Lessons from Singapore:
Designing Child Friendly Neighbourhoods
Image: Car-free street day, Kampong Glam Singapore , photo by the Housing Development Board
The first week of my Churchill Fellowship journey exploring child friendly, high density neighbourhoods, has been fascinating and thought-provoking. I received a very warm welcome from the numerous hosts in Singapore including academics from the Singapore University of Technology and Design, Nanyang Technological University, The Liveable Cities Centre, architects, schools and parents. In a short amount of time, I have attempted to understand the many aspects of what might make Singapore child-friendly and there are certainly many lessons to be learnt. Below I reflect upon 3 take-aways which have struck a chord.
1. Play as community connector
The one thing which really struck me when walking around the residential neighbourhoods of Singapore is the inclusion of play for all ages (not just children). ‘Three-Generation’ playspaces are located within almost every cluster of flats, providing exercise equipment for the elderly, game-based zones for parents and open playgrounds for children. This allows for residents to be active together and feel that they are part of a larger community. Providing spaces for the elderly adjacent to the children’s spaces also seems to foster a sense of shared responsibility for the youngest residents and an understanding of the needs of others. As one of the interviewed parents reflected “if you provide quality spaces for the elderly, just as much as for the children, they are less likely to complain about the noise!”. Play and leisure spaces are also co-located with outdoor food eateries and community facilities, allowing for play to naturally occur as part of everyday life, rather than being a ‘destination’ activity. The co-location of these spaces also allows for passive surveillance of the younger children by both parents and the community. As they say, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ and as a starting point, children’s play should be at the centre of the village.
2. The importance of flexible space
80% of residents in Singapore live in government flats master-planned by the Housing Development Board (HDB). This means that neighbourhoods can be planned with community spaces and shared facilities consistently spread across the built fabric. The ground level of the HDB flats, called the ‘void decks’ are typically left open for flexible use by residents. People living within the flats might celebrate birthdays, weddings and even funerals in these spaces. I observed the ‘void decks’ being used in a variety of different ways, from the elderly bringing down plastic chairs to sit and chat in the shade, to children completing their homework and informal religious gatherings. These flexible areas not only provide the much-needed larger spaces for family gatherings, but they also foster a sense of ownership and community pride within the residents.
3. Lifting play off the ground (and away from cars)
Dangers posed by vehicle traffic is one of the most common physical barriers which limit children’s outdoor play. Many of the newer HDB flats have communal garden spaces lifted off the ground, with car parking under. These raised gardens become accessible green networks between buildings, neighbourhoods and public transport nodes. In neighbourhoods such as Punggol in northern Singapore, you can walk from your home to the Light Rail, accessing large parts of the neighbourhood and community infrastructure without needing to cross a road or encounter a car. Separating cars and pedestrian life (including play), removes the dangers posed by traffic, giving children more independence and freedom to roam. In some building clusters, I observed these garden networks used as ‘play loops’ where children on their scooters and bikes would loop around in circles and chase one another. Lifting these spaces off the street level also provides a level of security between the everyday public and the immediate residents of the flats, creating a layer of safety.
Video: Children cycling in 'play loops' around the green podiums which are lifted off the street level and away from cars
The one question which was in my mind throughout the Singapore study tour was whether the beautifully manicured and organised spaces provided room for the more messy and risky activities needed in childhood. While visiting the ‘Playeum’, which is a centre for children’s creativity, the lead pedagogue Esther Joosa, noted the importance of ‘open-ended play’ as a way of fostering children’s creativity and independence. She noted that “if you have an entirely finished playspace, you leave nothing for the child to imagine and add”. In a heavily designed and regulated urban environment, I wonder if there is space for children to explore the less predictable and messier aspects of play. This will remain a question for exploration as I continue the journey onto Hong Kong.
Author: Natalia Krysiak