The Straits Times says

Enlivening places from ground up

Involving stakeholders in place management is certainly preferable to making decisions in a hierarchical fashion. People doing business, and working or living in an area have an intimate awareness of the needs and constraints of a place. They also have a better feel for and ability to express the distinctive character of a place, which ought to be preserved so Singapore is not stripped of local colour. Such thinking lies at the heart of the concept of "business improvement districts", which emerged in Canada and the United States in the 1960s, and have since appeared in Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

This collaborative framework is being promoted here by the Urban Redevelopment Authority, which recently called for proposals for business plans to improve areas. The idea is to get businesses owning properties in a precinct to work together to spruce it up or create programmes to enhance commerce. For starters, over half of relevant stakeholders must support proposals and contribute funds for improvement. The State will then provide matching grants of up to $500,000 a year. The pilot scheme is to run for four years and could become a permanent feature via legislation if the business community shows sufficient interest in participation.

Local businesses should seize this opportunity to play a role in improving their precinct as areas will need to distinguish themselves to attract more people. Consumers, who are already swayed by online shopping options, will shun areas that do not have a unique selling proposition to stand apart from competitors, or are deficient in some respect. Hence, businesses in a precinct must work together to create programmes that go beyond the traditional festivals to draw the crowds. Whether pegged to recreation, an event or family activities, experiential spending is something today's retailers cannot lose sight of. Their input in such programming is vital as government-led initiatives might not capture the essence of a place.

Some might ask why contributions to implement programmes are needed from businesses when stakeholders already pay taxes. Indeed, why do only a proportion bear the load while others remain as free riders? Tailor-made solutions ought to involve a co-payment to keep proposals "real", so that taxpayers in general will not have to fund fanciful ideas. It is also a more equitable arrangement as some precincts might seek more state funds than others. Further, the gains of programmes will accrue to businesses should spending increase and property values hold up.

From a broader perspective, people ought to be proactive and take some ownership of the changes they desire for the common good. Organic forms of decision-making are more likely to yield outcomes that suit particular environments.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2017, with the headline 'Enlivening places from ground up'. Print Edition | Subscribe