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Empty spaces in cities have traditionally been sites waiting to be built on. These undeveloped lands are usually seen by its owners as a loss of income, or even worse, seen by the state as a sign of a city decaying. ZERO, is a new project by Professor Thomas Kong that challenges these negative values, and argues for a more positive one instead. Citing Asian philosophies and art theories, Professor Kong zeros in on sites in Beppu, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Singapore, to produce what he calls the “new attitudes in a post economic bubble age”.

ZERO challenges the traditional role of architects by looking at why there are empty spaces in a city, and how people make use of them. “…We have been trained as architects that the only thing we could present to society is a building, to fill the void again,” writes Professor Kong. But, he questions if this is feasible in a time when “the myth of continuous economic growth is shattered”, and capital for development can no longer be taken for granted.

In Singapore for instance, I helped him document how students make use of the airport to study. The vastness of the airport and its temporal nature of use opens up this space for students to reclaim and use it in other ways. Reclaim Land’s stories also easily fit into ZERO as they happened on spaces that are empty, and ‘open’ for appropriation.

Through this project supported by the 3rd Jaap Bakema Fellowship, Professor Kong is using ZERO to call for the return of the “commons” as an alternative to private property ownership. Instead of commodifying spaces and clearly demarcating them as public or private, there should be collective ownership. Along with this new ownership structure, he has listed out ten new attitudes on how we use spaces so as to keep them fluid and open for possibilities. The project is a fascinating read that challenges our ideas of empty spaces and suggests that we should look at it all over again — starting from ZERO.

The Singapore’s Economic Development Board is sponsoring a series, Singapore Sessions, that publishes views from one professional working in Singapore and three others around the world in response to a question related to their field of work. These bite-sized responses have appeared in top magazines like Monocle, Wired and The New Yorker.

In the latest session found in Monocle’s June issue, the question asked was “Where will people congregate?”

The CEO of our Urban Redevelopment Authority represented Singapore and her response, was not surprising:

Therefore, through careful planning on all scales, we strive to make Singapore a greater sum of its distinctive districts and neighbourhoods, and create a city that is enriching, lively and enjoyable for all.

Yes, planning on all scales, that’s Singapore for you!

In contrast, the only other urban planner in the session, Jamie Lerner gave a much shorter response. He said that good cities have to deal with sustainability, mobility and socio-diversity. How so?

if you want creativity, cut a zero off your budget; sustainability, cut off two; if you want solidarity, make your identity count while respecting diversity.

Or, urban planners should do less for more.

Sembawang Town Council has introduced an interesting initiative to handle door-to-door flyer advertising…

I’m not sure if it has cut down the number of flyers outside resident’s doorsteps.

On another note, it would have been even more interesting if the town council had branded this as a “Community Corner” as well to encourage residents to post interesting snippets about residential life. While most posts would still end up being advertisements, perhaps residents would be encourage to post a poem? Photos? Complaint letters?

Lucky Plaza, Far East Plaza, Far East Shopping Centre and Tanglin Shopping Centre are four shopping malls in Orchard Road recently identified by The Sunday Times as malls in need of upgrading

Unlike the glitzy malls around them, this quartet from the 1970s stick out with their plain facades. Shopping inside is also a different experience : A hair salon next to a chicken rice store, bargains being hawked next to electronics and gizmos, a jewellery store next to a 7-11 convenience store — an eclectic mix of neighbours that seem to make no sense.

It turns out that who owns the malls makes for the very different shopping experiences. Unlike most malls today which are owned by one developer who dictates the mix of tenants, these four are strata-title malls. As individuals own each shop unit, this model means “minimal management of the mall”, explained Associate Professor Ang Swee Hoon to the newspaper. This worked in the past, said the marketing professor from NUS Business School,  “You went to a place because you knew the owner of the shop, not because the mall was nice or there were other shops there that would be attractive to you.”

But, is such a model no longer relevant today?

