Shift from top down place management to bottom up placemaking

As a rapidly developing city, Singapore has adopted a highly centralised approach to the planning of land-use since the 1960s. The Urban Redevelopment Authority of Singapore sifts out a quinquennial Master Plan to revise the use of Singapore’s limited land resources by dividing them among various functional land use needs, giving a precise understanding of zoning areas and boundaries. However, while it is highly capable of ensuring efficiency in nation building, the plan does not truly reflect the life of a dynamic city or the emotion connection between people and their environment.

Highly centralised planning of the urban spaces raises concern about the neglect of the ways in which the urban population responds to and engaged with the planned spaces. This leads to rise of Place Management, a place-led policy that seeks a coordinated, area-based, multi-stakeholder approach to improving precincts and making them more attractive for the benefits of its users. [1] With the shift towards such people-orientated policy, the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA) has also launched the Arts and Culture Strategic Review (ACSR) in 2010 that aims to integrate arts into public spaces, making the arts more physically accessible to all. [2]

This softer approach towards urban planning has since opened up more opportunities for the arts and artists, setting the stage for creative placemaking, a new cultural policy that emphasizes the value and integral place of the arts and culture in everyday lives, to create a more liveable and inclusive city. Contrary to top down place management, which is deliberately planned and results-orientated, placemaking tends to be initiated from the ground-up, is community-driven, and process-centred. This shift to prioritising ‘heartware’ over ‘hardware’ becomes less focused on results, allowing more public spaces to be shaped by the people who use them, and looking beyond foot traffic and visitor spending numbers to assess the vibrancy of a place. [3]

Creative Placemaking efforts are already underway in Singapore

Creative placemaking is a recent idea on the rise that puts arts and culture at the heart of transforming spaces into places by the community. [4] Some fundamental principles of creative placemaking is that it is a place-based, people-orientated and participatory-strategic action by the community, which focuses on the process to improve a place for the people and the arts play an intentional and integrated role. [5]

As a new policy that is still in pilot stage, local projects usually employ light and portable pop-up interventions. These short term projects have the ability to create and test a project immediately with direct community involvement in early stages of unlocking and activating public spaces. Despite being temporary, the following case studies are examples of how creative placemaking can change people’s perception of their built environment- by leveraging on the power of arts and culture to strengthen communities, inspiring people to collectively reimagine and reinvent urban spaces, and implement temporary prototypes to drive future incremental physical changes.

Case study 1: PARKing Day at Jalan Besar

PARKing day, a worldwide event, was first adapted into Singapore after being inspired by Our City! Safe Streets (2013) at Macpherson, a tactical reclamation collaboration between students from Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), Participate in Design (PID) and ReallyArchitecture (re:ACT) to create safer and more liveable streets through balancing the needs of its daily transit users. Several curbside parking lots along Circuit Road at Macpherson Estate was taken over and temporarily converted into artificially turfed lots. With the theme of enhancing street safety in Singapore, the group conducted a street prototype whilst engaging citizens to rethink the notion of ownership of these common grounds. This opportunity to influence the built environment by transforming parking lots into temporary public spaces then sparked the official launch of PARKing day in 2014. The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) and the Housing Development Board (HDB) supported the event by offering parking lots under their management for the public to transform into temporary public parks. As PARKing day is taking place on an ‘island-wide’ scale for the first time, these parking spaces are located at the Central Business District, Jalan Besar, Kampong Glam, Outram and Tiong Bahru.

In 2015, a series of life-sized games and fun installations were placed at different spots in the Jalan Besar area, where the public can try their hand at ping pong, hoops, a giant-sized chess game and even a back lane maze. Even though the event was temporary, PARKing day has introduced a significant reorganisation of the usual urban structure as the community reclaimed and shared roads with vehicles, serving as prototypes in city planning. Light and portable interventions sparked a change in mindset of people to help them appreciate the importance of public spaces in our built environment, rethink the way we live and see our everyday urban spaces. [6]

Figure 1:Residents reclaimed the streets temporarily for fun as they transformed the parking lots with innovative ways to engage the community

Figure 1:Residents reclaimed the streets temporarily for fun as they transformed the parking lots with innovative ways to engage the community

Case study 2: Transitional _01 by Shophouse and Co

Shophouse and Co, a local urban activation-centric consultancy and curatorial firm, created Transitional__ as a platform that aims to unlock the potential of vacant spaces in transition to a new lease of life. It does so by connecting the creative community to spaces, and providing tools and resources, to spark collaborations and develop creative projects that will liven up and prototype new ideas for the city. In the lifespan of an urban space, there are moments where it is in transition such as the interim period during a change of license application, a period in the search of a tenant or a period where the design or tender process is on the way. These spaces are not-leasable and thus can be temporarily used for the larger good. Transitional___ then plays the role of platform to facilitate access to both private and public spaces, connect it to the community and provide guidance and resources so that independent creatives, social enterprises and communities can be empowered to liven up the city and prototype ideas for a better city. [7]

The first edition in June 2014 activated the vacant industrial building space, at King George’s Avenue in Jalan Besar, with a pop-up store of locally designed products, an area for workshops and a kitchen. Shops and cafes in the hardware and industrial business neighbourhood chipped in to conduct workshops, cook meals and donate furniture. Various food, craft, arts & music programmes were initiated with the creative community and new independent businesses. The activation of this space livened up the neighbourhood, brought more opportunities and publicity to young creative business and offers the networking and collaborative environment between the arts and local community for further collaborations. At the end of this temporary project, the transformation of an empty space into a place for community gathering through the arts has encouraged people to re-imagine pocket of underutilised urban spaces and has also found a creative business as a new permanent tenant, leaving behind a physical change as a legacy.

