The case for building new HDB flats in the city centre

Housing flats at Tiong Bahru estate. ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

Should Singapore's city centre have Housing Board flats? If a city's core is where one finds its pulse and essence, should it include HDB flats, since HDB living - a quintessential Singaporean experience - is a vital piece of the social fabric?

This question resurfaced recently in the context of the discussion on having more HDB flats in the central area, such as at the Greater Southern Waterfront that extends from Labrador Park to Marina South, south of Tanjong Pagar.

One concern is the "lottery effect" of large price appreciation for such well-located flats, and whether corrective measures such as selling the flats on shorter leases, or permitting resale only after more than the current five years, could work to create a more equitable system.

The central area has had HDB flats since the 1960s, such as in Chinatown. In the 1980s, central area land was thought to be too expensive for public housing, and should be reserved for commercial use. By then, it was becoming less of a disadvantage to live farther from the city, with the upcoming Mass Rapid Transit rail network.

Since then, other than Pinnacle@Duxton, no new HDB flats have been built in the central area. HDB flats in areas like Outram Park were acquired under the Selective En-bloc Redevelopment Scheme or demolished.

Meanwhile, in heritage areas like Tiong Bahru, higher-income residents and hip shops displaced traditional occupants and trades.

With plans now under way for a new downtown, the time is ripe for serious discussion on whether, and how, to inject public housing into the central area.

After all, the city centre, as Singapore's historical and symbolic heart, must resonate in meaningful ways with everyone.

Confining new HDB estates only to outlying areas, while planning a glittering array of architectural gems, luxury residences and consumer offerings for the well-heeled in the central area could make segments of the population feel left out.

Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam argued, in a 2007 study, that diverse communities are well worth the effort to nurture for their contribution to "social capital" (the people networks that make a society function). This is so, although such communities may need to overcome initial short-term mistrust and fragmentation.

Socio-economic diversity has three main advantages. First, diversity promotes inclusiveness, variety and vibrancy. Singapore's hawker centres are socially important because they serve people of all incomes. Cities with offerings for a range of diverse consumers with varied lifestyles and tastes along the same streets draw more people outdoors, make neighbourhoods and the whole city more lively and inviting, and encourage business innovation and entrepreneurship.

Singapore's diverse-use, mixed-income neighbourhoods such as Holland Village and Marine Parade are regarded as highly liveable. Such communities are sought after by what urban studies theorist Richard Florida calls "the creative class" - designers, researchers, entrepreneurs and innovators who increasingly drive economic development.

Second, diversity enhances social mobility and spatial justice, which is the concept of how socially valuable resources like hospitals or parks are spread across different parts of a city or region by providing fairer access to areas with better amenities, jobs, schools and networks.

Mixed-income communities are an important pillar of a comprehensive meritocracy with high social mobility. Delivering the 2013 S. Rajaratnam Lecture, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam noted that upward mobility was stronger in mixed-income areas with more two-parent families, better schools and civic engagement.

Third, diversity fosters social cohesion, trust and resilience, rather than just mutual accommodation and co-existence between income groups. If wealthier and lower-income households lead increasingly separate lives, negative perceptions may be sharpened. But contact with different ethnic or income groups in a person's social environment - such as shared experiences at the local food centre, grocery or the playground - promotes more balanced perceptions of others.

Here, everyday encounters of neighbourliness act as a social leveller for residents, familiar strangers and visitors.

Land markets are not perfect, and market outcomes do not always maximise value to society. Allocating land parcels only to the highest bidders may not be ideal if only office skyscraper developments are built in the city, leaving it devoid of homes, cafes and recreational facilities. Good urban planning will prevent these outcomes.

For reasons of diversity and inclusiveness, it is desirable to provide more public housing in city centre areas. How this can be done deserves further study, including the planning model for such housing, which could be in smaller precincts rather than a whole town, as well as details such as possible measures to manage "windfall" resale gains.

Genuinely diverse, inclusive central area communities would be mixed not only in land use, but also in the range of ethnicities, cultures, demographic and socio-economic groups and occupations they host.

This can increase distinctiveness and vibrancy, reinforce a more equitable and inclusive society, and support the meritocracy and social mobility fundamental to Singapore's continued progress.

Singapore is a global city, but - unlike New York, London or Tokyo - it is also a country and nation.

If done well, including more slices of the HDB way of life into the central area could help enhance the tangible, psychological stake Singapore residents have in their country.

Greenfield central area sites, such as the Greater Southern Waterfront after port activities relocate to Tuas, present opportunities to make a big difference to the nature of the city core and to society as a whole.

  • Wu Wei Neng and Louisa-May Khoo are researchers at the Centre for Liveable Cities

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 04, 2016, with the headline The case for building new HDB flats in the city centre. Subscribe