Imbuing housing estates with character

SINGAPORE - The effort to imbue housing estates with character - ideally to distinguish them from other estates - is a constant challenge in an environment where efficiency, top-down management and project deadlines are dominant factors.

Necessity led to a cookie-cutter approach when Housing Board flats were erected in the early years of the public housing programme. But Singapore has come a long way since then. The distance travelled, in terms of character and taste, can be seen in neatly-laid-out and landscaped public housing estates that combine functionality and aesthetic appeal - features often regarded as better than those of some private estates abroad.

With rising expectations, National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan has promised that each new Housing Board project will improve on previous developments.

Three planned estates - Bidadari, Tampines North and Punggol Matilda - will feature open spaces and greenery as an intrinsic part of their charm. A man-made lake and a regional park for Bidadari; two parks for Tampines North, one boasting a sandy beach; and a waterfront estate for Punggol Matilda are some of the ways in which they will stand out in Singapore's crowded architectural landscape.

When the state is involved, the objective must be to not just create estates that please buyers but to also build inclusive communities.

With this in mind, spaces should be designed to attract residents and allow them to interact in different ways, while respecting the area's heritage and ecological integrity.

Developing an age-friendly city means designing or adapting structures and services that also cater to residents, young and old, with varying needs and capacities. Indeed, regulations now stipulate that family-friendly features, from nursing rooms to upsized parking spaces, will be compulsory from next April for all new buildings that are frequented by families.

Even award-winning urban designs can fall short of social expectations if they are inaccessible or unsafe for certain groups of users, if people simply lack the information to make good use of facilities, and if community life is barren. Practical needs can be taken into account by planners but they can only do so much on their own in the socio-cultural sphere.

How the identity of a housing estate develops, of course, depends on the extent to which residents cherish the heritage of a place and the degree to which they are willing to invest their energies and imagination in making the environment come alive.

Affinity with, and attachment to, a new estate can be established only over time. Even as the authorities go about building a quality living environment, it is residents who turn spaces into lively neighbourhoods.

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