Ying Zhou, Anna Gasco And Edda Ostertag For The Straits Times

Keep the old in Lavender, create space for the new

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

The aim should be a thriving neighbourhood that young entrepreneurs and the pioneer generation call home.

As Singapore approaches its 50th year of nation-building and honours early contributors though initiatives such as the Pioneer Generation Package, it is apt to review the approach towards the "pioneer" building stock.

These buildings anchored the early communities where first-generation Singaporeans lived and built their lives.

Although there is a growing effort to conserve historic buildings - in particular, colonial-era monuments and institutions, as well as selected pre-independence shophouse neighbourhoods - modernist, international-style buildings built after 1965 are largely not yet considered architectural heritage in the same way.

Built in the early 1970s, the residential neighbourhood to the south-east of Lavender MRT station, with some of the oldest city-centre Housing Board (HDB) flats in Singapore, is home to an ageing building stock and ageing demographic. In fact, the HDB flats along Beach Road, across from the Golden Mile Complex, belong to the first batch of flats built in the northern part of Singapore's central area.

These post-independence flats were built following the first "Sale of Sites" programme in 1967 by the then newly formed Urban Renewal Department of the HDB. These buildings, while significant in their representation of the optimism and idealism of nation-building following the founding of Singapore, could easily fall through the cracks in the nation's conservation endeavours.

Demolition of ageing buildings, beyond displacing the original residents, also disintegrates the community - a kind of intangible "capital" which has taken time to build.

In post-independence neighbourhoods such as the Lavender area, a strategy for densification - instead of demolition and reconstruction - could introduce new programmes to an ageing area.

If executed with caring nuance, it would also cater to Singapore's rapidly growing creative economy and attract a younger demographic to the centrally located area, given its excellent location next to historic Kampong Glam.

Indeed, alongside the original residents who moved into the neighbourhood more than 30 years ago, a handful of younger creative entrepreneurs, from architects to graphic designers, have recently found their atelier spaces and homes in Lavender.

International studies have shown that young creatives need to be located in well-connected central areas but they also need spaces with low rent. These central locations with affordable rent are often "hidden gems" that can harbour creative entrepreneurs, at least for the time being, in increasingly expensive cities where such locations are threatened precisely by the anomaly of their assets. The dilemma for global creative cities is how to keep these rents low, as demand and prices both increase in such centrally located spaces.

Since the publication of the book The Rise Of The Creative Class by American economist Richard Florida in 2002, the word "creative" has come to be the indicator for globalised, post-industrial, knowledge-based and service-dominated advanced economies. In fact, as Singapore moves into its 50th year next year, it seems "knowledge-based economy" and "creative economy" are oft-heard buzzwords describing the city-state's aspirations for the next lap.

To foster Singapore's emerging creative sector, often made up of young, cosmopolitan and small entrepreneurs who are starting out, ageing spaces that are in centrally located areas like Lavender should not only be allowed to remain intact but also be nurtured.

The lively ground-level commercial amenities in the vicinity, from local hardware shops to a famous pork noodles stall, have a cultural diversity that inspires the creatives and complements their milieu.

Besides, along with the growth of the creative industry in the Lavender area, the organic growth of the value-chain of amenities - such as cafes, bars, boutiques and bike shops - will undoubtedly increase the vibrancy of the neighbourhood.

In places like Hong Kong, small tongsui stalls (dessert stalls) survive in high-rent neighbourhoods around Hollywood Road because the municipality has implemented policies to protect them as an intangible heritage. The mix of local eateries next to small designer boutiques has definitely enhanced the cultural richness and social vibrancy of such neighbourhoods.

In Singapore, to satisfy the density requirements for the future development of the growing city, new buildings can be proposed, particularly on some of the spaces that are currently allotted for ground-level parking. These new buildings with ground-level access - which is crucial to the urban life of the neighbourhood - could accommodate additional programmes for living and working, as well as amenities and community activities.

A combination of the incremental upgrading of HDB flats and the strategic infilling of available spaces in the neighbourhood would provide the kind of work-life, atelier, exhibition and event spaces that would also "activate" the existing commercial ground spaces.

In addition to the reuse of existing buildings for new functions, and the addition of new buildings, a studied proposal for reorganising the ground to increase accessibility and connectivity at the scale of the neighbourhood would complement the densification strategy by enhancing pedestrian and open spaces.

Since the beginning of industrialisation, when cities took on the modern scale we know today, walking has been a source of inspiration and encounter in the city. Serendipitous encounters lead to new ideas. A city of pleasurable walking, together with more adaptable spaces, increases creative productivity.

The densification and reuse strategy proposes the reuse of the existing HDB buildings to accommodate a growing new demographic who would appreciate living and working in the convenience of the city centre, without the displacement of existing elderly residents. Importantly, the methodology for the concepts developed for a revitalised neighbourhood like Lavender could also be used for other neighbourhoods in the increasingly globalised and rapidly changing Singapore.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writers are researchers at the Future Cities Laboratory of the Singapore-ETH Centre, a strategic urban think-tank under the collaboration of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) and Singapore's National Research Foundation.