Published on Sustainable Cities

Livability to start with the neighborhood – Singapore's urban practice (Part 1/2)

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For more than 30 years, Madam Toh has lived in Bukit Batok, a Singapore public housing town that accommodates more than 110,000 residents. Their flat was constructed by the Singapore Housing and Development Board – known as “ HDB” – which provides public housing for 82% of Singapore’s residents.
While working at the World Bank’s Singapore Infrastructure and Urban Hub, I was fortunate to meet Madam Toh, who, together with her husband, raised their three children in their three-bedroom flat. When asked about her experience living in an HDB neighborhood, her immediate reactions were that it was both “convenient” and “comfortable” – “I can get everything I need within 10 minutes on foot.”
She is now 64 years old and takes a daily 10-minute walk to the metro train station (Mass Rapid Transit, or “MRT”) via a linkway – an activity she likes because the covered footpath seamlessly connects her home and the community’s amenities, making them excellent shelters from the rain or sun for pedestrians.
Covered walk pathways and multi-level bicycle racks
Covered walk pathways and multi-level bicycle racks. (Photo by Xueman Wang / World Bank)

After exploring several of Singapore’s neighborhoods, I found that they offer “down to earth” examples of livability and showcase excellent integrated urban design qualities.

5D Compact City Framework
A good method I’ve come across for explaining how Singapore has enhanced its livability is through the “5D” Compact City Framework:   

The framework explains that a city can combine multiple nodes of high-density development with a rich mix of housing, jobs, and amenities at the neighborhood level, connected via transit lines and surrounded by medium and low-density areas in the rest of the metropolitan area.

Source: UN Environment 2018. Sustainable Urban Infrastructure Transitions in the ASEAN Region: A Resource Perspective.
In the two parts of this blog, I will share my observations on how the HDB neighborhoods offers excellent examples of “5D” practice that supports mixed uses around transit nodes, facilitates walking and public transportation, and integrates racial and income diversity.
In this first part of the blog, I will talk about the first 2Ds – density that maximizes compact urban form, and diversity of use – in particular the aspect of promoting social inclusion at the neighborhood level.  
Singapore has a high population density of about 7,800 people per square kilometer. Amazingly, the population is even denser in the 23 HDB towns spread across the island. These towns outside the downtown area are known as the “heartlands” and are centered around major transport hubs – such as Madam Toh’s Bukit Batok neighborhood, which has an MRT station that connects to downtown and is linked to a bus interchange that has major bus lines.
Next, talking about diversity of use, these heartland towns are built to be predominately self-sufficient in terms of jobs and facilities. Community malls and local markets are located around the transport hubs to preempt people from having to travel too far for necessities and amenities. Inside the neighborhoods, a full range of amenities are included as integrated components for the communities, including access to schools, childcare, clinics, shops, “wet” markets, hawker centers for food, playgrounds, sports facilities, and place for worshipping.
Left: ancestor worshipping at the neighborhood square; right: neighborhood sports ground. (Photos: Xueman Wang / World Bank)
A typical neighborhood hawker center, known for excellent food at a very affordable price. For example, a rice bowl with two dishes (meat and vegetable) costs less than US$3. (Photos: Xuemang Wang / World Bank)
As the population in Singapore is aging rapidly, caring for the elders remains a big challenge. To tackle this, Singapore came up with three-generation (3G) public housing to support and encourage multi-generations to live together. For example, Madam Toh’s second son, lives in Ang Mo Kio (AMK) – a large neighborhood where 145,000 residents live in public housing. He was given priority for a 3G flat ahead of more than 3,000 applicants to HDB apartments in AMK because the flat accommodated his mother-in-law, the couple, and their one-year old son. Special grants are given to the families or singles who choose to live close to their parents.
Moreover, what’s unique about Singapore’s HDB neighborhoods is the racial diversity. Singapore is a multiracial country made up of many ethnic communities with the majority of the population falling into three main ethnic groups – Chinese, Indian, and Malay communities.
Social inclusion is a fundamental pillar for Singapore's society, and to avoid an ethnic enclave, the allocation of public housing in the HDB neighborhoods are subject to quotas that reflect the racial make-up of Singapore.  Here, children from different cultural backgrounds go to the same neighborhood schools and play soccer together, as a foundation for social integration and cherishing diversity of culture and religions.
On one of my visits to a HDB town, I came across a Malay wedding held at a void deck – an open space on the ground floor of their HDB building. The public corridor had been transformed into a beautiful wedding hall and the family kindly invited me, a stranger, to join them for the celebration.
As the bride and the groom were residents living on the second level of the HDB building,  the family explained to me that in the olden days, couples married in their villages, inviting all the villagers to join the wedding. For them, their HDB neighborhood represents the “village” days of years gone by – a place to celebrate and share their happiness with relatives, friends and neighbors.
As night fell, the wedding was prepped to start. I was amazed at how an ordinary public space at the ground level could be transformed into such a magnificent venue for a family celebration, but also deeply touched by the shared sense of belonging that the neighborhood is a home for all.
A Malay wedding at the ground level of a HDB building. (Photo: Xueman Wang / World Bank)
Continue to read Part 2 of the blog series here. This blog post is also available in Chinese



Xueman Wang


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