Orthodox thinking frowns upon any street closure, diversion or narrowing as inconveniences that motorists should be spared. A city's arteries need to be kept free-flowing, but when roads form about 12 per cent of total land use and motor vehicles rule, one must also ask how an equitable balance can be struck. Cars glide dominantly everywhere, even in and out of buildings, while pedestrians have to scamper out of the way, suck in pollutants and struggle with uneven surfaces, kerbs and poorly connected pathways.
What is emerging in many cities is a progression away from the narrow view of "streets as conduits for cars" and towards a notion of "streets as places", as noted by the New York-based Project for Public Spaces. The ambitious ask for streets to be transformed into grand boulevards or to serve as the town square - which existed in many communities before it was converted into yet another carpark. While urban mobility remains important here, the Urban Redevelopment Authority recognises the potential of selected streets to become "temporary public spaces" that can be utilised meaningfully by communities. A liveable city, which is the guiding vision of the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint, is rightly one that puts people first, especially when carving out and shaping spaces in dense areas.
This is a necessary step to help rekindle the vibrancy of local life in places that people might gravitate towards. Alas, many such spaces that were once part of the cultural and social consciousness of people no longer exist. Some happened to be inconveniently sited (like the old National Library building in Stamford Road) or needed to be sanitised (like the old Bugis Street).
One might transform places with redevelopment zeal and plant infrastructure there with revenue-earning potential. That would not be far removed from the mercantilist approach of the island's former colonial rulers. Or one could acknowledge that throbbing public spaces are an essential part of the high-quality living environment envisaged within today's masterplans.
Hardware might come together perfectly in some spots while others might look colourful outwardly, yet these would be barren without people. Hence the need to spur more street activities that can attract widespread participation. Examples are outdoor dining in Haji Lane and Club Street, and the Singapore Wellness Association's PlaystreetsSG events. Without community involvement, even a gilded district could appear lifeless most of the time.
Green public spaces have grown over the years, and, thankfully, there's also greater awareness of the need for well-designed spaces for people to gather for a host of reasons - best determined by the community rather than by officials. Public spaces thus energised can perk up the city's spirit.