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Managing the politics of space in Singapore

Singapore’s long-term urban planning blueprint is reviewed every 10 years to ensure that its infrastructures and land-use development are aligned to the changing demography, constraints and aspirations of the people.

Managing the politics of space in Singapore

Singapore urban planners have achieved notable successes in urban built integration with most residential estates having a robust mixture of housing types.

Singapore’s long-term urban planning blueprint is reviewed every 10 years to ensure that its infrastructures and land-use development are aligned to the changing demography, constraints and aspirations of the people.

The Long-Term Plan Review (LTPR), under the purview of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), serves to secure a sustainable future for the next generation, and as a platform for policymakers to engage Singaporeans on the trade-offs for the city-state.

At the heart of the conversation is affordable and liveable housing – the lynchpin in the social compact between the state and the electorate, and the nexus to a sense of rootedness.

More people are working from home today and our lifestyles have become more polycentric over time. Compared to 10 years ago, more residents commute within their neighbourhoods for work, leisure and other essential activities.

This mobility pattern and routine make home and spatial ownership an imperative.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also amplified the competition for land use, as well as issues related to affordability, accessibility and inclusivity of residential homes.

The tension has exposed new social fractures and ignited latent anxieties towards other communities, especially where the tribal identity of a neighbourhood is concerned.

The year-long LTPR public consultation began in July and has just reached its half-time mark. Three distinct but intertwined topics stood out from the national conversation that are worthy for further discussion.

RESILIENT BUILT ENVIRONMENT

The built environment plays a critical role in shaping how people live, work and interact with one another. 

Resilient neighbourhoods are adaptable to meeting the evolving needs of a diverse demographic profile, including opportunities for social mixing.

Singapore urban planners have achieved notable successes in urban built integration. Most residential estates have a robust mixture of housing types, comprising both public and private apartments, and a typology of small (two-room) to large (five-room) room types in the former. Public rental units are built alongside purchased apartments to create opportunities for interactions.

Singapore’s urban environment is also functionally linked to a comprehensive network of facilities, including suburban malls, transportation nodes, park connectors, and educational and caregiving amenities. This interwoven network makes neighbourhoods relatable, which helps forge community bonding. 

Moving forward, can a premium be assigned to space adaptability and user empowerment?

Can part of the roads be set aside exclusively for the delivery riders and cyclists?  Can the basketball court in the neighbourhood be repurposed for urban farming if the residents wish to do so?

As our demography and lifestyle change over time, there is merit to argue for more adaptable use of space, and to enlist and empower residents as co-planners for their neighbourhood.

INCLUSIVE SPATIAL CLIMATE

Based on residential and geographical data, there are nascent signs that some Singaporeans prefer to live among people from the same ethnic and economic background, notwithstanding the built housing mix and the Ethnic Integration Policy that safeguard against segregation.

Not surprisingly, empirical studies show that residents in rental flats tend to be less welcomed in their backyards, and estates blessed with a brand name school almost always attract more Chinese residents.

There is no doubt that racial- or class-based enclaves pose a threat to our social fabric.

But importantly, the desire for segregation reflects an innate zero-sum belief in how we view the immediate surrounding. Having facilities like a rental block, columbarium, or foreign worker dormitory in the neighbourhood is considered a liability for some.

This cognitive bias is further amplified through a selective social comparison process, weighing how the “cost” of these facilities will affect the appeal of one’s residential estate compared to other privileged locations without similar perceived handicap.

There is no perfect solution to eradicating the zero-sum mindset.

Currently, a co-location model is applied to public rental flats, where both rented and purchased units are nested under the same block; in the case of worker dormitories, the facilities are dispersed to different parts of the island.

EQUITABLE RESOURCE ALLOCATION

Housing policy is integral to urban planning and perceived fairness and legitimacy.

In Singapore, there is an entrenched view that the value of a residential property will always appreciate and, as such, a larger flat in a prime location is considered a better investment for capital gain.

In a land-scarce city, this investment is also a great opportunity to make rental earnings.

For private home buyers, this belief reflects a personal choice as the financing for the purchase is entirely on the individual.

But for 80 per cent of Singaporeans who live in a Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat, home ownership is a subsidised commodity, with financing from the taxpayers.

HDB is mandated to provide Singaporeans an affordable home, not a windfall from the sale of the apartment or a source of passive monetary income.

Sustainable long-term urban planning will need to consider how residential space is distributed and how the principle of equity is defined.

The Prime Location Public Housing (PLH) model announced two months ago is a step in the right direction.

New public housing development in the city area is subjected to more stringent control for resale and rental earning to rein in speculation. This includes a longer Minimum Occupation Period, partial claw back of capital gains and restrictions on rental.

This scheme signals a shift to defend the core mission of HDB, which is the provision of affordable homes, not financial returns.

More, however, can be done in this area, in terms of policy and on the built aspect. The new restrictions under PLH could be applied to other new and existing stock of prime public housing outside of central business districts.

Lastly, the average Singaporean household size has steadily declined from 4.25 persons in 1990 to 3.22 in 2020 while the proportion of never married singles at aged 35 has concurrently increased.

Since 2013, the latter group is entitled to purchase a Build-to-Order flat directly from HDB and thus receive a substantial subsidy. In recent years, millennium youth who just entered the workforce have also joined the foray to clamour for a slice of housing space.

The current framework prioritises nuclear families over singles, and mature residents over younger individuals.

The scarcity of land, growth in population and the rising aspiration for home ownership among all segments of Singapore society inevitably make urban redevelopment a contested subject.

Singaporeans should be prepared to tame their expectations in housing sizes and to right-size when the time comes.

In turbulent times, people tend to hold on to or even enlarge their real estate as a fail-proof asset. But in doing so, this will deplete the limited stocks available, which will then lead to yet another vicious circle of competition for the finite resource.

The next phase of the LTPR will require a national conversation on our land-use strategies and a debate on what kind of built features Singaporeans are prepared to make a trade-off, what is considered a housing privilege versus a right, and the new mindsets that we need to embrace.

There is no magic formula to achieving a consensus in the LTPR discussion. A compromise will be most desired but even if it is not achieved, it is just as important that we as a collective society understand the limitations of the city state, and the built and social elements that will affect the fabric of our nation.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Leong Chan-Hoong is an associate professor at the Centre for Applied Research, Singapore University of Social Sciences and the Singapore national representative for the World Association for Public Opinion Research.   

 

 

 

Related topics

urban planning housing Space Urban Redevelopment Authority sustainable development

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