Making cities better for children: meet Urban95

As part of our interview series with people working to support inclusive cities, we talk to Cecilia Vaca Jones and Patrin Watanatada of the Urban95 initiative

Cecilia Vaca Jones and Patrin Watanatada with Urban95 sticks. Photograph: Irina Ivan, Bernard van Leer Foundation

Based in the Dutch city of The Hague, Cecilia Vaca Jones is programme director and Patrin Watanatada is knowledge for policy director at the Bernard van Leer Foundation, an independent foundation that works internationally to improve the health and wellbeing of babies, toddlers and the people who care for them. The foundation’s Urban95 initiative is dedicated to reimagining cities from the height of an average three-year-old (95cm), and working with urban planners, designers and policy-makers to integrate early years thinking into improving city environments. 

Why did you decide to focus on making cities better for babies and toddlers? What was the spark that started it?

Cecilia: Four or five years ago, we realised that urbanisation is happening so rapidly that cities represent a unique opportunity to support babies and their families to thrive. How can we ensure that cities scale the opportunities of safe, healthy and stimulating places – with opportunities to learn, create, imagine, play and grow – across all neighbourhoods to reach as many families as possible? 

Patrin: The early years are when the brain is developing most rapidly – babies and toddlers are forming neural connections at the rate of 1 million per second! The way these connections form sets the foundation for good health and learning in later childhood and adulthood. This is partly genetic and partly shaped by what a child experiences. And a lot of it happens by the time a child turns two. For optimal brain development, young children need healthy food, protection from harm, and – crucially – plenty of opportunities to play and be loved. 

Close Streets for Play Libreville, an Urban95 challenge project in the Gabon capital

We think cities have a big role to play in ensuring babies get these things. Traditionally, governments have focused on the role of social services, health and education departments in supporting healthy child development. Urban95 works with city leaders, planners, designers, advocates, communities and anyone else who influences city life to look at the way that the entire city – including, for example, public spaces and transportation – affects the way that families with young children live, work, play and move through cities, and what that means for healthy child development. 

How does Urban95 work to understand and respond to the needs of young children in cities around the world?

Cecilia: We know that small children learn through positive interactions, play and new experiences. So we support our partners to identify and scale solutions that promote healthy child development through the built environment or by addressing things that affect their lives in the public realm – like air quality, heat, or street violence. Every city is unique, but many solutions can work in different contexts. For example, public spaces in any city can be turned into places for young children to play safely while exploring nature. Here’s a wonderful guide for play spaces for 0–3-year-olds by our partner Superpool, an Istanbul-based design studio.

Patrin: Everything starts with empathy and data. One of the first challenges is that urban planners and designers don’t necessarily see or think about the particular needs of young children and their caregivers in their work. Public spaces and playgrounds are often set up for older kids or adults. Transportation tends to be planned for the needs of peak-hour commuters travelling straightforwardly from home to work to home, versus the needs of caregivers who might be going from home to childcare to grocery store to job and back at odd times.

A still from the Young Explorers film in Pune, India – documenting the journey of a small child and its caregiver

So developing empathy for this demographic group is an important first step. We’ll take people on walks through the city holding metre sticks with a mask at the 95cm mark they can look through, or carrying 10kg bags of rice to simulate carrying a toddler. Or we’ll ask them to draw their childhood journey to school and a recent journey as a caregiver. We’ve asked people to try breathing at 4x the speed of a normal adult – the pace at which a newborn baby breathes, which means they take in 4x as much air and all its pollution per gram of body weight as you or I. We’ve supported the development of short films, called Young Explorers, that document the urban journeys of a small child and their caregiver in Pune in India and Recife in Brazil as well as another film series in Dakar, Senegal. We’ve also partnered with Arup to develop an Urban95 virtual reality simulation.

We also support cities to gather data on where families with young children live, where they go, how they’re doing and what they need. If city planners know where and when babies and toddlers spend the most time, they can target general interventions and services like clean air zones or pocket parks or health clinics or safer streets to them. For example, we funded a research institution in Istanbul to develop an innovative way to map families in need and overlay this with a map of municipal services (more here). The municipalities have begun to use this to locate services more effectively.

Another example is our work with Gehl to develop a tool to observe and measure the way babies, toddlers and their caregivers move through the public realm. We also partnered with the Open Data Institute to develop guidance for city governments who want to develop early childhood data dashboards. And we supported Canada-based organisation 8 80 Cities to develop guidance on engaging families with young children to gain insights into their needs.

