Small projects for big impact

Think about urban revitalisation in Singapore and large-scale, government-led initiatives come to mind.

Since the island’s independence, public agencies have led the city’s urban revitalisation projects which includes the monumental multi-agency clean-up of the then-polluted Singapore River in the 1970s and the Housing & Development Board’s Remaking our Heartland programme to renew housing estates in 2007. These government-driven programmes often aim for large-scale physical change, are capital intensive, and require a long timeline to unfold, thus necessitating masterplans that are usually crafted by a select group of politicians, policymakers, planners, investors and other major stakeholders of the urban area in question. Although led by experts in their respective fields, this approach is inherently exclusive as it places the power and responsibility over the urban area in the hands of a few individuals. Also, like many grand projects, it is an approach that can be susceptible to a single point of failure if redundancies and room for evolution is not built into the plan.

Over the past years, I have grown inclined to another line of thinking, one that approaches urban revitalisation as a series of smaller projects focusing on placemaking — an organic, people-centred approach of developing the character and quality of a place. Guided by a general trajectory, each development acts as an experiment to better define the next move, each intervention calibrated for maximum impact at minimum risk, and each initiative created in collaboration with the community to become a vehicle that catalyses further action.

The limited size and impact of these small-scale projects may seem counter-intuitive, but this limited scope is valuable in offering low-risk opportunities to prototype ideas that may hold the key to revitalising spaces at scale. This is not a new idea and is in fact the foundation of the Tactical Urbanism movement founded by Street Plans Collaborative who have been bringing large scale urban improvements beginning with one small project at a time.

Applying this approach to a tropical Asian metropolis like Singapore, my placemaking studio, Shophouse & Co, carried out tactical interventions at Telok Ayer Park on one lunchtime in January 2017 to test ways that parks in the CBD can be made more inviting during lunch hours. Ideas such as a mobile bicycle pit-stop for delivery cyclists, portable tables to be used at lunchtime, and many other interventions were tested by the community, who provided real-use feedback. Through these small-scale urban experiments, we were able to gather valuable user insights that could then inform resource-intensive infrastructural improvements in the future.

Beyond risk-management, small interventions also offer the potential for revitalisation efforts to become more inclusive by enabling collaboration amongst stakeholders of all sizes. As the saying goes, “You can’t become what you can’t see”, and the relatively small scale of the project enables individuals, groups and companies to visualise themselves making a tangible difference to the project. By being able to project themselves as part of the revitalisation process, the community feels emboldened and empowered to contribute assets, resources and insights — strengthening their sense of belonging to both the process and its outcomes. As a result, not only would the hardware of the neighbourhood be revitalised, its heartware also gets a boost.

This spirit of commnuity involvement was inherent in the process when Shophouse & Co took over a commercial unit in transition at King George’s Avenue in 2013 to prototype new ideas to revitalise the space. As we shared our vision for it to become a hybrid retail-workshop-communal space, various entrepreneurs, artists and creatives came forward to offer their support. We received sponsorship of hardware improvements such as fans, artificial turf and even a kitchen carpentry unit, while creative practitioners conducted programmes such as silkscreen printing workshops and even pizza-making session to activate the space across eight weeks. This collective approach empowered the community to take ownership of the intervention and instilled a sense of pride in the project. One of the partners eventually ended up taking a long-term lease to the unit, continuing the revitalisation process with a new concept featuring a bar, restaurant and creative workspace.

What is perhaps most potent about a small-scale intervention in the grand scheme of things is its ability to catalyse other projects for sustainable urban revitalisation. Like a spark that catalyses a movement, small projects offer tangible evidence to the community that positive urban change is achieveable. Granted, some of these ‘catalytic projects’ may end up as nothing more than a fizzle, but those that register as ‘quick wins’ can start to trigger a reaction. Stakeholders begin to believe in the revitalisation process, and a groundswell start to form to become a sustainable force of change. One famous example is the pedestrianisation of Times Square in New York. After its initial six-month pilot programme in 2009, the DOT reported reduction in pedestrian injuries, booming business for merchants, reduced travel time for cars, and an improvement in public perception of the area; and this visible impact was key in overcoming the stakeholders’ initial scepticism to garner enough support for the city to make the transformation permanent in 2010.

E.F. Schumacher was referring to economics when he wrote Small is Beautiful, but maybe we should look at small-scale urban interventions the same way too. Urban revitalisation schemes don’t need to take the form of mega projects but can manifest as intentionally smaller projects that are nuanced and calibrated to the context. As a more responsive and inclusive process, it offers a stronger and more sustainable impact in rejuvenating urban areas, but this can only happen if we start to look beyond committees and into the power of the community in improving our city.

The original version of this article was first published in Issue 12 of Urban Solutions, a biannual magazine published by Centre for Liveable Cities. This version has been edited to better articulate key ideas related to the theme.

Heart to Hard

During my formal education in architecture school, I was taught to learn how to read and manipulate the formal design languages of geometry and tectonics. In the academic studio, we spoke about materiality and ephemerality, skin and structure, and was told to ground it in history, theory and context. We were assessed on spatial quality and aesthetics and told that these qualities separated a building from a piece of architecture.

On most occasions, we were expected to answer the brief and on others, challenge it, and we did. My classmates and I imagined great plazas with impromptu urban life, streets filled with spillover activities, artworks to be discovered at backlanes, and rooftop film screenings. But we would soon discover that not many of these would materialize.

Instead, there were unused pockets of beautiful spaces, human-less lushly landscaped parks and vast roof surfaces as carparks. The renderings with vibrant activities manifested as empty beautiful spaces.

While many identified creative programming to be key, a lack of contextual relevance of what was proposed and resources to execute the good ones, has often led it to remain as latent spatial potential and many, including myself, have been looking for ways to harness this.

Today, we see acts of urban activation attempting to get closer towards fulfilling the potential of our built spaces. For example, the Experience Market during Archifest 2013 (which I was directing) is an attempt to turn an uncharacteristic and lifeless gravel area at Dhoby Ghaut Green into a vibrant marketplace under the canopy. Elsewhere, in the backlanes of Bangsar and Petaling Jaya in Malaysia, community gardens and resident-led parties by the likes of renowned landscape architect Ng Sek San and architect Ms Foo Hui Ping, attempts to bring relevance into these often forgotten but highly intimate spaces. Some ground-up and some empowered by intelligent organizations, projects like these are what reinforce my belief that photogenic spaces is only half the answer to creating a successful piece of architecture or urban space and it is the ability of people to use it meaningfully that makes a difference.

Space on its own, no matter how well made, will always be lifeless until we, the urban citizens, bring our own into it. In a way, the heartbeat of our places is actually ours. When we live our richly complex lives in these spaces, are empowered to participate in it and encouraged to take ownership of it, we tap into this latent spatial potential to make something magical happen- turning a mere space into our own place.

Call it placemaking or urban activation, they point to the same thing- allowing the space to fulfill its potential by imbuing the hardware with some heartware, and perhaps it is time we reconsider our definition of what makes a successful piece of architecture. As Lao Tzu was quoted as saying in The Book of Tea, “The reality of a room, for instance, was to be found in the vacant space enclosed by the roof and the walls, not in the roof and walls themselves. The usefulness of a water pitcher dwelt in the emptiness where water might be put, not in the form of the pitcher or the material of which it was made.”

— First published in CUBES Magazine (Singapore), April/May 2014 | Cover photo: Experience Market at Dhoby Ghaut Green, Singapore. Archifest 2013. Photo by Shophouse & Co —