Select Country
Search Icon
close icon
ARCHIFYNOW > HIGHLIGHTS > The Problem of Public Space Singapore as Case Study

The Problem of Public Space: Singapore as Case Study

fb icon
wa icon
email icon
©ksy9, Shutterstock

The original article is written by Joshua Comaroff and published in FuturArc Volume 49

While many aspects of Singapore’s development have been described internationally in glowing terms, the island’s public spaces have often faced a cooler response.

Rem Koolhaas—one of Singapore’s admirers—described the national landscape as a laboratory of “willed ugliness,”(1) where aesthetic and social banality is designed at a micro level. As Pasi Falk and Colin Campbell have put it, this nation is most characterised by the non-appearance of a public sphere: “The city centre is actually a complex of shopping centres or a set of city centres writ small.”(2) Sociologist Chua Beng Huat has noted astutely that, “Since the mid-1980s, Singapore often appears as one continuous shopping centre to foreign visitors.”(3) The great Benedict Anderson, for one, simply described the place as “incredibly boring.”(4)

All of these critics agree that there is something missing in Singapore; it is not clear, however, that everyone is missing the same thing. For some, this absence reflects the lack of a fully participatory civic discourse. For others, public space appears to be under threat by privatisation. Other local and foreign observers, however, still regret the absence of something physical: actual places or spaces worthy of collective life and its higher aspirations. But putting aside subjective judgments—such as ugly and boring—are the oft-repeated broadsides against Singapore’s urbanism convincing? Is the non-appearance of a satisfying pubic realm distinctive to this island nation? And how much of the conventional wisdom on good city form is influenced by a canon that deals mostly in Western examples?


There are several recurrent themes in the criticism of Singapore’s public spaces. A common one, nowadays, is that the public realm is depleted due to lack of ownership. This is a buzzword that comes easily to the public,

designers and government. Many feel that for a city to have thriving civic spaces, the citizens must have a sense that they have contributed its design agenda. In Singapore, increasingly, we see rituals of public consultation becoming integral to the planning process. There is a sense that, to love the city, it must be ours, in some way. This is, in many ways, an extremely positive conversation.

But many cities—and many that seem to have the most satisfying public spaces—are not owned by us, in any sense. Often, they are just the opposite: radically inaccessible, due to their foreignness, expensiveness or power structures. I personally love both London and New York, despite the fact that I am very unlikely to affect the urban environment of either. In fact, part of what we admire about the great world capitals may be precisely that aloof quality; their romance is only increased when witnessed by an outsider. Ownership, moreover, has very little to do with conventional ideas of urban membership. It is a kind of neoliberal take on citizenship, based on a belief that we have to buy into something in order for it to be meaningful. Ultimately, what we find compelling about many cities is not that we own them. It is that we identify with them. Something about them resonates with us.

Similarly, these critics seem to confuse the quality of public space with a collective say in how it is designed and made. While the latter is important to a sense of belonging, it is not really necessary in creating great public places. As much as it galls me, a nice American liberal, I must admit that some of the most wonderful cities were produced by fiat, or through the back-room dealings of urban elites. There was ownership, but it was ownership by a ruling class.

Nevertheless, the question remains. Another common objection is that Singapore’s public spaces are not, properly speaking, public—that many of them exist in shopping centres and other commercial facilities. The claim, here, is that Singapore does not actually have many public places, in the true sense of the term.

But we should consider, also, if this is true. In fact, there are void decks at the base of most Housing & Development Board (HDB) blocks. Every estate contains a series of nested zones at different scales, which are intended for recreation and social activities. Many may be dull or programmatically depleted—and could do with a redesign—but it would be hard to argue that they go unused. If anything, perhaps, Singapore may have too many public spaces. If we are to critique this condition according to rules of urban design, we could say that a glut of open space in our estates distributes activity over too large an area, spreading it thin and making it feel anaemic. Other cities may benefit from not having so much public ground, because the people are drawn into shared places that feel vibrant and diverse as a result.

