Ho Kong Chong

on civic spaces and place-making


An urban sociologist at the National University of Singapore, Professor Ho has co-authored Globalization, the City and Civil Society in Pacific Asia Cities (2008) that looks at how cooperative efforts and a more relaxed land use policy can reshape the city.


What is a civic space?

The idea behind civic space premises on the idea that cities are very diverse, and therefore it is only through interaction that people can bridge social distance and build social capital. Civic spaces are places like the neighbourhood coffee shops, sidewalk cafes, hair salons and public spaces like parks where people can come together and intermingle. Although some of these places and businesses charge money, people don’t just go, purchase a product and leave. They tend to stay and interact with others, and sometimes relationships develop this way because conversations between familiar strangers and regulars from different social backgrounds can be novel and interesting kinds of conversations. These conversations may well become the bridge to cooperative ventures.

What is a social capital?

Social capital is the propensity for people to work together in a cooperative fashion. In the absence of such places people tend to keep to themselves. And, through getting together, they develop an understanding and possibly solve problems collectively.

What is the difference between a place and a space?

Spaces become places when there is a certain identity that is embedded in the space, and this can be created by everyday practices and certain design elements, and reinforced by memory. Urban development tends to wipe out everything and replaces it with new elements. But having said that, urban renewal is also necessary because of the need to include new elements into an existing built environment. So ultimately it is the balancing of the old and the new that is difficult, but absolutely essential.

Why is it difficult to make a place in Singapore?

The issue of place making has to do with the attempt by the people to have a hand in making places of their own in the neighbourhoods, their districts, the new towns, city and country. If regulation is too heavy, you may not have enough efforts by local residents to try and create local places. Public housing estates suffer from a more serious problem because so much of the design is defined by the HDB (Housing and Development Board). But even as I say this, I think the HDB recognises that and there have been initiatives to work, for example, with students from schools to decorate the neighbourhood estates, but there is still a long way to go.

How does the economy affect the creation of a place?

There is not enough room for experimentation in Singapore because the country places a lot of attention on the economic returns from land. It is not because people do not have ideas, our young people certainly do. But it is because the cost of land is just too costly and the high rents do not allow for experimentation and failure. In a place like Bangkok where rent is cheap the cost of failure is so low, you can just pack up and leave if your business fails. But how can we allow for experimentation in Singapore when hawking is illegal and the rental of a pushcart in a shopping mall can cost several thousands a month?

It is also as much of a government policy to ensure the highest rate of return. If you keep thinking about the highest rate of return, it narrows us to a very small set of activities. It doesn’t allow for a bigger heart, it doesn’t allow for a variety of people to have the right of access, doesn’t allow experimentation. We could have this situation where the people, except for a few, are poor in the sense that they don’t have access to a richer life by pursuing a variety of interests.

There could be more leeway given to non-profit, less profit and even profit-losing kinds of activities if these prove to achieve other types of benefits to society. If you set as a principle the highest profit, then there is only that much we can do. Surely we can allow for more diverse land uses of varying rates of returns, not a single rate. Land is surely a premium in Singapore, but this premium is surely also restricting a fuller range of activities.