How to make public housing in prime locations such as the Greater Southern Waterfront inclusive and liveable

Housing generic in Singapore. Property. Private property and HDB flats. Photo: Ooi Boon Keong/TODAY

Creating an inclusive society has all along been a bedrock of Singapore’s housing policies.

Public housing is offered to the low-income and middle-income strata of Singaporean citizens at an affordable price and with generous Government subsidies.

In the recent parliamentary debate on his ministry’s budget, National Development Minister Desmond Lee reaffirmed the importance of ensuring that public housing remains affordable, inclusive and liveable for Singaporeans.

He spoke about the Government’s plans to introduce a new housing model to keep Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats in prime locations such as the city centre and the Greater Southern Waterfront affordable for Singaporeans of different backgrounds so that these areas continue to reflect the openness and diversity of our society.

However, upholding liveability may ironically counter efforts to create inclusivity.

For instance, public housing in a well-designed town tends to attract higher-income households, thereby possibly crowding out lower-income households.

How can Singapore continue to achieve the objectives of inclusivity and liveability for new public housing estates in prime areas such as the Greater Southern Waterfront?

INCLUSIVE URBAN LIVING 

The Greater Southern Waterfront comprises 2,000ha of prime land that is equivalent to six times the size of Marina Bay and double the size of Punggol new town.

If its development is left to market forces, private homes would crowd out public housing.

By allocating waterfront land to the HDB, more affordable public housing flats can be built in the prime location and be supplemented by a wide range of uses and amenities to serve diverse users’ needs.

Additionally, the HDB could deliberately have different housing types ranging from five-room executive to two-room-flexi flats alongside rental flats within the same HDB block and the same precinct.

The Ethnic Integration Policy could further promote racial integration by ensuring a balanced mix of ethnic communities in these waterfront HDB towns. 

All these would help the population of the new Greater Southern Waterfront towns reflect the social-economic make-up of Singapore.  

The Government has in recent years planned and developed public housing estates in prime districts and city fringes — such as the Pinnacle@Duxton in Tanjong Pagar and SkyTerrace@Dawson in Queenstown.

These flats cater to the masses who otherwise would not have been able to afford to live in these areas.

These developments also inject vibrancy and gentrify older parts of the city.

However, the flip side is that such gentrification over time leads to higher property prices.

This erodes the affordability of homes for the masses, counteracting the intention of creating inclusivity in the first place. 

Similar trends are seen in some coastal cities in the United States and in London.

To keep public housing in prime locations affordable and to curb speculation on such homes, the Government is reviewing various policy options.

These include putting in new restrictions and regulations, such as imposing a longer minimum occupation period, ringfencing the pool of subsequent resale buyers and imposing a subsidy clawback system, among others.

Mr Lee has said that this will be “a balancing act, requiring many trade-offs” and the Government is “carefully studying the possibilities”.

The size and nature of the Greater Southern Waterfront provide the Government and planners a golden opportunity to provide the ecosystem and spaces to break the social silos. 

Along with policies to ensure affordability and to curb the so-called lottery effect of public housing in prime areas, more can be done to make these residential units accessible to all.

BALANCING LIVEABILITY AND INCLUSIVITY

Singapore’s Centre for Liveable Cities identifies three key outcomes in defining the liveability framework: A competitive economy, a sustainable environment and a high quality of life.

How can this framework be applied to the Greater Southern Waterfront while ensuring that inclusivity can be encouraged and maintained over time?

A place to work and live for all

First, it is important to create a self-sustainable community, where jobs of various types in different industries and at different skill levels can be created to meet the employment needs of residents.

While tech workers and programmers could find the right jobs in companies such as Google, Cisco and others along the tech corridor at Pasir Panjang, there should also be jobs available in the service sectors for other non-tech workers in the area.

Firms in the Greater Southern Waterfront could also play their part by designing new job scopes and providing training opportunities to upskill residents in the area.

Take New York’s High Line project where an old abandoned elevated rail line was redeveloped into a neighbourhood park as an example.

The Friends of the High Line, a non-profit organisation that oversees the park, makes an effort to train and employ community members and connect local teenagers with job opportunities.

In the Union Market district in northeast Washington DC, programmes are launched to enable aspiring entrepreneurs to pitch new restaurant ideas to a panel of renowned chefs.

The platform helps to match the winning concept with venture capitalists and launch it under the tutelage of renowned chefs.

Job creation in the Greater Southern Waterfront should similarly also feature such collaborations involving budding start-ups across different sectors.

Smart and green environment for all

With much of the Greater Southern Waterfront formerly used as port, shipyard and dock facilities, special effort will be needed to create green buffers while freeing lands for redevelopment.

Preserving the green lush and biodiversity in the southern islands, such as Sentosa, Puala Brani, St John’s Island, Pulau Bukom, Semakau Island, and Keppel Island, should be an indispensable and integral part of the plan. 

A balance between the preservation of the green spaces and development is crucial, perhaps with the help of technology.

In line with Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative, the Greater Southern Waterfront should be connected with the latest 5G broadband network, with various applications of smart urban solutions, such as renewable energy, electric and autonomous vehicles, to promote energy conservation and environmental sustainability.

With the greater connectivity, new forms of working and travelling arrangements will emerge, reducing the need for more roads and parking lots.

Building community: Breaking down the silos

While the public housing and infrastructure provide the hardware to create an inclusive city, the building of the software is important to achieve the balance of inclusivity and liveability.

This is where the concept of the “third place” is crucial.

This term, coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg refers to places where people spend time between home (first place) and work, will be essential in creating an inclusive community. Communal places, such as parks, markets, community libraries, recreational amenities, and others, could help break down social silos and build relationships among residents from all walks of life.

For example, the neighbourhood centre in Toa Payoh town has an outdoor pedestrian mall lined with a range of shops, food joints, and open spaces and is used to organise community events to foster community bonding.

Given the rapidly changing nature of how people work, live, and play, allowing flexibility in use of space helps ensure these “third places” remain relevant.

PUBLIC PARTICIPATION 

The building of a liveable and inclusive district is a process that requires constant feedback to finetune the policies and placemaking.

Social participation by working alongside grassroots and community leaders and understanding the residents’ needs via public consultations and informal feedback channels will help balance the social, economic and sustainability interests.

It will also provide the residents’ a sense of belonging through public participation.

The private sector will play a vital role in making the Greater Southern Waterfront a liveable and inclusive place. Private-public-partnerships are the hallmark that have underlined Singapore’s early phase of transformation from a third-world fishing village to a first-world city.

This includes incentivising the private sector to employ and train the local workforce, especially the less privileged families in the rental flats, and providing the private sector greater flexibility in the design of space.

It is tough to strike a balance between the two opposing forces of ensuring affordability and inclusivity on the one hand, but also attracting private capital and creating value in the Greater Southern Waterfront plan on the other hand.

Ensuring inclusivity in the Greater Southern Waterfront is the right thing to do, though trade offs will have to be made.

For example, in the push towards having more public housing and rental housing, which may not fit “the highest and best use” for the prime location land, social benefits are likely to outweigh the economic costs. 

The Government has a proven track record of efficient execution and making tough policy decisions.

All eyes will be on how it manages the development of a milestone project such as the Greater Southern Waterfront to ensure that public housing remains inclusive and liveable.

Source: Today