A stroller test in Istanbul (including a 10kg bag of rice to simulate a baby)

What would you say are the biggest issues that our cities need to overcome to be more healthy, safe and supportive of babies and toddlers?

Patrin: First, congestion and transportation challenges. Not having access to safe, comfortable, affordable transportation makes life generally stressful, and can stop caregivers travelling to access healthcare. Road safety remains a big public health issue in cities worldwide. And the more I learn about the lifelong health effects of air pollution – particularly on babies and toddlers, whose lungs, hearts and brains are still developing – the more I’d like to see vehicle exhaust and other sources of air pollution become an unacceptable part of urban life. That’s why we’re working with the Clean Air Fund to tackle air pollution worldwide and the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy to develop transit guidelines for families with young children.

Second, lack of nature. There’s more and more evidence to show that being around nature – especially trees and water – is important for mental and physical health at all ages. This is hard to come by in many cities today. And finally, the general stresses of urban living: lack of space, time and social ties. These make it harder for parents and other caregivers to give their children the love and attention they need to flourish; and they are particularly challenging for those living in poverty, insecure situations and informal settlements.

An Urban95 community-build playground project in Lima, Peru

Cecilia: One powerful way to address all of the above is to look closely at the street. On average, streets represent 70% of the public realm in a city – so why not use this space to promote play and other loving interactions between babies, toddlers and the people who care for them, better air quality, and better mental health through natural elements? Alongside Bloomberg Philanthropies, FIA Foundation and Botnar Foundation, we are partnering with the National Association for City Transportation Officials’ Global Designing Cities Initiative to develop Streets for Kids design guidelines to make streets safer, more comfortable and more joyful spaces for people of all ages.

Closing streets at regular intervals gives people of all ages a safe public space in which to play, meet, be active and breathe cleaner air. We frequently see that temporary closures are an effective step towards more permanent solutions. Building citizen support to transform street use is fundamental.  Citizens need to be motivated and to understand the benefits of reclaiming their public space.

Urban95’s project, Children’s Routes, in Colombia. Photo: Courtesy of Casa de la Infancia

What sort of impacts have you seen from your work on Urban95 so far? And what have you learned personally?

Cecilia: We’ve seen tremendous interest and enthusiasm for understanding how the lives and the development of young children and their families are affected by urban design, mobility and the environment. I’ve learned that:

First, municipalities are interested in cost-effective solutions that can be implemented fast as they represent a political win in every society. Helping them to generate quick wins is crucial. So is showing them live examples of what’s working in other cities. We’ve taken cities on study tours to London and to Copenhagen to see great examples of family-friendly spaces and mobility.

Second, municipalities tend to have poor data related to pregnant women, children under 5 and their caregivers. Helping municipalities to gather reliable data on this that can be used to generate practical maps layered over data on public space, services and so forth, is the best way to help these authorities make decisions that support healthy child development.

Finally, I think the most important learning is that there is a huge opportunity to promote urban transformation when you can relate to real people. Having good stories about how urban design affects the real lives of babies and toddlers generates social awareness that leads to political will for change. If we can build a successful city for young children, we will have a successful city for all people.

A stroller test in Argentina, an Urban95 challenge project

Patrin: For me, the three most striking learnings have been: First, planning and designing for babies and toddlers means planning and designing for the people who are taking care of them. You don’t see babies and toddlers wandering through cities by themselves – it’s those looking after them who decide where they go and how long they stay. So they need to feel safe and comfortable – whether from good lighting or buffers between sidewalk and road, well-placed amenities like benches, or easy-to-board, convenient buses. 

Second, proximity really matters. Anyone who’s tried to go anywhere with a curious, energetic two-year-old, or a surprisingly heavy baby in arms, can attest to this! Good public transportation is very important, but if you’re with a little kid the best option is probably just to walk safely, comfortably and quickly to where you need to go. So we’ve developed the concept of a 15-minute neighbourhood where families with young children can get to the services they need most within a 15-minute walk. And we’re seeing some of the cities we work with start to co-locate services based on where these families live.

