Plans to develop Tengah into a "forest town" - one as big as Bishan, no less - illustrate the entrenchment of a creative turn in public housing policy. Tengah will be Singapore's 24th HDB town. Whereas the emphasis in the HDB's early years was on functionality at minimum cost, that has changed with Singapore's increasing affluence. The rise in citizens' lifestyle expectations, and the refinement of their collective aesthetic preferences have played a part in an official move away from economic utilitarianism. Instead, public housing now reflects the depth and richness of Singapore's tropical topography. Tengah is envisaged as being surrounded by greenery, and Bidadari is to be shaped as "a community in a garden".
At the same time, existing townships should not be forgotten. Many of them came on board at a time when Singapore had yet to make the transition to a better public housing environment. However, they must compete in attractiveness today with new towns that seek to combine physical comfort with ecological ambience in the quest for higher overall standards of liveability.
Woodlands, Toa Payoh and Pasir Ris have been earmarked as three such towns that are slated to receive facelifts in the next decade under the HDB's Remaking Our Heartland scheme to spruce up public housing estates. Senior Minister of State for National Development Desmond Lee's recent parliamentary comments on the revamping project underline the importance of such makeovers in preserving older estates.
Attempts to keep them relevant need to focus on the expansion of various facilities. Thus, residents in Woodlands Central will get a new town plaza, a sizeable space for large-scale activities. Pasir Ris residents will benefit from a mixed-use development integrated with a new bus interchange and the existing Pasir Ris MRT station. The pedestrian mall in Toa Payoh town centre will be improved. Even as these changes are made, planners must involve residents closely to ensure that the improvements touch on the lives of as many as possible.
Indeed, residents should take the lead in shaping distinctive micro-spaces. Older towns possess character, which is of intangible but real value in engendering a sense of belonging to the heartland. That attachment has received a boost from an Urban Redevelopment Authority programme to support projects initiated by people that turn public areas into active community spaces. Successful applicants under the "Our Favourite Place" may receive up to $10,000 for longer-term projects. The hope that the scheme will promote the emotional connection to home is a valuable and viable one. Heartland spaces need to be periodically updated but, in that process, one should not erase its endearing charms.