The Straits Times says

Giving old towns a new lease of life

Living spaces conceived in upcoming Housing Board new towns spring from financial, technological and aesthetic resources which were not available earlier to older estates. The envisioned spaces of the future include a community in a garden with greenery and car-lite features in Bidadari. A "Forest Town" which is both green and smart is being planned for Tengah. Such initiatives reveal the need to optimise the use of land so that a balance can be struck among the needs of housing, industry, transport and ecology. The HDB is an integral part of that terrain. Its flats are home to more than 80 per cent of the resident population, with about 90 per cent of these resident households owning their homes.

Yet, even as Singapore reinvents the possibilities of scarce land, it needs to build on what exists. The just-announced facelift for Toa Payoh, one of Singapore's oldest HDB satellite towns, is a reminder of why the lived landscape of the past should not be forgotten. It came into existence at a time when the provision of basic housing was itself revolutionary, compared to the incremental and hobbled efforts of Singapore's colonial housing authorities. Although today's Toa Payoh is not what it was then, it is time that the town, which is a marker of Singapore's heartland, be given a new lease of life. This the HDB seeks to do with the creation of two new public housing areas which, analysts say, could fit roughly 5,000 units.

Toa Payoh is not alone. Pasir Ris, too, will have its charms polished by rejuvenating plans to build a substantial number of new flats and an elevated greenway. These are features of the first major upgrading there since flats were built 30 years ago. Although much younger than Toa Payoh, the coastal area needs to be brought up to par with newer towns. How well this occurs could help shape the outcome of the Remaking Our Heartland programme, which covers Punggol, Dawson, Yishun, East Coast, Hougang, Jurong Lake and Woodlands, in addition to Pasir Ris and Toa Payoh. The programme's usefulness would lie in its ability to match what makes an estate unique with the changing needs of its communities.

Ultimately, however, urban renewal is not only a matter of bringing houses, roads and amenities up to date, but also of preserving community bonds that have been built up during frugal and good times. Older housing estates are a microcosm of Singapore. They have survived the changing mood of economic and demographic developments and bequeath to their young a sense of the presentness of the past. There, neighbours have names; births, marriages and deaths are shared rites of passage. This spirit cannot be replicated through technology or preserved in a top-down manner. Seniors must encourage the young to see Singapore as a continuity so the old can continue to exist alongside the new in public housing.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2017, with the headline 'Giving old towns a new lease of life'. Print Edition | Subscribe