Figure 2:The space was originally empty with no utilities and was later transformed with artificial turf, temporary mechanical ventilation, a bubble wrap pavilion that was air-conditioned for workshop use.

Figure 2:The space was originally empty with no utilities and was later transformed with artificial turf, temporary mechanical ventilation, a bubble wrap pavilion that was air-conditioned for workshop use.

Case study 3: GoLi- The Movable Theatre by Drama Box

GoLi- The Moving Theatre is an inflatable pop-up structure that is jointly initiated by Drama Box, a local non-profit contemporary theatre company, and Atelier Watt to create a space for the community to enjoy and participate in artistic work, which resonates and dialogues with the people in a communal space. [8] After more than a decade of engaging the community in exploring social issues through theatre, GoLi has been built to house Drama Box’s theatre performances and exhibitions in outdoor spaces, bringing the arts closer to the community and better engage with them. Being an iconic mobile structure, GoLi has been implemented to temporarily transform outdoor spaces in the heartlands into a place for arts and culture, creating diversity in the town and city centres, bringing people together through socially engaged arts. [9]

Figure 3: In 2015, Drama Box officially launched GoLi with Drama Box’s programme SCENES: Forum Theatre, a festival that gathers local and overseas community theatre practitioners, featuring forum theatre and community arts practices, workshops and talks in the open

Figure 3: In 2015, Drama Box officially launched GoLi with Drama Box’s programme SCENES: Forum Theatre, a festival that gathers local and overseas community theatre practitioners, featuring forum theatre and community arts practices, workshops and talks in the open

GoLi’s temporary intervention on site also aims to provide audiences to discuss site-specific issues on the exact sites or sites with similar background. GoLi will be used again in an upcoming project at Dakota Crescent. In light of its redevelopment plans by end 2016, DramaBox hopes to invite audiences to imagine alternatives and have a dialogue about the decision-making process regarding our land. Having worked closely with the residents in Dakota Crescent, this collaboration will inculcate into a site-specific arts project that reflects their personal memories about the place.

Moving towards long-term sustainability

There are several examples of creative placemaking, the above mentioned are just a few that were implemented in heartland areas, where people are likely to call home. Despite being temporary, these creative placemaking initiatives have shown potential benefits in encouraging people to re-imagine the urban spaces and bringing the community closer together through the use of arts, and even possible development in the long run. At the government level, the way to support creative placemaking initiatives is perhaps to allow some freedom for short-term experimentation of ideas for places to evolve organically, rather than plan and manicure it to sterility. This requires a rather different mindset- one that is more open, tolerant, trusting and risk-taking. As a prototype, there can perhaps be a lighter touch on licensing and regulation. There can also be more conversation about how private companies and entities are encouraged to support or sponsor such initiatives while at the same time ensuring that these initiatives do not simply become pop-up marketing efforts. [10] Lastly, it will also take time and effort of empowering creatives and communities with the right mindset, skillset, and toolset to take ownership of their neighbourhood and actively contribute to placemaking efforts instead of waiting for the government to initiate programmes or offer funding.


[1] Hoe Su Fern and Liu, Jacqueline. 2016. “IPS-SAM Spotlight on Cultural Policy Series Two: Roundtable on Place Management and Placemaking in Singapore.” Institute of Policy Studies. Accessed February 15, 2016.

[2] National Arts Council. 2016. “Arts and Culture Strategic Review” National Arts Council. Accessed June 20, 2016.

[3] Hoe Su Fern, Liu, Jacqueline and Tan Tarn How. 2016. “Getting to the heart of great public spaces.” The Straits Times. Accessed February 15, 2016.

[4] Markusen, Ann and Gadwa, Anne. 2010. “Creative Placemaking” Paper presented for The Mayors Institute on City Design, a leadership initiative on the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the United States Conference of Mayors and American Architectural. National Endowment for the Arts.

[5] Dr Hoe Su Fern, Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), interview by Jesslyn Loo, 22 June, 2016.

[6] Dr Chong Keng Hua, Assistant Professor of Architecture and Sustainable Design, SUTD, interview by Jesslyn Loo, 13 May 2016.

[7] Shophouse and Co. “Transitional_01-115 King George’s Avenue” Shophouse and Co. Accessed 24 February, 2016.

[8] Drama Box. “About GoLi- The Moving Theatre” Drama Box. Accessed 5 June, 2016.

[9] Ms Koh Hui Ling, Associate Artistic Director of Drama Box, personal interview by Jesslyn Loo, 7 June 2016

[10] Mr Adib Jalal, Director of Shophouse and Co, email interview by Jesslyn Loo, 22 June 2016

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