Place-Making about People, Not Design

Paradise Once Lost, Can’t Be Regained
by Paul Gilfeather (original link here)

While major cities around the world search for the money and means to establish quality green spaces for its population, Singapore appears to have hit the jackpot with the closure of the Malaysian railway line.

As the last train pulled out of Tanjong Pagar Station in July there was an outpouring of sadness as Singaporeans young and old turned out to mark the end of another chapter in the country’s history.

Now, as the planners and politicians fix their sights on the future of the now-defunct track, the environmental lobby has stolen a march by unveiling their “green corridor” concept. The genius and beauty of the proposal is in its simplicity. The plan is to do absolutely nothing to the stretch of natural beauty and I can’t help but feel excited at the prospect.

With four-fifths of Singapore being created within the last 25 years, campaigners say the Government has a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to maintain an existing site, as opposed to creating or developing a new one which would not function as it’s supposed to. They point to the recently-developed public spaces around Marina Bay and argue that they do not serve their intended purpose of providing quality, open space for ordinary Singaporeans to relax, engage with nature or take part in leisurely activities.

Professor Steffen Lehmann is the current Chair in Sustainable Urban Development for Asia and the Pacific and he is lending his expert voice to keep the KTM tracks as Singapore’s “green spine” for nature and leisure. As a consultant to Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, he is suggesting a passage which connects to the city while providing quality space for walking and cycling.

Prof Lehmann, a former visiting lecturer at NUS who has written a book called The Principles of Green Urbanism, said: “There is a moral obligation not to build on this land, but to preserve it in its full scale as public green space. The increase in liveability and positive impact will be immense but we now need to establish the principles of this green corridor, before designs are developed.

“In the last decade, Singapore has been too much focused on the design of individual buildings to make them ‘landmarks’. But the space between these buildings is much more important. Unfortunately, very few of the many new public spaces, for instance around Marina Bay, are working at the level they should.

“Place-making is primarily not about design – it’s about people and empowerment of communities.”

There is an old railway line near my home town in Scotland and that was never developed. There probably wasn’t the money or inclination. That inaction proved to be positive and now it is used daily by cyclists, joggers, dog-walkers and nature lovers.

It’s hugely popular and provides the people of Aberdeen with a link to the countryside. The stretch of line running through central Singapore has the potential to provide the same service for its residents.

Very few cities around the world have a natural corridor of greenery and, as I mentioned earlier, many town halls are desperately looking at ways of developing stretches like the one we already have. The difference is they would have to draft their plans on a drawing board and then, in most cases, build it from scratch.

Of course, there will be a powerful lobby arguing the case for major restructuring of the site. They will say that with Singapore being so land-scarce, chunks of the corridor should be sold off for development and the money poured into the public purse.

However, at his National Day Rally address, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke enthusiastically about the idea and his appeal for grassroots’ campaigners to work closely with the Government on any future plan, was very encouraging. In particular, he highlighted proposals put forward by Ms Regina Koo, a graduate of the NUS Architecture Department. She suggests building a “Velo-Park” with bikeways, bike rental stalls, bike club and cafe.

This idea chimes with Prof Lehmann’s push for the lane to be used for electric-aided bicycles, which would include measures to prevent the width of a new green corridor being reduced below 10 metres at any point. “We now need to establish the principles of this green corridor before designs are developed,” he said. “Better connection of existing precincts can now be achieved, but if this connectivity is lost to private developers, it cannot be regained. It should be legally decided not to sell off this land but keep it in public ownership.”

The green lobby insist Singapore’s former railway could prove to be the most important urban development issue to face the country in years. And it’s hard not to be tantalised by talk of an uninterrupted stretch of track with authentic former railway structures, urban jungle and unique wildlife. The only development should be, they say, state-of-the-art solar canopies, cafe pavilions and media points.

Last week it was announced that a 1.4 km stretch of railway track from Bukit Timah bridge would be opened for walking from Sept 16. This is a positive first step but campaigners are calling for the eventual corridor to stretch much further.

Prof Lehmann said: “We can’t have anything less than excellence for this stripe of land. Leaving it as nature intended would be better than any building or development which could possibly be created.”

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