Friday 27 October 2017

Decking HDB halls with the kampung spirit

By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 26 Oct 2017

In various parts of the island, a new type of community space is popping up in Housing Board estates.

Some districts call them "community halls", others, "covered basketball courts". Most of the happy residents eager to get to their next bonding activity simply refer to them as "the place downstairs".

Whatever the name, these halls have emerged to provide residents a space for large-scale events.

Unlike void decks or stand-alone pavilions, these halls are often built some time after HDB blocks have been completed. They are also larger, often come in the form of permanent shelters erected over open land or basketball courts, and are not air-conditioned - unlike those found in community clubs.

As a result, they are most likely found in older estates, built in response to the neighbourhood's luxury of space but without modern amenities that residents in newer estates enjoy.

Amid the Government's push to re-foster that elusive "kampung spirit" - the HDB signed a $6 million agreement with the Singapore University of Technology and Design last month to encourage better social interaction among residents - the community hall has emerged as a grassroots solution.

MP Teo Ho Pin, whose Bukit Panjang single-member constituency boasts four community halls, said the multi-purpose spaces give residents another area to bond over different types of activities - from weddings or temple-hosted dinners during the Hungry Ghost Festival on weekends, to taiji or line-dancing sessions in the day.

The halls in his ward, formerly empty spaces or hard courts, were erected from as early as March 2014 to as recently as June this year. They range from 500 sq m to 800 sq m - which can fit 40 to 60 round tables. The halls are sometimes booked for up to 80 per cent of the 52 weekends in a year.

Mr Teo, who is a mayor as well as the People's Action Party's coordinating chairman for town councils, said he has seen human traffic and participation in community activities double or triple since the shelters were installed.

"In the past, interest groups using the open space had to stand aside and wait if it was raining or too hot. Some people also didn't bother coming down," he said.

"But now that the hall is built, and everything in our estate is connected by sheltered walkways, the community is almost always there. Being able to beat the weather matters to kampung spirit," Mr Teo said.

The new spaces arose from feedback sessions over how to use Neighbourhood Renewal Programme grants, given out by the HDB for residents to choose what sort of upgrading projects they want to spruce up their estates, he said.

The halls cost about $260,000 each, but many residents have found the investment an improvement to their lives.

Among them is lifelong Bukit Panjang resident and public servant Asri Asman, 30, who booked the Block 229, Pending Road community hall for three days for his wedding earlier this month.

"At most Malay weddings, you get about 500 guests over the course of the day and even then, a void deck can barely hold them. We had about 1,500 guests and I'm glad that most of them had a chance to sit and have their meal," he said.

Over in Nee Soon GRC, Nee Soon South ward may have what is the largest community hall in Singapore - a covered basketball court outside Block 838, Yishun Street 81 that can hold up to 100 tables.

"Instead of erecting a tent for every event, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars each time and takes up a huge chunk of our event budget, we wanted something permanent," MP Lee Bee Wah said of the town council's investment, adding that the shelter means that residents can also play ball games come rain or shine.

Located between Khatib MRT and a nexus of supermarkets and coffee shops, it is used at least once a month for major events, including an upcoming New Year's Eve party expected to host 15,000 residents.

In addition, it is used to host health and environment lectures, as well as to distribute necessities to needy residents.

Said Ms Lee: "The shelter frees up funds for us to do better events and benefit more needy residents."

National University of Singapore urban sociologist Ho Kong Chong said having covered spaces that can cater to a multitude of events is a good thing in tropical, land-scarce Singapore. "If you have a covered area that can scale up to accommodate a large dinner or down to a smaller basketball game, and it is used often enough, I have no complaints," he said.

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