Building communities with better use of public spaces in Singapore

OCTOBER 27 — My home changed colour last week. The public housing block I live in was repainted as part of a refurbishment. 

Now I can’t say I’m a fan of the new orange and yellow colour scheme. The pastel shades look like a Dulux colour chart but the point is the government via the Housing Development Board (HDB) does make regular refurbishments to Singapore’s public housing. 

This regular attention helps make the HDB one of the world’s most successful public housing schemes.  

Eighty per cent of Singaporeans live in HDB housing. The city has arguably the highest proportion of public housing dwellers in the world.

Sure, there is some debate about the cost of the houses (some claim it’s too high) and the final ownership of the homes (HDB homes come with a 99-year lease — what happens after the leases run out remains unclear). 

Overall, however, the HDB provides a good standard of housing for the vast majority of the population. This makes these flats and blocks crucial to the overall functioning of Singapore.

And there is always room for growth and improvement. This round of refurbishment has provided my block/area with new covered walkways, some remodelled green spaces and play areas and some new badminton courts.

While these things will certainly prove useful in themselves, they won’t do the most important thing of all — build the community.

Fundamentally, the HDB is the bedrock of Singapore life — this is where people live their lives and social cohesion and integration at this level is key to a thriving society.

Recently there has been a clear retreat away from neighbourhood public spaces. Netflix, delivery services, the influx of new migrants and the departure long-term residents mean people just don’t mingle in the spaces under our homes like they used to.

These days there are more unfamiliar faces. Now, more then ever, we need to make an effort to get to know our neighbours.

Here are my suggestions on how:

1. Water. Singapore is hot. What people want by their homes is space to cool off. Swimming pools, paddling pools and water parks are best for this.

The state has long steered clear of building swimming pools in HDB estates — my estate has one public pool some distance away.

I have long wondered if this was to aid the distinction betweeen condos/HUDC and HDB.

In reality in many cases, HDB provides a better quality of life than condos when you consider the proximity of other amenities and with more pools, HDBs would really be quite competitive.

A nearby park already has a fountain/kids’ play space — even more of these would help.

2. Void deck spaces. The first floor of nearly every HDB block was deliberately kept empty.

They tend to be just columned open spaces which Singaporeans call void decks. These spaces were designed deliberately to serve as public spaces.

To this day, weddings, funerals and various other gatherings are held in void decks. 

They were an amazingly far-sighted piece of design and planning but at present the facilities are basic.

I think leaving the spaces largely empty allows the space to look and feel spacious but the seating provided should be more comfortable.

New fans and some intelligent design can still keep the void decks spacious but better lighting and a few cosy nooks would transform the space.

When I was younger — so, quite some time ago — there were also study corners. Today co-working spaces are so trendy; time to bring this back?

3. Legislation. Recent legislation is stricter on public drinking. Of course, inebriated individuals can be a problem but I believe that most Singaporeans are capable of managing themselves.

The old uncles who would sit, play cards and drink (usually just one or two beers) under the block have vanished.

Modest drinking under the block which was the case 99 per cent of the time was never a problem and helped people to socialise in public rather than in their own private spaces.

Rules should be eased. We should also make it easier to book the spaces, at least parts of it, for birthday parties etc. Nearby my flat is a BBQ pit — more of these would be lovely.

4. Community. The void deck spaces could have little cafes or drinks’ stalls run by young people from the block or social enterprises (businesses that give back).

A small teh tarik stand would not compete with hawker facilities and again give people more of a reason to linger in the public spaces.

Bonus: This allows young people to better understand our food culture and how to run a business. Or residents can take turns to showcase a dish?

Fundamentally, a lot that can be done to really encourage community. After all, this is where we live, grow and raise our own children. I look forward to the future of HDB void decks.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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