The Housing Board's decision to build four next-generation neighbourhood centres provides it with an opportunity to match utility and accessibility with lived spaces and everyday life. Utility has hardly been in question in the designing of public space in Singapore. Land scarcity has obliged human ingenuity to make the functional most of what little nature has bequeathed a city-state. Accessibility has widened in definitional scope to include the ability of the physically-challenged to use public transport, for example. It is a sense of community that will be sought now as the HDB embarks on the construction of new neighbourhoods centres - two in Punggol and one each in Hougang and Sembawang.
Creativity will be needed to maximise the communicative possibilities of social space. The new centres will serve smaller groups of residents, from 5,000 to 6,000, compared to town hubs that cater to tens of thousands of them. Given this difference in scale, it is apposite for the centres to concentrate on promoting not just services but also social mixing.
Of course, amenities matter; indeed, these will draw residents to the centres in the first place. However, commercial outlets associated with the monopoly of space by private-sector chains should not overshadow the larger social good that is achieved when people are allowed to mingle freely and are not separated by spending power. Letting heartland retailers use common areas jointly for seasonal promotions is one way to lend local flavour to the neighbourhood centres. Successful designs ought to be measured not just in economic terms, but also by the social dividend that centres can yield with a community focus.