Probably the biggest thing we’ve learned is that babies and toddlers are actually really compelling to urbanists as a target or frame for interventions. When we first started doing this work, we downplayed the benefits for child development and talked more about the benefits for everyone else. But we found that people wanted to learn more about brain development and found thinking about babies an easy-to-grasp way to think about universal design principles. So now we talk about babies a lot. From a design perspective, their extreme vulnerability and dependency, and strong drive to explore and play, means that if a space is safe, clean and interesting enough for them, it’s likely to work for everyone. And politically, they are a unifying cause: no one’s against babies, everyone’s been one, and many people have had the experience of caring for one.

An Urban95 project in Lima. Photo: Courtesy of Eleazar Cuadros

Which cities in the world do you think are most nurturing towards and inclusive of babies and young children?

Cecilia: Boa Vista wants to become the first early childhood capital in Brazil. Boa Vista’s holistic way of delivering services from pregnancy to five, the integration of pertinent urban design across the city to meet the needs of babies and caregivers, their social awareness to promote nurturing care in all public space, their political will to prioritise investment to ensure a good start for all children, and their openness to integrating Venezuelan migrant children to their welfare system all add up to what we think is a unique example of a nurturing city for babies and toddlers.  

Patrin: Among our Urban95 partner cities, Tel Aviv, Recife and Tirana in particular are implementing city-wide initiatives, with a person responsible for driving and coordinating initiatives to serve young children. In the case of Tel Aviv, there’s even a newly appointed deputy mayor for early childhood. But, in short, there are many cities are doing interesting and groundbreaking things! We have been tremendously inspired and impressed by the work that our partner cities and organisations – and our colleagues – have done so far and are looking forward to more to come.

Patrin Watanatada and Cecilia Vaca Jones. Photograph: Irina Ivan, Bernard van Leer Foundation


Tackling housing inequality in Atlanta: meet Wanona Satcher

In the first of our series of interviews with people around the world working to support inclusive cities , we talk to Wanona Satcher of Mākhers Studio in Atlanta

Based in Atlanta, Georgia, Wanona Satcher is founder and CEO of Mākhers Studio, a social enterprise design-build company which aims to deliver quality affordable housing, workspace and community facilities for underserved communities, supporting more equitable neighbourhoods. Satcher also set up ReJuve, a non-profit urban design lab dedicated to developing ‘prosilient’ (rather than simply ‘resilient’) communities. Thinking City talked to her to find out more.

What sparked your interest in working with urban communities trying to effect positive change?

I’m from Atlanta, GA, which is a very interesting urban community. Its rich history has a long legacy of civil rights, segregation, de-segregation and major shifts in wealth for communities of colour. It is this rich history that sparked my work today.  

How would you define ‘prosilient communities’ and why are they so important in cities? 

I coined this term to describe proactive approaches to urban development and policy.  For years the notion of resilience has been used to support sustainable efforts in redevelopment; however these efforts are typically reactive and take place after displacement, natural disasters and those economic shifts that negatively impact low-wealth communities. On average, cities change every 20 years and with both historical data and future projections we should now know enough to proactively plan equity into every housing, transit and economic policy, land-use regulation and design standard.

Mākhers Studio focuses on shipping container spaces specifically – what are the benefits? 

Used shipping containers are in abundance, easy to acquire, strong, stackable, and are highly adaptable to small urban lots – lots that often become the anchor to community blight and code enforcement violations.

To larger real estate developers these lots are often not seen as financial generators. We can design, build and deploy affordable housing as well as entrepreneurial spaces in half the time and for half the cost of traditional construction, while raising the value of these spaces. Utilising modular techniques allows for better quality control, efficiency, and a smaller carbon footprint. We love the re-use opportunity with shipping containers.  

Also, we’re excited that our shipping container work provides an amazing platform to hire local tradesmen and tradeswomen. We’re helping under-represented communities build the change they want to see. In fact we prioritise hiring women, minority-owned subcontractors, LGBTQ and refugees to help build our Pods.

What sort of impacts have you seen from your work so far? 

As a startup we’re finally gaining traction. We’ve had discussions with local city and county officials around the use of our containers as accessory dwelling units (ADUs), while many residents and stakeholders have told us that we’re helping them see and reimagine urban spaces differently. Also we’re not only educating the general public on modular container construction, but also architects and general contractors; many aren’t use to designing smaller spaces with smaller budgets that still produce a fair return.

How do you think local and national authorities can support greater community equality in cities like Atlanta?

