“This is home, truly”: so let’s please stop tearing up things that make Singapore our home

“Urban spaces have a social value… when we level them in the name of progress, we scatter the communities who built themselves around them.”

The value of a Chinese zhisha teapot increases with repeated use. This is because the clay used to make the pot retains oxide deposits from the brewing of tea, and therefore these teapots are never washed or scrubbed with detergent. I believe that urban spaces are the same – their value increases with repeated use, because it is through using and living in these spaces that we imbue them with our identities.

SONY DSC
Fig 1. The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) model of Singapore. The URA Masterplan strategies land-use in Singapore and engages in long-term planning for the future city.

In Singapore, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) has transformed planning and land-usage in Singapore into a science that makes the rest of the world envious. However, I believe that this agency suffers from a bureaucratic tunnel vision, and fails to see the value of urban spaces beyond the physical walls that they represent. [1] Urban spaces have a social value as well, and when we level them in the name of progress, we scatter the communities who built themselves around them. [2]

Most recently, the announcement to merge eight junior colleges caused the alumni of these colleges to express their concerns over the impending loss of their old school buildings and the impact it would have on their communities. I wish to highlight what we are losing as a society when we destroy these spaces, and hopefully provide another way of conceptualizing city planning and urban spaces.

(Not) just another city? 

Singapore is not alien to criticisms that our city is sterile or lacking in character. Just last week, the Straits Times ran a forum letter that said that we lack charm in comparison to Malacca and Bangkok. [3] In the early 2000s, there was also talk of making Singapore a vibrant city on par with London or New York. Malacca has charm, and London has charm as well – it is evident that this urban character is not based on the messy or festive, and neither is it based on the presence of old buildings or high culture either.

Therefore, it is not a matter of what we build (sorry Marina Bay Sands and Gardens by the Bay), but how we use these spaces. What all the above cities have in common are urban spaces that are allowed to develop and retain their character without being subjected to frequent disruptions. Jonker Street in Malacca, and Trafalgar Square in London are examples of how urban spaces are allowed to retain their character and become the centres of their respective communities.

The solution for Singapore, is not another flashy F1 Grand Prix, or to for us to host another Youth Olympics Games. Those are great bonuses, and they do add another layer to Singapore’s landscape, but it is time to give heed to those communities that give our urban spaces a character.

When we demolish rather than rejuvenate urban spaces, we scatter the communities that they came to underpin. This could be seen from the demolition of Pearl Centre in Chinatown, which became the gathering point of many retirees who found a community in that space. [4]

Similarly, the demolition of the old National Library building at Fort Canning was a loss to Singapore’s identity. There is a certain intangible social value in having generations climb up the same steps, pass through the same door, and roam the same hallways for books. We cannot ignore the intrinsic value of physical spaces, and they contribute to our identity as Singaporeans – it is akin to having different generations of Singaporeans sing the same songs, or eat the same food – these spaces form a part of us; a part of who we are as a people.

No doubt the new National Library building is superior in virtually every category of comparison – better lighting, better ventilation, greener and more energy efficient, and having a greater capacity as well. However, the learning community that the old library came to represent will have to be painstakingly reconstituted. It would take decades of usage in order for this new building to start to occupy an equivalent symbolic communal place as the old library did – and I do hope that it does not get demolished in the name of redevelopment before this can happen.

Haji-Lane-Shopping
Shops along Haji Lane

Despite the value that comes with age and repeated use, like the zhisha teapot, we continue to tear up the fabric of what makes us Singapore, only to scratch our heads afterwards and ponder why we are lacking in history. If we revamp Haji Lane today, for instance, it would be years before the boutique fashion community finds its footing again in a new space, hindering their growth for years. If we demolish Golden Mile Towers, we scatter the film-lover community that came to grow around it. [5]

While I admit we cannot preserve everything, nor is everything equally worth preserving, I do wish that urban planning is carried out with ‘community’ at the centre, not merely raw utility.

Conclusion

Singapore was born in the era of high-modernism –  the 1960s belief that scientific planning and rational design can create the most effective urban spaces. It is therefore not surprising that our first wave of public housing greatly resembles those from Eastern Bloc countries. We benefited greatly from such planning, with some of the smoothest traffic in a metropolis (compared to other large urban centres like London and Jakarta), and with amenities well-spaced out across public housing estates. [6]

Fig 2. Singaporean HDB developments (left), and St. Louis, USA (right). Icons of the era of ‘high-modernism’. 

However, as the era of high-modernism comes to a close, I believe it is time we start to pay more attention to the people who use the space, and concede that there is no formula to represent the human touch in city life. It is only then will Singapore be able to transcend from being a ‘modern city’ into being a home. Therefore, instead of seeing the physical urban spaces and the communities in them as being separate, I urge everyone to think of our city as an assemblage of community and spaces – each inseparable from the other.

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Notes: 

[1] The tunnel vision is inevitable, and understandable – all agencies need to decide what data matters, and how to interpreted data in order to make sense of the world, and make tough choices. However, I am hoping that in the process of making sense of the world, the social and communal dimension of our urban spaces can be factored into the mix as well.

[2] Scott, James. Seeing Like a State: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. Yale, 1994.

[3] http://www.straitstimes.com/forum/letters-in-print/bangkok-malacca-have-a-charm-we-lack

[4] http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/pearls-centres-final-days

[5] http://thesmartlocal.com/read/the-projector-guide

[6] Scott, James; Taylor, Peter. Modernities: A Geohistorical Interpretation. Minneapolis, 1999. pp. 18 – 32.

[7] Some readers have expressed concerns about Singapore’s limited land spaces, and asked how should we balance these concerns with our interest in protecting our heritage.

I agree that there are land-use concerns in Singapore, and they are tricky given the small amount of wriggle room we have – and therefore we cannot preserve everything. Trade-offs have to be made. However, what I arguing for is to a shift in our way of conceptualising urban spaces – from mere buildings to buildings vassals of communities. Currently, we consider the historical value and the architectural heritage of a building when deciding on preservation and land usage. I believe that we will also have to consider the communities that use them. When deciding what to preserve, demolish, or revamp, we need to also ask whether there are similar communities in Singapore? Are they replaceable? And whether it would be difficult for these communities to reconstitute themselves. By factoring in the human element, we can forge a more measured way forward.

Furthermore, I believe that accounting for the social dimension of an urban space (the civitas), it goes beyond mere heritage concerns. It would go on to inform how we think about modern buildings as well – such as town centers in public housing estates, and how we modernise them in a manner that would be respectful of the communities that use them.

Photo credits: passportchop.com; flickr.com; pintrest.com

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Author: Lee Ke Lin

I am currently pursuing my graduate studies in 19th century history! :D

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