Sunday, 24 February 2013

Keep kampung spirit, even in a big city

Pioneering Singapore architect Tay Kheng Soon says the real concern for any society isn't overcrowding, but how cohesive and trusting the community will be.
By Cheong Suk-wai, The Straits Times, 23 Feb 2013

WHILE many Singaporeans are complaining of cramped and intense city living these days, pioneering architect Tay Kheng Soon is confident that Singapore still has room for two million more people - and keep the kampung community spirit.

The solution is to house them compactly within a 2,187ha stretch of land in southern Singapore, from Pandan Reservoir in the west to East Coast Park, he said.

This was his startling proposal at a talk on Thursday night to about 100 people here, as part of an ongoing lecture series by master architects organised by the Singapore Institute of Architects.

Singaporeans fed up with crowded trains and public spaces flinched at the projection in the recent population White Paper that the 5.3 million-strong population here may burgeon to 6.9 million in 2030. The Government's Land Use Plan then detailed how it would reclaim more land and consolidate military training grounds to free up more space for all.

But disquiet continued, even after a five-day debate on the issue in Parliament.

Mr Tay however thinks "if it has to", the city-state can accommodate two million more residents comfortably.

He elaborates on his proposal: The southern coastline will house homes, offices, schools and factories for the extra two million residents. Places like the Keppel and Marina Bay golf courses there would have to go, along with the port, whose operations will be consolidated in Tuas in future.

The area around Gardens By The Bay could feature waterfront homes, he suggested.

Interestingly, no one at the talk challenged his proposal. The audience posed only three questions: whether or not women should do national service; how to deepen the dialogue between architects and city planners here; and if a research institute for architects should be set up.

Mr Tay, 73, is well-known for thinking out of the box or, as his detractors might say, throwing a spanner in the works.

But the respected architect said that his proposal was not in response to the White Paper; he had, in recent years, been trying to determine the density limit in Singapore.

The limit proved a hard nut to crack, he added, because very few places, including Singapore, publish or even track total floor area, which is necessary to calculate density.

"At the moment," he noted, "because we do not know how much floor space there is, we just add more floor area here and not put so much there. Such over- developing is wrong."

Fortunately, one place that did track total floor area was Fairfax County, just outside Washington, DC in the American state of Virginia, which has a population of one million and is 11/2 times the size of Singapore.

Mr Tay thought Fairfax's figures instructive for Singapore because it also grew rich via the aviation industry and was a hub for many multinationals, including Innova, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

He settled on 50 sq m as the "magic figure" of comfortably habitable total floor area per person, which is about half the size of the average HDB flat.

The method for planning space for each person in society takes into account every building in which he or she would likely be in, so that would include one's entire workspace, from office desk to boss' room to office corridor, and one's entire living space from bedroom to bathroom. But it would exclude recreational space.

With that 50 sq m criterion, and with a gross plot ratio (GPR) of 4.5, Mr Tay calculated that the southern strip he proposed for denser build-up would house 1.97 million people comfortably. This, he said, would result in an estate that would look like a cross between the 50-storey blocks of Pinnacle@Duxton and the quite dense Punggol estate, which has the highest GPR in Singapore today, that is, 3.24.

GPR is a measure of density of building units in a given space.

If that ratio dropped to four, then a cosier number would be 1.75 million. If it was lowered further to three, the optimal population density for that space would be 1.31 million.

Mr Tay said he suggested what he called "southern intensification" so as to leave the rest of Singapore today untouched in future.

That meant no cementing over nature reserves, public parks or other spaces to breathe.

Speaking to The Straits Times right after the talk, he said: "It's about not aggravating the rest of the island, and helping us plan in detail how to make everything here super-accessible."

But wouldn't building over East Coast Parkway, Singapore's biggest beach, take yet another beloved place away from Singaporeans? That, he said, could be replaced with man-made lagoons, filtered by rock bunds, along the southern coastline that could function as public swimming pools.

Mr Tay, who teaches architecture at the National University of Singapore (NUS) twice a week, said his deeper concern was how to reconfigure Singapore's neighbourhoods so that the people who live there could build their resilience, learn to look out for one another and, ultimately, be much happier.

His ideal HDB estate would have a spine running right through the centre of the neighbourhood, on which will be shops, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), civic space and individual classrooms - as opposed to fully built-up schools - which children could go in and out of for lessons, like undergraduates on campus.

While some may find this suggestion not very different from the rows of shops and amenities that already exist in their estates, Mr Tay said these would be much more stretched out in his plan.

"The spine would be a 1.5km necklace on which will be strung shops, schools, civic spaces and arts and culture spaces to encourage residents to walk in the streets and make the estate abuzz.

"This would enable successful sharing," Mr Tay said, "which would break down walls, including prejudice."

As for encouraging SMEs in neighbourhoods, he said the entrepreneurial spirit was crucial to build resilience. He cited Spain's Mondragon cooperative whose owner-workers ran their own banks, grew their own food and provided for the community in general.

"We should not be producing employees, we should be producing employers," he stressed, adding that housewives could earn money by taking turns to deliver meals to the elderly within the estate, give them massages or run errands for them.

Might it not be too late to put such kampung spirit back into HDB neighbourhoods? Surely it is dissonant to be talking about kampung-like living in the 21st century, when the IT-weaned youth live in their minds?

"That is why schools should be integrated within the community," he pointed out. "Children should live in the real world, not the abstract."

He added that the way forward, perhaps, was to build a test neighbourhood, say, at MacPherson, one of the oldest estates here - and one with many old people - where, since 2011, he and his team of 20 NUS students have been researching how to turn a big, old housing estate here into a "modern kampung" that can accommodate toddlers as well as their grandparents-cum-babysitters.

He recalled how old folk in MacPherson were initially chary of his idea to bond the community, that is, by getting them to plant fast-growing greens like chye sim for sale and their own consumption, in the passageways between their HDB blocks.

He even designed a waist-high table for the elderly so that they would not have to bend over for long minutes while tending their mini vegetable plots set in polystyrene boxes.

But when Mr Tay showed the elderly there that they could actually make $500 a month from cultivating vegetables for only two hours a day, they were all for it.

While Mr Tay had all these ideas, he was also a realist. "For all this to work, we will need solidarity and trust, but we are still far from that.

"But we should start somewhere, otherwise, we will only be fighting gridlock."


At the moment, because we do not know how much floor space there is, we just add more floor area here and not put so much there. Such over-developing is wrong.

- Pioneering architect Tay Kheng Soon, on how very few places, including Singapore, publish or track total floor area, which is necessary to calculate density


It's about not aggravating the rest of the island, and helping us plan in detail how to make everything here super-accessible.

- Mr Tay, on what he called "southern intensification" so as to leave the rest of Singapore today untouched in future

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