Call of the cicadas at Holland Village

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 14, 2013

FUTURE visitors to a proposed community park in Holland Village can thank an unlikely benefactor for its development: cicadas.

It was the haunting chorus of these insects in the trees near the Housing Board (HDB) precinct next to Holland Village that spawned the idea to turn the grassy slope there into a hill park, says Mr Tan See Nin.

Mr Tan, who is senior director of physical planning at the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), said the idea came to him earlier this year when he visited the HDB precinct to check out how it could be better connected to Holland Village.

"When I heard the cicadas, it brought me back to my visit to Labrador Nature Reserve, which is full of cicadas and very lush."

Mr Tan, who was speaking to The Straits Times in an exclusive interview on how the ideas crystallised into the final proposal, said: "You look back and see, this is Holland Village and yet here you have cicadas. This contrast was very surreal. So I said, 'Look, can we do something better with this place?'"

That "something better" emerged in the form of a proposal for what Mr Tan called a "hill park" - essentially a park built on a grassy slope next to Holland Village.

"We thought, why not use the slope? No one has done it before. There's no park in Singapore that makes use of a slope."

The hill park is part of a 6ha extension of Holland Village that will be developed under the Draft Master Plan 2013 unveiled last month.

The URA said new public spaces in the extension, such as the park, would provide areas for residents to meet and interact, and so inject more vibrancy into the neighbourhood.

Planners began to review the land use plan for Holland Village in 2010 and their ideas were refined over countless iterations, Mr Tan told The Straits Times in an interview at a cafe in Holland Village earlier this week.

They came up with a "first-cut" proposal and spoke to grassroots leaders in the area, who suggested that the land use plan should make sure Holland Village does not turn into an "exclusive enclave", he recalled.

Ms Eliza Choo, director of urban design in the conservation and urban design group at the URA, said at the interview that the planning team's strategy for Holland Village was "community-centric, born out of a desire to provide good-quality public spaces for the people".

"If you look around Holland Village, it's like a microcosm of Singapore society. You have your HDB, private condos, landed (houses); every form of housing is located around Holland Village but everyone can feel comfortable here," she added.

The URA selected Holland Village as one of three new "identity nodes" - places with distinctive character - in the latest master plan, citing its "urban village" atmosphere. The other two chosen were Jalan Kayu and Serangoon Garden.

As Mr Tan put it: "Holland Village is an unplanned success story."

He said URA planners approached the project with some "fear and trepidation" because they wanted to make sure it enhanced the place without taking away any of its vibrancy.

Ms Choo added that they paid close attention to technical details in order to maintain a sense of intimacy in the physical landscape of Holland Village.

For instance, Mr Terence Cheng, a URA architect, "did a lot of study on how wide the streets should be", she said.

"We also studied how the building heights should be tiered so that overall this presents a very coherent skyline."

Another major component of the new plan is a curving bridge that connects the existing HDB estate next to Holland Village to the centre of the new pedestrian and public space that will be developed in the heart of Holland Village.

At the hill park, the planning team proposed putting in large rocks along the slope so children could climb up and down, for instance.

The point of doing all that was to go beyond just drawing up a "functional plan" to "build emotional connectivity", Ms Choo said.

"We wanted to give people opportunities to enjoy good weather, to linger, to have good conversations, to bump into their neighbours and have a chat. That was the main driving force.

"If we can come to the stage where the community embraces this place, that will mean our plan is a success."

Mr Tan noted, however, that the district was "a victim of its own success", pointing to a carpark shortage and lack of public spaces.

The new draft master plan aimed to resolve some of those "endemic" problems, he said.

For instance, a large basement carpark will be built beneath a parcel of land next to the existing Holland Village.

That parcel of land will be sold to a private developer in the first phase of the development of the extension, and is zoned for mixed use.

However, Mr Daniel Leong, a planner in the URA's physical planning group, cautioned that the proposal was still in a "process of evolution".

"Even today, we can't say that the plan is complete," he said, adding that if residents say that they prefer a hard court over a hill park, the planners "will have to consider" that option as well.

But regardless of how the development of Holland Village's extension turns out, Mr Leong said the planners would craft the plans carefully. "We love the place also, so we try not to screw it up."

The Draft Master Plan 2013 will be exhibited at the URA Centre until Dec 19. Admission is free.

The public can give feedback on the plan to the URA at