Moving beyond the HDB estates, we may also recall that Singapore has large-scale civic spaces on a par with many world capitals. Botanical Gardens is a UNESCO heritage site and hosts a well-curated selection of public programmes that draw large crowds. Gardens by The Bay—whatever one may think about its 1950s science fiction aesthetic and weird plant selection—is an extraordinary achievement: a new mega-park in an era of decreased spending on urban Green space. The National Library Building is buzzing with families on the weekend. By contrast, the average surviving library in an American city could be used as the set of a zombie apocalypse film.

Now, it is true that malls are unusually dominant as an urban form here. Personally, I dislike most of them. But as problematic as they may be in many respects, there are significant differences characterising this creature in an Asian context. A mall here is not the same thing as its Californian predecessor. For example, it always stuns American visitors when they find out how much good food can be found in them. And while many suffer from the crushing boredom of the Bread Talk/Cotton On/Smiggle formula, many do not. There are types of urbanism embodied by, for example, Golden Mile Complex, People’s Park, Bras Basah and City Plaza. Each has its own resident populations, cultures and subcultures; at least two of their buildings are also architecturally significant.

We should also be a little wary about the claim of privatisation being distinctly prevalent here. A lot of what gives the urban its charge, globally, is shopping. It is disingenuous to dismiss Singaporean—and Asian—urbanism as excessively private or over-commercialised. It may be, but not much more than other cities in this age of rampant neoliberalism. London remains the gleefully commercial capital of a nation of shopkeepers. New York, especially in the years since Rudy Giuliani, has been increasingly characterised by public spaces that are privately owned. If you doubt it, just try walking around Manhattan with a full bladder.


Many of the above complaints are not fully convincing—exposing, perhaps, more the conundrums of city making, than those of Singapore per se. Regardless, there does remain a sense that something about our urban domain is not quite there yet. Many of our spaces still lack a feel of the granular—that pleasing spatial patina that makes us feel part of a city, and not a homogenised megaproject. We long for urbanism that is full of intimate niches, where charming cafés and shops show a range of ingenuity, surprise and taste. This is where the perception of ground-up participation resides: in tiny nodes of intense activity.

We can, all of us, sense granularity in a city. We can recognise that, even if we do not have ownership, a person does. We can tell when the atmosphere of a city is being created by citizens and not by a design team. This is why a city can feel underwhelming, even if it has all the required components—and why a physically beleaguered place like Providence, RI, or Manchester, UK, can be far more compelling than the sum of its physical assets.

In Singapore, a lack of the granular may be the result of urban planning policies that have segregated programmes by zone. The mature, variegated city has much to do with the health of streets, and as such with a blend of functions. Singapore, by contrast, has had increasingly less diversity within urban areas, opting instead for districts distinguished by use. Few neighbourhoods remain which have a significant admixture of living and shopping—in contrast to the more organic urbanism of previous decades, where ground-floor shops were the common anchors of low-rise dwellings.

This is not simply an issue of planning. It is also, in large part, a product of rent. Singapore’s famous land scarcity means that there are very few districts where studio and retail spaces are affordable enough for small players to take risks on entrepreneurial ideas. This is essential to the creation of exciting design districts; they have to be accessible to those who bring a sense of coolness and creative energy. The urban spaces that are satisfying and diverse, where one can see one’s own social type gaining ownership, must be cheap enough for ground-up development to take place.

It has been argued that high rents make boring cities. This is less of a problem in big agglomerations, with peripheral enclaves where start-up communities can find cheap and attractive space. London, Tokyo and Paris are all punishingly expensive. But they are more variegated than Singapore, which has few urban hinterlands left to be gentrified. And as rents rise, streets become homogenous and dull. In 2005, Ann Siang Hill was an effective mix of homegrown brands. Shops such as Books Actually, Front Row, Style:Nordic and Asylum drew a hip crowd that also filled nearby restaurants and coffee shops. As rents rose, these trailblazers left and the street was left to become a bloated over-provision of F&B, serving a mostly Shenton Way crowd. This is the fate of all gentrified districts, but in Singapore the process happens in fast-forward. Soon, the same story will be told of Yong Siak Street and other fleeting instances of the thriving urban moment.

