Orchard Road has had many incarnations. It got its name from the many nutmeg and fruit orchards that existed in the last century. It has always been an important street, connecting the residential area of Tanglin to the business and commercial areas of Raffles Place and High Street. At one point, the road hosted car showrooms and even a sprawling cemetery. Its current incarnation as Singapore's premier shopping belt began in the 1960s after the area was zoned for retail. The grand plan to shape Orchard Road's future in the next 15 to 20 years should look back at these transformations - save the cemetery, of course - even as it looks ahead.
Incremental efforts are important, no doubt. For example, a Shibuya-style scramble walk is on trial; it may be replicated if it is successful. Adding to the area's ambience will be an initiative under which, from next July, smoking in public areas will be allowed only at designated areas within the smoke-free zone. However, if Orchard Road is to bloom again, these moves must become a part of a master plan that takes unpleasant realities into unsentimental account.
Chief among those realities is that shopping may not continue to be the primary activity with which the road is associated. The proliferation of shopping malls around the country gives shoppers more choice than they once had. Also, online shopping is challenging brick-and-mortar stores around the world. In the United States, for example, several leading department store chains have lost value in recent years, and department stores have shed 500,000 jobs since the beginning of this century. Although shopping will continue to attract tourists to Orchard Road, its stores will have to ride on the global trajectory of marrying traditional and online retailing, for example by having smaller stores with limited inventories complement expanding online operations.
The larger need is to look beyond shopping itself. One way for Orchard Road is to recreate the times when it was a "happening" place because of famous nightspots and roaring discos. The road must not die at night. During the day as well, parts of the belt could be redeveloped in the form of buildings which house civic facilities that attract crowds. Arts venues for concerts and performances, multi-purpose sports hubs, theme parks within malls, or a children's centre that makes the area family-friendly are ways to rejuvenate the road.
These should be considered seriously. The problem now is that Orchard Road's iconic centrality as a shopping belt in the tourist imagination makes it difficult to refashion the purpose of the place. But it is not a zero-sum game. Local shoppers will have more reason to visit the place if they are attracted by other amenities as well. Orchard Road cannot remain frozen in time.