In the planning of public space in Singapore, the hegemony of the planned space dominates the discussion. However, at the level of spatial practice, or the “lived” social dimension, the prescribed uses or desired social outcomes of the physical planned infrastructure are not always directly manifested or translated. This is possibly observed through the notion of defiant spatial practices, which is defined as spatial practices that defy rules and regulations of public housing spaces, or challenge trajectories within space not anticipated or sanctioned for these contexts. (Hee 2009).
These defiant spatial practices are rarely displayed in the portrayal of public space in public housing estates in Singapore, in the representations of these spaces. However they remain interesting to investigate, as they display the myriad of ways in which urban planners are unable to “dictate” the spatial usage of the space, and possibly signal a politically critical attitude toward the particular space – although this may not be true more often than not.
Defiant spatial practices occur as a temporal interrogation of the established rules, rather than permanent displays of overt flouting of the regulations. Different types of defiant spatial practices can be linked toward different causes – either ignorance, inconsiderate behaviour, or creative expression. It is critical to note that a particular type of defiant spatial practice cannot be directly linked to a single cause; rather, the presence of spatially defiant practices indicate that planned public space does not fully reflect the practical needs of all user groups, or rarely fully fits into the day-to-day requirements of the existing social fabric and usage of space.
Types of Spatially Defiant Practices
Graffiti writing is a territorial endeavour in two fundamental senses: Firstly, the act of drawing is territorial, perceived as an extension of the body, or projection of oneself. Secondly, by writing on something that is part of the public realm, it is considered a deterritorialisation of conventional traditional boundaries, challenging the notion of “public”. (Brighenti 2010)
Territoriality, which is the feeling that groups have that they can use the physical environment as they like and change it physically to reflect their preferences and identities (Taylor 1988), therefore is a direct, fundamental goal of graffiti writing, although the need to express this territoriality could stem from either a lack of identity or political unrest and dissent. The presence of graffiti is evident across many public spaces within public housing in Singapore, as seen below, in the case of Tampines Neighborhood 9 Cultural Hub:
Images source: Author’s Own, 24 June 2016
The case for the study of these defiant spatial practices lie in that these practices tend to reflect and bring to the surface lesser seen user groups that use the space – by leaving their imprint on the physical site, their presence in the community becomes visible, thus giving knowledge of themselves to other user groups in the community.
For instance, in the case of Bukit Batok West Avenue Sports Hub in Singapore, a look at the type of graffiti/vandalism that occurs on the amphitheatre steps shows that it is a place that is often appropriated and used by young and adolescent school children.
Images source: Author’s Own, 5 July 2016
Litter is defined as any piece of solid waste that is misplaced, discarded but placed in an unacceptable location (Geller 1980). In a large scale study conducted on littering behaviour at 130 outdoor public spaces in the United States, it was found that the volume of litter receptacles present on site was less important in determining the levels of littering than the location of these rubbish bins (Schultz 2013). This translates as the fact that a well-placed litter bin is better at addressing the defiant social practice of littering, rather than many inaccessible bins.
As such, the presence of a high volume of littering reflects, to an extent, the failure of the physical environment in catering to the user needs, in the form of convenience of access toward a litter receptacle. It is suggested by the aforementioned study that the optimal distance between a user and the litter receptacle is less than 6 meters (Schultz 2013). Therefore this insinuates that highly used areas should have access to a litter receptacle less than 6 meters away.
This is also seen in public spaces such as the Tampines Neighbourhood 9 Cultural Hub in Singapore, where while there is evidence of many trash bins around the public area, it still remains that there are many traces of littering, especially around the amphitheatre. With reference to the study, this could possibly be a result of the nearest litter receptacle being more than 6 meters away from the amphitheatre seating. Also, despite signs being put up to discourage smoking, there were still empty cigarette packets left lying around.
Images source: Author’s Own, 24 June 2016
In the case of Bukit Batok Ave West Sports Hub, the lack of litter receptacles at the top of the amphitheatre steps resulted in higher perceptible levels of littering along the steps. Again using the optimal spacing suggested by the study, there was a physical distance of more than 6 meters from the steps to the nearest litter receptacle, which predicts a higher rate of littering occurring. This indicated that this mode of defiant spatial practice has some correlation with poor physical layout/design.
Images source: Author’s Own, 5 July 2016
The act of claiming space also exists within Singapore’s public housing public spaces. This manifests in the form of temporary furniture being appropriated to create new zones of interaction, or colonising of a portion of public space; or the leaving of personal items within a public space. These defiant spatial practices vary in their cause – other than ignorance, they could be manifestations of inconsiderate behaviour or a lackadaisical attitude toward the public space.
Cases of these are showcased in the public space of Clementi Spring estate, where residents appropriate public space elements for the drying of personal items and clothes:
Images source: Author’s Own, 13 July 2016
In addition, these defiant spatial practices are most possibly not acts of ignorance, as visits to the site and interactions with the residents indicated that they knew this was against the rules and regulations of public space – one resident even approached the author, who was taking photos, to explain that she would take down her items soon.
In the case of Ang Mo Kio 31 Open Plaza, acts of claiming space further manifest in the form of temporary furniture in creating new spaces for interaction.
Images source: Author’s Own, 19 July 2016
The spatially defiant practice of claiming space highlights the failure of the planned dimension to address these spontaneous activities and day-to-day usage of the public space. While these practices are considered as spatially defiant, in some cases, for instance the temporary furniture, might be attributed to other causes other than ignorance and inconsiderate behaviour – reasons such as the user’s spontaneous creative appropriation of public space.
While some might argue that spatially defiant practices that fall under this category might not illustrate a failure of the planned dimension, it should also be pointed out that rather than using the provided seating areas, users have bypassed it completely and opted to create their own optimal configuration – while there is room for self-expression, the planned dimension should be able to address the needs of the users to some extent, rather than be ignored entirely.
If we consider the different aspects of spatial production in public space as put forward by Henri Lefebvre (Lefebvre 1991), the physical planned dimension has to coincide with the everyday spatial practice, or the “lived” dimension, for public space designers to have any meaningful role in shaping and creating public spaces conducive for residents. The presence of such spatial defiant practices challenge the dominance of the planned dimension, and highlight that spatial practice does not merely follow the planned infrastructure, but rather the planned environment should adjust to better fit the existing community’s needs. This could be achieved through processes such as participatory design to better understand the makeup of the community and gain a better picture of their day-to-day needs.
Mubi Brighenti, A. 2010. At the wall: Graffiti writers, urban territoriality, and the public domain. Space and Culture 13 (3): 315-32.
Hee, L. 2009. Dissent and cultural resistance in Asia’s cities. Vol. 14. New York;London;: Routledge.
Taylor, R. 1988. Human territorial functioning: An empirical, evolutionary perspective on individual and small group territorial cognitions, behaviors, and consequences. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Geller, E. S. 1980. Behavioral community psychology: Progress and prospects: 254-283. New York, NY: Praeger.
Schultz, P. 2013. Littering in context: Personal and environmental predictors of littering behavior. Environment and Behavior 45 (1): 35-59
Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The production of space. Cambridge, Mass., USA;Oxford, OX, UK;: Blackwell.