In Singapore, the role of public space within the public housing estates developed by the Housing and Development Board (HDB) has perceivably shifted in its approach.  This shift entails the role of public space from pragmatic considerations of ventilation and recreation, toward political and ideological representations of identity and community, and platforms for social interactions.

As such, an evaluation of the success of public space in housing estates as places of social interaction and community identity can be undertaken. Through the lens of socio-spatial theory, an investigation of both the spatial practice (physical dimensions) and representational spaces (social dimension) can be conducted to analyse the resultant public spaces (Lefebvre 1991). The level  which public space have achieved their goals as platforms for social interaction is important to determine because some of these public spaces, while well designed, might not be used as planned. This illustrates the shortcomings of Singapore’s public space – traditionally a product of centralised top-down planning, has resulted in a perceivable difference between the planned dimension and how the social “lived” dimension operates.

With a focus on the basis of social interaction, we define the types of social interaction into three tiers, based on Halls’ theory of social distances (1966).  This occurs on the intimate scale, the social scale, and finally the public scale.

  1. The intimate scale entails a more personal type of social interaction which is only possible in smaller groups, of 2-3 people, as the distance at which this kind of interaction occurs is only 1.2m. At this distance, certain senses such as smell work better, resulting in an increased level of involvement between two parties (Sommer 1969). The type of interaction also involves touch, as this distance is the limit to which physical engagement and contact occurs. As such, the resultant mode of social activity is very personal and exclusive.
  1. This differs from the social scale, which entails social interaction that occurs in larger groups, possibly united by common interests. This occurs from the distance of 1.2m to 3.6m, and may be facilitated by seating that accommodates larger amounts of users to interact or have a conversation. Activities that constitute elements of play, whether competitive or casual, fall under this category, as noted by Stevens (2007) in the Ludic City, that a range of 1.2m to 3m is critical for maintaining playful social relations between strangers as it allows the balance of safety and personal control over one’s level of involvement.
  1. The public scale of social interaction occurs in the form of either performance, or the proximity of facilities to one another, such that it allows for different groups of people to observe one another without being a part of the activity that a particular group is engaged in. This is a distance of more than 3.6m.

Utilising this framework, we can create a predictive map of the physical dimension of which type of interaction is most encouraged and compare it to the realities of practice, to give a holistic picture of the success or failure of Singapore’s housing estates’ public spaces in being platforms for social interaction.

How we determine the type of encouraged social activity depends on four physical factors: Accessibility (circulation), Spatial Adaptability and Variety, Layout of Activity focal points and Seating (orientation and size). This will be illustrated in the following case study.


Case Study: Tampines Neighbourhood 9 Cultural Hub

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Image source: Author’s Own, 24 June 2016

The public space consists of an ascending ramp wrapped around an amphitheatre, culminating in a sculpture which provides a visual icon for the area. The public space also comprises an informal running track, which is interspersed with a play area, as well as small pockets of fitness areas and benches.

This space is also bounded by a bicycle and commuter track, and is located close to a traffic junction and road.


Image source: Author’s Own, 24 June 2016





Accessibility (circulation)


Image source: Author’s Own, 24 June 2016

Previous public space studies have shown that the movement speed of the user also affects the level of social interaction and the user’s relation to the site (Gehl 1987).

Therefore the presence of high mobility activities such as jogging and cycling around this public space deters the use of the public space for more intimate, exclusive social activity.

However, since the main circulatory path passes through/by all the main activity points, allowing for unplanned interactions between users, social interaction is engendered due to increased level of possible contact between users.

Public pathways are well connected to the space and result in a lot of transitory movement, which brings a lot of people to the space and allows for passersby to undertake the public scale social activity of observing.


Spatial Adaptability and Variety


Image source: Author’s Own, 24 June 2016

A higher spatial adaptability allows for more social interaction as it allows different groups to share the same space, thereby promoting inclusion and coexistence. In addition, the presence and coexistence of different user groups in the same space contribute toward the overall sense of conviviality of the public space, as defined by Shaftoe (2008). Therefore a higher spatial variety and adaptability results in higher levels of social interaction, as well as optional activity.

For this space, the design caters for different experiences, for example on the ramp which goes up above the amphitheater, the flat green field and also the undulating landscape of the playground. This results in a high variety of play activities to occur within the public space.

The many possible activities that can be undertaken and the spatial variety also result in possible public interaction between different groups of users, for example joggers and children, and also dogwalkers. However not many forms of intimate interaction are possible, due to the visually open nature of the space.


Layout of Activity focal points


Image source: Author’s Own, 24 June 2016

The layout of different activity nodes result in the different physical distances to which users undertaking each activity perceive one another. This links to the aforementioned concept of social distance (Hall 1966), as distances of more than 3.6m are described as being outside the “circle of involvement”, and is ideal for interactions such as performance and distant observation. As such, the layout also affects the type of social interaction that takes place within the public space.

The fitness corners and the amphitheater are all organized by the main circulation pathway, which facilitates social interaction. However, the lack of visual connection toward the amphitheater, due to the ramp and the section of the green field, results in a lower level of public scale interaction, and the interaction between different activity nodes is limited due to presence of a main transitory path that divides the nodes.


Seating (orientation and size)


Image source: Author’s Own, 24 June 2016

By looking at the kind of seating provided and the orientation, we can better understand the physical dimension and how it promotes or inhibits contact, as mentioned earlier. The orientation of seating is crucial to observe, as noted by a study by Cavan (1966) of social interaction at bars, which noted the frontality of social relations in space. People are generally more socially comfortable sitting back-to-back with strangers (Whyte 1988). Therefore by looking at the orientation of seating, we can infer the level and type of social activity encouraged by the physical context.

The space is interspersed with benches for 2-3 people, all facing toward the main circulation pathway. This orientation deters people from appropriating the benches for intimate social interactions due to a lack of privacy.

However the seatings on ground level all face the main circulatory space, which is conducive toward social scale interaction. The amphitheater faces toward a stage, and the space is loosely defined by the form of the ramp that encircles the amphitheater. The large seatings while facing the performance stage, also face toward the main road, which might result in a lower use due to noise and pollution.


By looking at the physical aspect of the public space, it can be determined that the type of social interaction most encouraged by the aforementioned factors is firstly that of the social scale, followed by the public scale, and finally the intimate scale.

While social activity occurs on these 3 scales, it can be argued that the social and public scale of interaction is most important to achieve the goals of Singapore’s housing estates’ public spaces as a space for the residents to interact and build identity. This is because the personal scale does not achieve a common identity for the neighbourhood. Therefore it can be concluded that for the Tampines Neighborhood 9 Cultural Hub public space, the physical dimension has succeeded in promoting social interaction and hence closer to achieving the goal of public space as a platform for the neighbourhood community to interact.

It remains to be seen how the social dimension, or the realities of usage correlates to the physical environment, which will give a more holistic view of the Cultural Hub as a resident gathering point for social interaction.



Lefebvre, H. 1991. The production of space. Cambridge, Mass., USA;Oxford, OX, UK;: Blackwell.

Hall, E. T. 1969. The hidden dimension: Man’s use of space in public and private. London: Bodley Head.

Whyte, W. H. 1988. City: Rediscovering the Center. New York: Doubleday.

Cavan, S. 1966. Liquor License: An Ethnography of Bar Behavior. Chicago, IL: Aldine.

Shaftoe, H. 2008. Convivial Urban Spaces: Creating Effective Public Spaces. London: Earthcan.

Gehl, J. 1987. Life between buildings: Using public space. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Stevens, Q. 2007. The ludic city: Exploring the potential of public spaces. New York, N.Y: Routledge.