by empathising with the users and gathering their opinions instead of relying on assumptions.
Depending on Singapore’s community of designers to push for higher levels of CPD practice might seem like an uphill task. Being relatively young and underdeveloped as compared to older societies like America and Japan, the architectural community in Singapore is deeply influenced by the global architectural climate. In line with the RIBA accreditation, local design studios are conducted in a similar fashion as typical design studios in UK. Students have limited opportunities to engage in community-based learning (Holland and Gelmon 1998) and the school’s emphasis leans towards the primacy of the individual rather than collaboration and teamwork (Cuff 1991). In an interview with Singapore Architect, veteran architect and academic Tay Kheng Soon noted that students “come to school with expectations that they want to be ‘creative’, by which they mean the kind of stylistic creativity you see in the media. So all the concerns about the environment and societal disconnects” (Toh 2012). Even before they actually practice, local designers are immersed in the dominant culture that leans towards satisfying capitalism rather than community empowerment. The challenge would be to convince these vital players of the built environment to see the benefits of CPD and realise their power to influence the spread of CPD.
Now that Singapore has developed into a highly efficient country, the new focus is to become a creative city with a vibrant society and an ability to adapt to changing global demands. Quoting Lim (2006), there is also a need for “a vibrant locally generated architecture and urbanism of excellence”. A higher level of CPD practice could benefit both the designers community and the larger Singapore society.
Cho, Im Sik, Devisari Tunas, and Mizah Rahman. 2013. ‘Facing the Challenges Ahead: New Spatial Practices for Community Bonding in Singapore’s Public Housing Estates’. In Proceedings of the 7th International Forum on Urbanism Conference. Tainan.
Chua, Beng Huat, and Murdoch University. 2002. Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore. London: Routledge. http://libproxy1.nus.edu.sg/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=68650&site=ehost-live.
Department of Statistics Singapore. 2016. ‘Statistics Singapore – Latest Data’. Department of Statistics Singapore. May 20. http://www.singstat.gov.sg/statistics/latest-data#22.
HDB. 2011. ‘First HDB’s Neighbourhood Renewal Programme (NRP) Project Completed by Jurong Town Council’. HDB InfoWEB. December 2. http://bgbiz.hdb.gov.sg/fi10/fi10296p.nsf/PressReleases/94463fe54620d24e4825795a0005b792?OpenDocument&Click=.
Koh, Gillian. 2013. ‘Dialogue Session with Guest-of-Honour, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’. In Singapore Perspectives 2013, 71–95. Singapore Perspectives. Co-Published with National University of Singapore. http://dx.doi.org/10.1142/9789814520751_0010.
Lee, Yanki, Timothy Jachna, and Roger Coleman. 2005. ‘Architecture for All: A Participatory Design Approach’. HKIA Journal, Autumn 2005. http://uiawpafa.hkia.net/images/case_studies/43.pdf.
Lim, William Siew Wai. 2006. Contesting Singapore’s Urban Future. Singapore: Asian Urban Lab.
San Jo, Yeo. 2016. ‘Three HDB Estates to Get Makeovers’. The Straits Times, April 12. http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/housing/three-hdb-estates-to-get-makeovers.
Simonsen, Jesper, and Toni Robertson. 2013. Routledge International Handbook of Participatory Design. Routledge. https://books.google.com.sg/books?id=l29JFCmqFikC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false.
Soh, Emily Y., and Belinda Yuen. 2006. ‘Government-Aided Participation in Planning Singapore’. Cities 23 (1): 30–43. doi:10.1016/j.cities.2005.07.011.