Interesting Malls
Without central planning from a developer, these four malls have acquired an interesting mix of tenants. The developer-owned malls, however, stick to a formula that brings in the most profits and traffic, resulting in standardised layouts filled with the same big brands. This makes the old malls stand out even more relevant because they provide a diverse shopping experience. After all, not everyone wants to squeeze with crowds and when it’s time for coffee, not everyone wants a Starbucks.

Malls with Interests
Also, these older malls, being spared the constant redevelopments of others because it can only happen if a majority of tenants agree, have actually developed their own unique identities. Lucky Plaza is known as a Filipino enclave, Far East Plaza is popular with teenagers, Far East Shopping Centre is for golfers and Tanglin Shopping Centre is place for art and antique. This is something the other malls can hardly claim because they often try to provide everything instead.

Whose city is it?
More importantly, these malls answer in some ways the question of how space is used in Singapore. We can see for ourselves the different results in letting a major developer dictate land use and one where individuals come together and create a shopping mall. The former is no doubt more profitable but also breeds a sameness and thus a constant need for upgrading. The latter may make no ‘shopping sense’, but it nurtures communities because shops stay around longer too.

While most Singaporeans will be in favour of these malls going through facelifts, let’s pause to ask why, and what we may be losing. At least, let’s not just get just another shopping mall.

URA is conducting a public consultation on how land will be used in Singapore in the next 40 to 50 years. You can let them know what you think in a 10-minute online survey where you get to tell them what you’ll love to have in the space around you and how they are faring in the moment. We think it’s a good opportunity to “reclaim” back your land, so have your say!

Posted on: 07 March, 2010 | No Comments | Tagged as: ,

In a global city like Singapore, can we find local spaces? This essay by Brenda Yeoh for Lucas Jodogne’s photobook, Singapore: Views on the Urban Landscape, is hopeful of how everyday life keeps such local spaces alive against  the “homogenising” forces of state and commerce that dominate this land.

In each and every one of the landscapes mentioned — heritage sites, foreigner enclaves and Singaporean heartlands — it is clear that homogenising forces in the form of commercial moves or planned forces are at work. Equally clear, however, local forces are present to confront and oppose, with varying degrees of success, the anonymous, rational, progressive and universalising tendencies of globalisation.

Landscapes And The Diversity Of Meaning In A Global City

Some of Jodogne’s photos can be seen here together with a curator’s write-up of this body of work. They were taken in a project that spanned between 1994 to 1998 and as noted by one of our readers, the photos show the “violent and sometimes surreal juxtapositions present in Singapore’s built environment”.

It was great to read about people making full use of ‘State Land’ in Singapore for casual community use in today’s Sunday Plus. In fact, this policy to open up spaces for public use should continue and even be expanded.

Such help develop communities and a sense of ownership as the people who use them will take the initiative to maintain it. More importantly, space should be ‘open’ to all races, ages and walks of life. Too often, spaces here are built exclusively for those of a certain age group or class, such as shopping malls. The zoning of spaces for residential and commercial use also limits space to just a single use. What is built is then a city of communities divided by interests, age, class; and hardly any interaction amongst them.

By ‘opening’ up space, people can come together in a more casual and coincidental manner. Just like how we make land developers create spaces for greenery and the arts in their buildings, there should be a law to have public spaces too. These spaces should be kept open to all and there is no need for any expensive furniture except some seats and tables — let the people fill in the rest. This will no doubt be a more messy environment as things are less planned, but the interaction of different people in an open space will help build a more tolerant and creative society.

Posted on: 29 November, 2009 | No Comments | Tagged as: ,

Singaporeans annoyance with flyers and junk mail being put up at their front doors has been a perennial issue in public housing living. Unlike in our story where resident Teo came up with a creative response to the issue, this writer to Today’s Voices page has had less success with her efforts.

Indeed, flyers can be an annoying problem to residents, but we’ll like to add context to the whole issue by looking at it from the advertiser’s perspective too. From those we spoke to for our story, distributing flyers is a cheap and creative response to get their messages out. Unlike big companies, they do not have the resources to advertise at “legitimate” places like newspapers.