The Problem of Public Space: Singapore as Case Study

©studioMilou singapore

The granular is also essential in more conventional civic projects. Here, too, Singapore’s offerings have sometimes been too clean and timid in leaving room for variety. If anything, the new National Gallery has made the former City Hall more relentlessly monumental than it was before—a somewhat matter-of-fact courtyard building now reads as an austere cloister with a pompous stair up the middle. The presence of some great retail and F&B outlets is not much emphasised, and the language throughout is a scaleless, tasteful monotony. There are few moments of the intimate, picturesque or irregular. Given the large amount of interior space provided by the new building, it might have been treated as a city-in-a-box: more designers, more substantial public engagements and more modes of engaging the old buildings. The National Gallery was an opportunity to urbanise art; the outcome was a triumph of design over the urbane.


So how do we return the grain to our public spaces? This is not an easy question, and beyond the scope of this article. However, we might keep in mind the lesson of Ann Siang Hill. When it comes to vibrant streets and districts, small and dynamic players are national assets that should not be left to the mercy of the free market. Creative SMEs with great ideas, or proven records of innovation, should be allowed to express themselves within the sight lines of the public and visitors. With the rise of Singapore’s creative education ecosystem, there is no shortage of young talent with contributions to make. If we want a city that benefits from them, we must lower the risk of pursuing their goals. This is not welfare for artists; it is an investment in the city’s future.

It is also important to build on what has already been done. The classic arguments for good city form— the late Jane Jacobs, Richard Sennett, Hannah Arendt or Lewis Mumford—are generally quite Eurocentric, and can lead us away from homegrown examples. I have a strong suspicion that kopitiams, food courts and heartland spaces are not seen as constituents of a proper public realm because they do not mirror a Western model of what such spaces should be like. But nonetheless they are vibrant, integrally linked to cultural tradition and often beautiful.

Likewise, I am not sure what Jacobs would make of our informal urban practices, which (contrary to Singapore’s antiseptic reputation) spring to life in marginal spaces and fleeting moments. The weekend life of so-called Little India, the flea markets of foreign domestic workers, or the supernatural offerings and exchanges at Bukit Brown do not fit a conventional image of urbanity. But they are vital and complex, sustaining a cosmos of social connections and exchanges across the pragmatic zones of the national plan. Informality emphasises qualities of spontaneity and invention, which seem not terribly distant from the creative city aspirations of the PAP government.

It is easy to overlook the homely—and the apparently boring—in pursuit of the photogenic and the globally fungible. But our organic urban typologies also carry the seed of authentic street life, and are already the backdrop for many civic conversations and negotiations. After all, humans are a social species, and public space is like algae—it tends to happen whether we like it or not. Perhaps we would do better to give space again to these organic developments, homespun spaces and creativities, and have the foresight to be patient while they work their peculiar magic.

The original article is written by Joshua Comaroff and published in FuturArc Volume 49

(1) Koolhaas, “Singapore Songlines,” in SMLXL (New York: Monacelli, 1995).
(2) Falk, Pasi and Colin Campbell, eds, The Shopping Experience (London: Sage, 1997), 9.
(3) Chua, Life is Not Complete Without Shopping, (Singapore: NUS Press, 2003), 12.
(4) Quoted in Trocki, Carl. Singapore: Wealth, Power, and the Culture of Control (London: Routledge, 2006), 7.

fb icon
wa icon
email icon
blog platform
ArchifyNow is an online design media that focuses on bringing quality updates of architecture and interior design in Indonesia and Asia Pacific. ArchifyNow curates worthwhile design stories that is expected to enrich the practice of design professionals while introducing applicable design tips and ideas to the public.
More from archifynow
close icon