By approving equitable land-use policies at the local county and city level; by redefining and increasing state and federal tax credit opportunities for affordable housing incentives in wealthy communities; by rethinking local building permit processes and fees, so that we in the private industry can continue to answer the call to produce more affordable options. Affordability isn’t just about the cost to the end user, it’s also about land costs and the cost to build; as well as the time to deploy. 

An affordable community container space currently being completed by Mākhers Studio

What would your ideal Atlanta look like? 

I often say that we at Mākhers Studio want to take over every 8ft around the globe in every major city. Shipping containers are 8ft wide. Imagine how many surface parking lots, strip malls, alleys, land adjacent to old rail lines are vacant; all spaces that we can make invaluable if we just think and build differently. We can do that.

I want to see quality, affordable rental container housing in wealthy Atlanta, as well as quality, affordable single-family container housing in lower-income neighbourhoods in Atlanta where under-represented families can build equity and continue to diversify the city without being displaced; where seniors can safely age in place. I also want to see more youth have access to affordable commercial container spaces so they can become Atlanta’s future entrepreneurs.

Keeping makers in cities: how do we safeguard urban studios?

As cities like London become ever-more unaffordable, studio space for makers and crafters gets harder to protect amid the sprawl of luxury development. But, asks Debika Ray, are we finally reaching a turning point? 

The Weave Studio at Primary in Nottingham. Photo: Jonny Guardiani

Leather Lane, Shoe Lane, Threadneedle Street, and the Worshipful Companies of Drapers, Goldsmiths and Carpenters – a history of craft is stitched into the very fabric of London. It has been a long time, though, since the capital has been a natural home for makers, as rents have escalated and studio space has vanished. Last year, City Hall released figures that showed that 17% of studios were at risk of closing over the next five years even though 95% of spaces were occupied. While the problem in London is particularly acute, sustaining creative practice in any major UK city is difficult – particularly for craftspeople, whose activities continue to require lots of space in an era when the spatial requirements for much other work has shrunk to the size of a laptop.

For furniture maker Yinka Ilori, this is a familiar problem: he moved to a studio in Harrow, north-west London, after it become far too expensive to stay in the rapidly gentrifying east of the city. “Landlords are becoming very greedy and it’s artists who suffer,” he says. “To grow my practice, I had to move.” His current set-up is run by the charity Acava and not only offers him more space for his money, but also free use of its gallery to exhibit his work. In some respects, he says, creative people being forced to spread out more is a good thing as it creates opportunities where there previously weren’t any. “This space has put Harrow on the map in terms of art, design and creativity, which gives young people a space to express themselves, show work or meet like-minded people.”

Yinka Ilori in his studio

But even with charities such as Acava operating, help for young creative practitioners in the capital remains few and far between – and Ilori sees an urgent need for the government and mayor to act. “Creativity is part of London and there’s so much hunger from young children for art, design and fashion. We need to tap into that at a young age by giving people platforms to show work, perhaps offering things like free studio space, funding and access to mentoring.”

Annie Warburton, chief executive of “creative business incubator” Cockpit Arts, which provides studio space in Deptford and Holborn for around 170 craft-based businesses, agrees on the urgency of the situation. “What we’ve seen is real attrition in terms of studio space for makers in London. To me, it’s really vital that we don’t see this hollowing out of the the city and that we keep making right at the centre of the capital.” In an effort to smooth the path for craftspeople, Cockpit Arts offers professional support, showcases its occupants’ work and helps establish apprenticeships and relationships.

The collective weight of Cockpit’s makers, she says, makes a formidable case for why policymakers should pay attention to creative businesses. “Together they have a turnover of £7m. That agglomeration of small and micro businesses is creating as much value as a big business, but in different way – they have value economically, socially, culturally and they enrich the texture of the city.”

Open Studios
Open Studios at Cockpit Arts. Photo: Jamie Trounce

The fact that it owns its building in Deptford has given Cockpit Arts relative stability. Even so, it has had “developers knocking on the door every few months”, comments Warburton. Against that backdrop, she says, the London mayor’s proposals for the Creative Land Trust, a soon-to-be launched initiative that will fund the purchase of permanent buildings by affordable workspace providers, is a welcome move. “If you have a long lease, you’re able to plan and invest.”

In the absence of a similar scheme in Nottingham, the team behind Primary, a gallery and artists’ studio provider that contains a weaving studio, sought to secure its own long term future. “Existing studio provision in the city was highly precarious – studio spaces came and went quickly, which led to them being of relatively poor quality, because there was no security of tenure and therefore little investment,” says director Niki Russell. “Many artists were responding to losing their studio space by leaving the city.”

