Sacha Kagan For The Straits Times

Let artists shape a resilient city

People pose for pictures with Wayne Garrett and Caitlind Brown of Canada's light installation "CLOUD" during a media preview of the i Light Marina Bay festival in Singapore March 6, 2014. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS
People pose for pictures with Wayne Garrett and Caitlind Brown of Canada's light installation "CLOUD" during a media preview of the i Light Marina Bay festival in Singapore March 6, 2014. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS

LAST month, I was invited to give a keynote address on art and sustainability at the i Light Symposium held at the URA Centre in Maxwell Road. The aim of the conference was to bring together leading thinkers in the area of light and art, interrogating art's power to improve society. I had diverse conversations with artists, architects, social scientists and others, on unsustainable development. I visited neighbourhoods ranging from Marina Bay to Bukit Brown.

These first impressions raised my awareness of the specific challenges of urban resilience for Singapore. In particular, impending climate change raises the question of Singapore's "resilience" to serious future crises.

Will it survive when the trusted approaches that granted wealth and stability to the island in the past are severely tested?

The concept of "resilience" comes from the scientific study of how natural and social systems, in the past, have managed (or not) to survive by evolving in response to changing circumstances.

Species, ecosystems and societies that have proved able to survive extreme crises share three characteristics:

  • "Redundancy" or having multiple pathways to doing similar things. Redundancy, however, is severely reduced by efficiency. Efficiently organised societies generally have less redundancy, thereby threatening their resilience.
  • Diversity - for example, having multiple ways to see the world and express ourselves, as well as multiple ways to learn from experience and transmit knowledge. Cultural diversity, as well as biological diversity, should be preserved and even increased.
  • Self-organisation, or the ability of communities, neighbourhoods and groups of people to organise themselves to help determine their responses to crises. This goes against the expectation that direction should come from the top. It also goes against the naive expectation that some natural market laws will spontaneously solve problems.

Urban resilience requires the realisation of these three characteristics through a city's fabric. Singapore has a rich cultural diversity, but there is much room for progress concerning the other two characteristics.

One promising way for cities to develop these qualities of resilience is through art.

I do not mean the promotion of commercial art or art for art's sake. Rather, the involvement of artists and other unconventional creative people in the process of urban development, to help un-plan our cities. Artists should be allowed to shape spaces where the creative and experimental spirit of the city's inhabitants is stimulated.

Contemporary city dwellers should be allowed to freely re-imagine possible futures and experiment with more sustainable ways of life. Creative, non-commercial "spaces of possibility" are needed, countering the cancerous growth of malls in the city.

The locations of these spaces should not be government-controlled or pre-designated, as these approaches kill creativity.

Instead, they should be spaces that grow organically from efforts by the different creative, social and cultural communities.

One hopeful example of how artists have made an impact on city spaces comes from the city of Hamburg in Germany. In that city, artists are generally being pushed to market themselves as business entrepreneurs for a short-sighted "creative city". But many artists and creative folk opposed that strategy. In 2009, a group of them formed a "Right to the City" network, gathering 100 local groups around one common principle: Urban development should be determined by its inhabitants, not by real estate.

On Aug22, 2009, 150 artists, architects and marketing experts illegally occupied a group of buildings called the "Gangeviertel", historic workers' quarters in the city's centre. It was not an ordinary "squatting" but an art exhibition and series of events.

The occupiers did not merely protest against the plans of the city government and the investor: They put up an elaborate alternative plan to re-imagine the place as a centre of culture, complete with work places and social housing, to inject vibrancy into an area dominated by commercial and expensive residential buildings.

For the first time in decades, the city government, which normally evacuates occupied buildings by force within 24 hours, listened to the proposal. Seduced by the artists' vision, they even bought back the buildings from the investor and gave the occupiers a year to finalise their concept. Rehabilitation work started late last year. Historical buildings were saved and social housing preserved.

Realising urban resilience through the arts will be a great challenge in Singapore, too, but it is not an impossible one. I saw many creative seeds which would need to be encouraged to grow. I saw young people with interesting ideas, designing and making objects, growing their own food.

There are many values of cultural heritage and biodiversity being rediscovered in the historical site of Bukit Brown.

Such sites can become exactly the kinds of undesignated spaces of experimentation and imagination that a city needs.

The writer is a research associate, Institute of Sociology and Cultural Organisation, Leuphana University, Lueneburg in Germany.