Set aside space for people to use spontaneously to create ‘magic’ in the city: Chan Heng Chee

Professor Chan Heng Chee (left) and Dr Harvey Neo, professorial research fellow at SUTD's Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, with their new book at The Arts House on April 26. ST PHOTO: SHINTARO TAY

SINGAPORE – While Singapore’s urban planners have excelled in designing an efficient, neat and clean city-state, they would do well to consider the place of “magic” in their toolbox, said Professor Chan Heng Chee in a recent interview with The Straits Times.

“When people enter a magical space, they will feel enchanted or drawn to the space,” she said.

While Singapore “works”, people do not typically think of the city as “surprising”, Prof Chan said, adding: “People don’t say ‘I come to Singapore and it’s so spontaneous’ – nobody says that.”

Sustaining a city’s magic is among the urban issues explored in a new book launched on April 26. The City Rebooted: Networks, Connectivity And Place Identities In Singapore was edited by Prof Chan, from the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD), and geographer Harvey Neo.

The book seeks to answer perennial challenges that city planners face, such as the relevance of the city centre, decentralisation and the impacts of technology. Its 15 contributors represent various academic fields, including economics, sociology and anthropology.

Noting that magic – the atmosphere of a place that transforms it into a destination or experience – can either grow organically or be designed for, Prof Chan suggested that spaces should not be over-designed or planned for.

“Keep some space ambiguous and people will use it in the way they like. And because they use it in the way they like, they feel it is their own little special place,” she said, adding that this helps to “capture people’s hearts”.

While acknowledging that Singapore’s modernity and efficiency might feel “magical” to some, Prof Chan, who is also Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, thinks “we are stronger on rationality than spontaneity”.

“Everything about Singapore works. And you want that spontaneity – a little fluff, or that little whimsical touch that we hope will spark creativity and help innovation.”

Dr Neo, a professorial research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, said that while the predictability and rationality that Singapore prides itself on are “good and necessary”, “it doesn’t hurt to have some unpredictability, surprise, and something that is just whimsical – something that brings a smile to people’s faces”.

That said, Singapore is not without magical spaces.

A chapter in the book compares three towns globally that exhibit magic – Mexico City’s Pueblos Magicos (Magical Towns), Jakarta’s Kota Tua (Old Town) and Singapore’s Tiong Bahru.

Its authors conclude that, broadly, the appeal of each town comes not from its built infrastructure, but from the interactions between places and their users, and between people within places.

These interactions offer a deviation from everyday life, and foster a sense of attachment and love for the place, they write.

In the case of Tiong Bahru, they found that the neighbourhood’s eclectic mix of shops and the maze-like configuration of its buildings evoked a sense of curiosity and wonder among visitors, while active community groups built rapport among residents and stakeholders, instilling in them a sense of pride and ownership.

The authors of a chapter in the book found that Tiong Bahru’s configuration, as well as its history, mix of shops and strong sense of community, made it an endearing neighbourhood. PHOTO: ST FILE

The chapter’s authors suggested that to create or replicate magic, spaces have to be designed to accommodate spontaneity and a degree of unpredictability. Such spaces should ideally have a diversity of uses in their immediate surroundings, which will draw people to the area.

Dr Neo said a stretch of steps and seating areas along Orchard Road, from Ion Orchard to Ngee Ann City, is a case in point, and can be made magical.

“They are clearly functional but there are such immense possibilities. You can have people sit there and do other things at the same time,” he said. “It’s not a zero-sum game between being functional and having that extra spark.”

Dr Harvey Neo suggested that a series of steps and seating areas along Orchard Road could be enlivened and made “magical”, rather than just be functional. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Time and a compelling narrative are essential for creating magic in a city, said Prof Chan, an SUTD honorary professor who co-contributed three chapters to the book – on post-disaster cities, modernity in cities and the book’s epilogue.

“You’ve got to get the hardware right first,” she said, referring to the development of Singapore’s physical infrastructure over the past decades. “Otherwise, you do not have a well-built city.”

Ideally, she said, hardware and software – referring to a sense of place and social networks – are built in tandem. Singapore developed “in a hurry”, building the hardware first and now “slowly, we are fleshing out”, having met basic infrastructural needs such as housing.

Comparing Singapore with Paris, she said “the age of the city can add magic to the city”.

She added: “How you talk about your city, how you describe the city, becomes the myth of your city. And you have to spin the myth of your city, in the anthropological sense.

“Paris weaved the story of romance – that’s their narrative,” said Prof Chan, adding that “Singapore has a good narrative – it’s all about working well, keeping safe and being a rules-based, green city”.

“We can carry on as it is, and we’ve done marvellously,” she said. “But to make us really loved, you have to have a bit of that magic.”

SUTD Honorary Professor and Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee speaking at the launch of The City Rebooted at The Arts House on April 26. ST PHOTO: SHINTARO TAY

Dr Neo said creating magic and improving a sense of place ties in with Singapore’s regionalisation strategy, which the city-state has pursued since the 1990s by establishing Tampines, Jurong and Woodlands as regional centres. These centres redistribute jobs away from the Central Business District to the heartland, allowing more people to travel shorter distances to work.

Polycentricity – the clustering of various human activities – would have achieved its goals when people’s life needs are met within regional centres and they find no reason to travel out, said Dr Neo.

“Identity formation, social network building and polycentricity – they are complementary and form a virtuous circle,” said Dr Neo. “If we get all three right, they will grow stronger and stronger. Social networks are not just about networks of people, but about networks of people and places.”

While planners and urbanologists continually grapple with how to design physical spaces that encourage social connections, the book’s contributors highlighted that due attention should also be paid to virtual spaces and their impact on building social capital – a term that refers to networks of social connections that come with shared norms and values, and a resource that facilitates cooperation.

Prof Chan said that with those who belong to Generation Z – commonly thought of as people born from the late 1990s – and spend much of their time online and connecting in virtual spaces, there is a possibility that social capital developed there may be a lot more fleeting and transient, in part due to the ease of forming and breaking of online connections.

Also worth considering is the impact of people spending relatively more time connecting virtually and how this may affect the use of physical space, she added.

For instance, the book suggests that the extension of physical activities into the digital realm likely reduces the need for travel, thus impacting city planning and design.

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