When taking over the former school building in which is operates, Nottingham Studios signed a 30-year lease. “It’s significantly more stable than other things that were around, so artists can think about locating themselves in Nottingham as a long term option, but we’re still interested in changing that from a lease relationship to an ownership model.”

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Primary occupies an old school building in Nottingham

Russell believes more work needs to be done to create public awareness of the value of these types of initiatives. “We’re looking after the building and we’re in a residential area where there isn’t really a great deal of public facility. This is probably going to allow us to make the case for the value of us being involved and generate a citywide conversation.”

Warburton sees opportunities in the growing public interest around making and the story behind objects, as property developers are more conscious of integrating creative meanwhile elements into their spaces. Initiatives like Appear Here, a platform that links startups with temporarily unused space for relatively low rates to use for pop-ups, is filling that gap by connecting makers to affordable space in central urban locations. But she is wary that a lot these offerings tend to be temporary: “The danger is to rely on that too much, because it’s not a long-term solution.”

Hopefully, however, public bodies are catching up, realising the need to support such spaces. In 2013, with help from Mayor of London funding, architecture collective Assemble converted a former warehouse into Blackhorse Workshop – a public, affordable workshop for local makers and craftspeople – in Walthamstow, east London.

Blackhorse Workshop in Walthamstow, east London

The relationship with the public also lies in nurturing the market for craft. This is a central part of the work of Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh, according to director Celia Joicey: “We provide not only studio space for tapestry weaving, but we also create tapestry commissions and speculative tapestries and pay the weavers a salary to work on these.”

In London this is a vital ingredient in helping makers become sellers, given its abundance of wealthy potential buyers. London Craft Week is striving to build links between the worlds of craft and luxury retail in an effort to create a platform for craftspeople to sell work. “We try to facilitate relationships to give artist-makers a platform that they might not otherwise have,” says Nina Timms, programme manager of London Craft Week. “After all, the audiences for these luxury brands – people who have the means to buy and invest and collect commissioning these works – are also the audiences of these independent makers.”

Thinking City is hosting an event on 10 May, in collaboration with architecture collective Assemble, as part of London Craft Week. Find out more details here

Hong Kong designers reimagine the city’s pocket parks

In a megacity where public space is scarce, local parks are often called ‘three-cornered shit pits’. Now a group of Hong Kong designers is hoping to make them more inclusive, playful and celebratory of the city itself. Mary Hui reports

Hong Kong’s pocket parks, like this one in Hill Road, are officially known as ‘sitting-out areas’

Dotted all over Hong Kong are small parks — officially known as “sitting-out areas” or “rest gardens” — etched deep into the urban fabric of this densely packed city. They are often located in the most unassuming of places: under flyovers, tucked between two buildings, squeezed into a leftover parcel of awkwardly shaped space. Together, they fill in the gaps of the urban landscape.

Though they vary in size, the parks are generally quite small. Whereas the typical pocket park in London is between 2,000 and 4,000 square feet, Hong Kong’s average is about 1,000 square feet, according to Susanne Trumpf, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Hong Kong, and who has studied the city’s pocket parks extensively.

To an older generation of Hong Kongers, these parks also go by a somewhat more explicit name: “three-cornered shit pit”. That’s according to Hoyin Lee, the co-founder and director of the Division of Architectural Conservation Programmes at the University of Hong Kong, and who first heard the phrase from his nonagenarian father.

Hamilton Street Rest Garden, located in the Yau Tsim Mong district of Hong Kong, the most densely populated neighbourhood in the city

“Three-cornered shit pit” initially referred to public toilets built around the city from the early 20th century onwards, after a plague swept the city in the 1890s. Because the Chinese quarters, where the plague broke out, was by then already quite built up, the government had to make do by squeezing the toilets underground or onto leftover sites that couldn’t be developed because of their small size and awkward configuration — typically a triangular shape — hence the name.

Many of those early public toilets have since been demolished. While there may not be a direct link between the toilets and today’s pocket parks, both are built on small, awkward scraps of land. In fact, as old Chinese-style shophouses known as tong lau were demolished in the city’s post-war building boom, it left behind small interstices in the urban landscape. Now, those interstices are where many pocket parks stand.