They used to be able to drop flyers into mailboxes, but this came to a stop in 1996 when the new “anti-junk mail” letterboxes were introduced into our public housing estates. Since then, what has happened seems to be this: shut out from the mailboxes they turn to placing their flyers at your doorstep instead. Moreover, Singpost now has monopolised access to the mailboxes and has since set up a direct marketing arm to profit from it.

Perhaps what is needed is an open platform that is accessible to anyone. Just like noticeboards found at some of our train stations, how about putting these up at public housing lift landings too? They should be left open for residents and advertisers to put up advertisements and notices.

Posted on: 26 November, 2009 | 2 Comments | Tagged as: , ,

Two integrated resorts, ION Orchard, the Singapore Sports Hub — it’s funny how a small Singapore always has such grand plans for its city.

But sometimes, the way to go is starting small.

Small changes are appealing for many reasons. They’re cheap, for one thing. Also, what works can be easily expanded, and what doesn’t work can be as easily terminated or altered.

This is from a short article in City Journal, where several examples of how small changes in other cities have made it a better place to live in. In this city so enamored with the grand and the glitzy, we think that this is something our city planners can pay better attention to — all the small things.

Posted on: 25 April, 2009 | No Comments | Tagged as: ,

It seems that love is in the air of this city at last. After launching My New Singapore recently, National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan spoke to the Straits Times’ Insight (Love and the City, April 24) about how memories were important in fostering Singaporeans love for this city and how such feelings will make this city not just liveable, but lovable.

When you feel for this place, people will think twice about littering, about dirtying the place. They will think about how they interact with fellow Singaporeans. It’s that sense of being part of this place, being part of something special.
Mah Bow Tan, National Development Minister  

Yesterday, Minister Mah also announced the upcoming Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize to recognise those who have helped contribute to creating a vibrant, liveable and sustainable city. Nominations for the award begins in June.

But awards and state initiatives aside, how do ordinary Singaporeans feel and cope with living in this city? Prof Lai Ah Eng’s recent working paper A Neighbourhood in Singapore: Ordinary People’s Lives ‘Downstairs’ for the Asia Research Institute provides an ethnographic answer. The paper looks at Marine Parade residents and the daily interactions in their public housing space and concludes that seemingly ordinary places to urban planners are actually inspiration for artists and memory markers for communities. And at the end of the day, people just want to have a say in how their city is built and planned.

Posted on: 18 April, 2009 | No Comments | Tagged as: , ,

In this economic downturn, why not save some money from traveling overseas and tour Singapore instead? That’s what the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) hopes to achieve in its latest campaigns to encourage Singaporeans to rediscover this city. At a keynote speech made at its annual Corporate Plan Seminar, National Development Minister Mah Bow Tan outlined its upcoming programme My New Singapore that will include exhibitions and tours to various local attractions. 

“I hope that when Singaporeans rediscover Singapore, we will realise what a special little city we have and perhaps, we will love our city even more.” 
Mah Bow Tan, National Development Minister 

There is a lot to love about this city and we think it is more than what URA has in mind. Besides some of the places it plans to take Singaporeans like  Sungei Buloh, Changi Boardwalk and the new Marina Bay, all grand state initiatives, what is missing is getting people involved in their own city! We can fall in love in our city even more by being an active participant in its creation instead of being distracted by how lovely the state has made it.

So on top of holding exhibitions to outline what plans are in store for neighbourhoods, why not hold tea sessions with residents to solicit ideas on how to make their housing estates lovable? How about holding tours that show ordinary Singaporeans living and making this their city?

Moreover many of the examples mentioned by in Minister Mah’s speech are nature spaces and this seems to be a deliberate strategy to use nature to soften the effects of a crowded city as pointed out in Spaced Out, a recent opinion piece in IS-Magazine on city planning here. There are more ways to love and seek leisure in this city beyond going green and it’s just waiting to be discovered!