American urban geographer Joel Kotkin identifies three great characteristics of cities: safe, busy and sacred ("Hotel Singapore or the Sacred Place?"; last Saturday). I would suggest that there is much more to being a great city. The notion of "sense of place" for a city is more than being linked to religion or being somehow sacred.
In truth, most cities have a number of their parts that have sense of place.
Sense of place defines a part of a city by its unique heritage, culture and physical character. It comes through in organic planning and sensitive design, and not by wiping the slate clean. Activities, essentially defined by culture (or a number of cultures that make up that city), also contribute to sense of place, as does the use of those places by people.
All of these things determine that special quality that people feel and appreciate.
In Singapore, places such as Little India, Chinatown, Arab Street and Clarke Quay have this special quality.
Singapore has a good tradition of designing parks and open spaces such as the Botanic Gardens, which contribute to a sense of place.
However, the city is also losing key spaces to major developments. Areas such as Bidadari, an important and attractive area in activity and heritage terms, will be lost to more high-rise apartments and probably to more "sameness".
While Singapore has done a good job of conserving some key heritage buildings, buildings with supposedly less heritage value are being demolished, or their visual settings are being overridden by encroaching high-rise structures.
They may not be considered iconic structures but these lesser-known historic buildings still contribute to overall urban design heritage and character.
A new development that has created a sense of place is Zhongshan Park in Balestier, where new buildings and a key space have opened up the frontage and character of the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall and the nearby Burmese Buddhist Temple.
More such places, which take into account heritage, activity and culture as well as religious places, need to be created.
Similarly, more heritage buildings and key spaces need to be retained and linked to new developments, rather than be demolished to make way for them.
This article was published on April 9 in The Straits Times.
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