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What happens when a generation of Singaporeans used to communal living in kampungs are relocated into modern public HDB housing estates? Sidewalk Easement is an on-going photography project by Song Nian in a search for the ‘kampung’ spirit in the HDB environment.

In these initial seven photos, he documented households that had placed their personal belongings in the common corridor outside their apartments that is a public area. This, he said, highlighted the blurring of personal spaces in the communal area of public housings.

“This series started off as a study on the relationship between people and their surroundings, and through our intervention on our immediate spaces, the affect that we impose on landscapes and vice versa,” said the photographer who is currently pursuing a degree in photography at the University of the Arts, London.

Through his explorations for this series, Song Nian has seen how little interventions by households have changed their modern living environment. “A lot of these households have actually made these spaces into an inviting communal area that encourages interaction between neighbours and others who’re staying in the vicinity,” he said.

In his images of sidewalks stacked with religious artifacts, plants and furniture, Song Nian also hopes the invite viewers to question the background and story of each family. “This is especially important to me when I’m making my work because i believe that art should be throwing questions, and not providing answers.”

A group of residents living in Marsiling Rise have come together to question their Town Council’s decision to remove an assortment of trees that they planted into the ground and have tended to for a decade. It was first reported on Today newspaper and was followed by a response from the Town Council. Not satisfied with the developments, a resident wrote into the Straits Times Forum today questioning the Town Council’s actions against the call for making Singapore into a garden city.

I headed down to Marsiling Rise today and it was quite a sight to see how the ground-floor residents of Block 103 to Block 127 have created a pathway of gardens outside their homes. Against the backdrop of a grass slope of Woodlands Town Park East, these residents’ gardens add on to a unique green corridor that these four-storey blocks face.

The current problem arises because the resident planted some trees that into the ground of the estate’s common property. As we’ve seen in several cases in our story, Town Councils today are okay with potted plants but will clamp down when one plants into the land that is managed by them. The land, common property, is meant for all residents to enjoy but under such tight management by the Town Councils, they have been usually left alone instead.

According to the news report, some residents support the decision to remove the trees because it is unsightly. We think that is a convenient solution. How about bringing the residents together to come up with a garden that is aesthetically pleasing instead of just removing it? Based on the above gardens, I’m sure the residents can create something beautiful. Plus, the community can get to work together to solve their problem.

The Town Council’s other solution of asking residents to plant in the community gardens set aside for them (left) smacks of a convenient excuse to manage things Singapore-style. Want to protest? Go to Speaker’s Corner. Want to garden? Go to a community garden.

Yet by setting aside land for singular purposes, we not only make the country smaller than it actually is, we return to a banality that pervades our environment — everything has its place in this grand masterplan that we are living in.

Posted on: 21 May, 2009 | No Comments | Tagged as: ,

“A bonsai — if carefully cultivated — can be beautiful, hardy and long lasting. But it cannot reproduce on its own. And a whole bonsai garden needs the constant “micro-management” of the good gardener in cultivating each and every selected plant. In the rainforest, however, the whole is the greater than the sum of its parts; yet each part makes its own distinctive contribution to biodiversity and ecological sustainability.”

Kwok Kian-Woon in The bonsai and the rainforest: reflections on culture and cultural policy in Singapore (2004)

While Assoc Prof Kwok was referring to Singapore’s cultural policy when he wrote this, I find it an apt reference to examine two recent Straits Times articles that reflect the management of space in Singapore.

The head of the leading landscaper in Singapore was interviewed today in No gardeners in Garden City where he highlighted how our image as a Garden City would fail without government support because this is “a nation of armchair gardeners”. Indeed, the emphasis of our Garden City policy is to make Singapore a Garden City and not a Gardeners’ City, which brings us back to Assoc Prof Kwok’s description of Singapore as a “bonsai garden” — it cannot reproduce on its own.

On Monday, the current chairman of the Orchard Road Business Association was interviewed in Growing Orchard where she suggested that Singapore’s shopping street be cleared of beggars, flyer distributors and street buskers in order to make Orchard Road “A Great Street“. Such a move, I think, would sterilise the street and make it live up to its name of being a carefully cultivated orchard just for shopping.

But Orchard Road is after all a public space, so a suggestion that comes from an association which “promotes the welfare of businesses in Orchard Road” should be received with caution. The hope is that Orchard Road can be like Assoc Prof Kwok’s “rainforest”, a reflection of this city’s diversity and not just the space of the businesses.

/UPDATE/ The Straits Times published a letter I wrote with regards to Growing Orchard today. Read it here.

A group of residents of Bukit Panjang have been farming on state-owned land in their neighbourhood thanks to the cheap monthly rent offered by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA). According to a Lianhe Zaobao report, SLA has been allowing such community initiatives take over these empty plots of land at lower than market rates since 2002 with its Temporary Occupation License. At just three cents per square metre, renting land the size of a soccer field would cost $210 a month as compared to the prevailing market rates of up to $2800.Besides farming, communities have also set up basketball courts, mini gardens and facilities for archery at 190 sites all over the island.

SLA said that rather than let these empty plots that are marked for future use remain unused, it decided to open them up for community use on a temporary basis. The only conditions are that the land is well-maintained and not use for commercial purposes. Currently, it has 14,000 hectares worth of such land, the equivalent of 20,000 soccer fields and you can find a full list of where they are here.

It is great to hear that the state is thinking beyond economics in land use as Prof Ho Kong Chong argued, and it reminds us of our folks in Balik Kampung. We’ll like to hear more communities take the initiative in deciding how to use the space around them. Tell us if you’re involved in such a community or you have plans to start one!

Posted on: 28 March, 2009 | No Comments | Tagged as: ,

Many Singaporeans want to garden in their public housing estate, but like you will find in our story, The gardeners’ city, it is far from easy for them. Some of these issues are also being discussed at a local Internet forum for gardening enthusiasts, and they range from overly-paranoid town councils, their residents’ committees limited funding for such gardening or just trying to find enough people to come together to join the state’s Community-In-Bloom program.

But does gardening like this really pose so big a problem that we should be wary of these gardeners? Fears of dengue breeding, an obstruction to corridors, a fire hazard… a case of extreme imagination or real concerns?

Take a look at what we have seen.