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Lessons from Singapore: Designing Child Friendly Neighbourhoods

The first week on my Churchill Fellowship journey in Singapore has been fascinating and thought provoking. I have received a very warm welcome from the numerous hosts including the SUDT, NTU, 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 cord.

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.

2. The importance of flexible space

80% of residents in Singapore live in government flats masterplaned by the Housing Development Board (HDB). This means that neighbourhoods are able to 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.

Shaded 'Void Deck' in a typical HDB Apartment Complex for community use

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 are able to walk from your home to the Sky Trains, accessing large parts of the neighbourhood and community infrastructure without needing to cross a road or come into contact with 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.

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.

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