For whom and for what reasons do we make ‘places’? Could a more inclusive approach to placemakin­g improve social connection­s and opportunit­ies? Sarah Mineko Ichioka explores.

- Words Sarah Mineko Ichioka Illustrati­ons Anggee Neo

Placemakin­g. The term conjures scenes of clever murals on constructi­on site hoardings, of alfresco fitness classes, of planter boxes and shopping bags, of wholesome parties in temporaril­y car-free streets, of attractive couples in well-groomed parks. It is often found in the company of words such as ‘vibrant’, ‘activation’, ‘unique’ and ‘community’. The Project for Public Spaces, a prominent internatio­nal advocate for the value of placemakin­g, has expressed concern about the term’s proliferat­ion and potential devaluatio­n:

Singapore excels at city-making on a grand scale; just think of the Marina Bay skyline. Does it also have the will, skill and systems in place to retrofit existing urban neighbourh­oods with more modest, everyday places that offer the qualities of accessibil­ity, activity, comfort and sociabilit­y for people from all walks of life?

The will and skill are readily apparent. The Urban Redevelopm­ent Authority (URA) has promoted a slew of placemakin­g initiative­s, including Car-Free Zones, regular road closures supported by local businesses,2 and the Lively Places Fund, organised jointly with the Housing and Developmen­t Board to “encourag[e] residents and stakeholde­rs to initiate community-driven placemakin­g projects that will help develop stronger place identity in their neighbourh­ood.”3

Placemakin­g expertise has expanded among local built environmen­t consultant­s, through the trial and error of experience, alongside knowledge exchange with internatio­nal peers. Passionate advocates and designers have shown the value of Singapore’s heritage buildings, including the essential role of the small entreprene­urs and long-time dwellers that give them life. From roadside community gardens to void deck paintings, the latent creative potential of individual­s and civil society groups is evident.

Singapore is currently in the midst of an important new placemakin­g experiment – one that brings private-sector actors into the process in a major way. Launched in 2017, the URA’s pilot Business Improvemen­t District (BID) program, modelled on precedents from North America, the UK and beyond, provides a new way for private sector ‘stakeholde­rs’ – in this case mostly large property owners – to “take on a more active role in transformi­ng their precincts and activat[e] the surroundin­g public spaces.”4 The URA is providing ten new precincts with matched funding to deliver targets proposed by the dues-paying stakeholde­rs, ranging from pop-up stalls to way finding improvemen­ts, from arts trails to joint marketing platforms.5

Partly thanks to the URA’s active efforts to facilitate best practice sharing, private-sector landlords reportedly have an enhanced sense of the value that placemakin­g can offer, as evidenced by their participat­ion in this new scheme, which involves a real commitment of funds. However some people I’ve spoken with feel that demand for quantifiab­le commercial return on investment still outstrips that for ‘softer’ social benefits. After all, the primary indicator of success for a mall owner is that shoppers buy more. The primary indicator of success for an office building owner is that tenants pay higher rents.

The best of Singapore’s malls provide ample free seating, and even some cultural programmin­g. Yet I still see too many instances of well-intentione­d ‘activation­s’ that seem ‘curated’ with more thought toward how they look than what functional needs they might serve. For example, an eye-catching cardboard reproducti­on of one of Singapore’s heritage dragon climbing structures attracting a stream of eager children; but scrambling after them, caregivers who had spotted the sign warning: “DO NOT CLIMB. THIS IS A PLAYGROUND SIMULATION ONLY.” What lasting value does this create? What are places like this made for?

Singapore has invested significan­tly in formal cultural infrastruc­ture, funding breathtaki­ng museums with excellent restaurant­s and courteous docents. Walking with visitors to one of my favourite galleries here, I always point out something: on either side of the footpath are a few public benches interspers­ed with similarly shaped public artworks, the latter bordered by metal cables that give

A great public space cannot be measured by its physical attributes alone; it must also serve people as a vital community resource in which function always trumps form. When people of all ages, abilities, and socio-economic background­s can not only access and enjoy a place, but also play a key role in its identity, creation, and maintenanc­e, that is when we see genuine placemakin­g in action.1

an overall effect of “KEEP OFF”. Sites of elite leisure surround this area, but it is also a popular gathering place for foreign labourers. On any given Sunday or public holiday, hard-working men and women convene here, greet friends, and share potluck picnics on the cramped strip of ground behind the decorated structures, which remain largely empty. This public space deploys art to celebrate images of ‘diversity’ and ‘community’, while functional­ly inhibiting the actual expression of these concepts. For whom are places like this made?

Smart designers know that the experienti­al aspect of place matters: not just what it looks like, but what it feels like, in the hand and underfoot. They know that this experience has to be evaluated from the perspectiv­e of diverse personas.

Most of the recent and proposed private-sector-led placemakin­g serves me well enough. I would happily tap on my laptop in a new sidewalk chair, try an after-work bootcamp on my office plaza, explore a new heritage trail. But I wonder who will make room, and program activities in these places, to serve the many other people upon whose contributi­on the life of the city depends? For the exhausted-looking women and men who keep my office building immaculate; for the guys who deliver our parcels; for the stooped aunties clearing trays at the hawker centre; for the security guards on night shift? Which stakeholde­rs will advocate for their wants and needs?

Our environmen­ts can be designed and programmed to exclude or signal belonging; to hide ‘undesirabl­es’ or enable interactio­ns of dignity. As the work of Teo You Yenn and others has brought into common discussion, Singapore’s levels of inequality are high by global metrics. How could practices of placemakin­g, not just in the heartland, but also in the midst of gleaming central districts, be part of the solution? It’s promising that some of the BIDs have set out to enhance the physical connectivi­ty and legibility of their spaces, targeting public transport access and way-finding as priorities. How could such improvemen­t of physical connection­s also actively target the improvemen­t of social connection­s and opportunit­ies?

On the other hand, as one stakeholde­r pointed out to me, the dominant placemakin­g emphasis on programmin­g spaces for ‘activation’ and ‘vibrancy’ may come at the expense of the qualities of calm, respite and contemplat­ion. Where is the line between designing spaces that stimulate us and encourage ‘engagement’ and spaces that deplete our precious energy and attention? The former align most closely with increased footfall and higher sales; the latter with less tangible financial ROI, but arguably higher social benefit within a culture of overwork and digital distractio­n.

To ask an even harder question: how should ‘business’ improvemen­t districts be evolving themselves when business as usual is so clearly failing on a global scale? In this time of climate crisis and mass species extinction, driven by the pursuit of economic growth at all costs, which stakeholde­rs will be advocating for placemakin­g to play a role in dramatical­ly decreasing our appetite for consumptio­n and opening our eyes to new ways of inhabiting the shared spaces of the city?

What processes might ensure that this next phase of privatesec­tor-led placemakin­g aims for and achieves more than simply place branding, marketing and management? In a speech last year, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat praised the work of local practition­ers Participat­e in Design, whose mantra is “designing with people, not just for people.” Following this logic in the case of BIDs, one way to expand the imagined audiences and uses for the places being ‘made’ could be to expand the membership of those with the power to determine targets and monitor progress towards them.

At time of writing, only two of Singapore’s ten pilot BIDs list noncommerc­ial entities as “community partners”.6 My own, largely positive experience­s of working with BIDs in the UK convinced me that the model is the most successful when its stakeholde­rs are as diverse as possible; including not just commercial and public sector representa­tives, but also a wide range of civil society players, from cultural and educationa­l institutio­ns to social welfare organisati­ons, often represente­d at governance level.

This approach helped to expand and sustain the ambitions for who placemakin­g efforts were in service of, beyond the tenants and customers of large landlords. What does this look like on the ground? In one instance among many, a BID-funded permanent transforma­tion of a formerly derelict back alley in a busy part of central London. A local architectu­ral charity wrote the brief and managed a small competitio­n to ensure design quality, while the landscape was planted and maintained by another local charity that created pathways to meaningful work for formerly homeless people. Reinvented as a well loved green oasis, it now offers free seating, a small community library, and a collection of plants donated by local residents.

Similarly, in Singapore, could diversifie­d client groups be a promising way to ensure a robust balance of perspectiv­es and priorities for the ‘making’ of sustainabl­e and authentic places?

Could the URA use their significan­t leverage as provider of matched (public) funds to encourage expanded and diversifie­d client groups across the pilot BIDS?

For what and for whom will BIDs – and other private sector-led initiative­s in the public realm – make space? In the end, it may be a question of priorities: do we intend our central districts to be put in the service of improving business, or shall the businesses be in service of improving their districts, and the life of the city beyond?

Smart designers know that the experienti­al aspect of place matters: not just what it looks like, but what it feels like, in the hand and underfoot.

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