Sitting-out areas have become an important urban planning tool for a city that is constantly rebuilding, occupying spaces where old buildings once stood, filling irregular gaps between new complexes, or added to comply with new setback requirements, explains Trumpf.  “The most common case would be with the smaller sitting-out areas in Central which are literally squeezed between two tong laus,” she says, referring to old Chinese-style shophouses. In other cases, a large block of old buildings is knocked down, and with new planning and building guidelines, sitting-out areas have to be added into the mix. In this sense, the sitting-out areas become a little bit like a historical record of what the city was and how it has changed. “In Hong Kong, things get rebuilt so constantly and regularly,” says Trumpf.

1024px-Sun_Chui_Estate_Sitting-out_Area CC Prosperity Horizons
Sun Chui Estate sitting-out area. Image: Creative Commons/Prosperity Horizons

The parks also serve as an important and much-needed breathing space in the hyper-density of the city. Within urban Hong Kong, residents get roughly 30 square feet of open space per person, less than half of what residents in Tokyo, Shanghai, and Singapore get. Of course, this doesn’t take into account the 40% of Hong Kong’s territory that is protected as country parks. But within the city’s urban heart, open space is a scarce resource.

“If you’ve got people in a very closely packed environment, they’ve got to have some space,” says Jason Wordie, a local historian. The sitting-out areas “provide a bit of the social value” and make use of otherwise unpromising areas.

Visitors to these small parks also tend to be older, according to research conducted by Civic Exchange, a local think-tank. This doesn’t surprise Wordie. Densely built areas tend to have more subdivided accommodations, and these in turn tend to have an older, single, male demographic in them. “So if your choice is between sitting in your cubicle in your bunk bed or sitting under a tree, well, then that’s that,” he says.

Sha_Tin_Tau_Village_Sitting-out_Area_Creative commons Underwaterbuffalo
Sha Tin Tau Village sitting-out area. Image: Creative Commons/Underwaterbuffalo

The parks are as abundant as they are homogenous. On Hong Kong Island alone, which makes up a mere 7% of the city’s territory, there are some 169 such parks. Managed by the government, they all feature the same set of standardised features and furnishings.

“Uniquely generic, the sitting-out area is the quintessential Hong Kong urban typology,” Trumpf and her co-authors wrote in an academic article in 2017. To Trumpf, the sitting-out areas represent an under-tapped potential for the city to provide a network of public open space.

Now, a group of design professionals are looking to rethink the role and future of Hong Kong’s ubiquitous pocket parks. Working in small teams under the Design Trust Futures Studio program, part of the local NGO Design Trust, they came up with new designs for four pocket parks in different parts of the city. They recently rolled out prototypes, and have been working closely with the city government to build the new parks.

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Conceptual designs for a park under a flyover, by Aron Tsang, Andy Cheng, Jose Fu, and Zoey Chan

The goal, says Marisa Yiu, co-founder and director of Design Trust, is to re-make the parks as a representation of the city’s rich cultural heritage, history, and the diversity of needs and demographics.

“We have such unique neighborhoods,” she says. “Why not utilise something to present the local flavour instead of every park being the same, with the same equipment and the same furniture?”

Over the past year, the design teams conducted extensive research and site analyses to come up with designs that more closely reflect the city’s layered narratives, and that provide inclusive spaces for rest and play.

The redesign of Portland Street Rest Garden provides more seating, and uses bright pink to revitalise the park

At a somewhat drab and gritty park located directly across a betting station and frequented by horseracing gamblers, the designers noticed a shortage of chairs, with many of the elderly men sitting on or squatting by planters. So they have added bright pink moveable seats and tables.  At another park, located under a flyover, the designers opted to play with vertical height, installing an undulating LED installation and perhaps even climbing nets.

The design teams unveiled their 1:1 prototypes and scaled models at an exhibition in January. Each was completely different and tailored to the geographic, historic,  demographic context of each site –– a marked contrast to the uniform designs of the parks currently. And in March, prototypes were displayed at one of the parks, drawing curious passersby as they tested out the bright pink chairs and tables.

The playground design for Yi Pei Square adds colourful graphic patterns to the flooring, creating a sort of carpet for children to play on

Although people generally thought that the bright pink colour of the proposed design was positive, there were worries that the use of steel may attract thieves given the material’s higher resell value compared to cement, stone, or recycled plastic. Another prototype, featuring a slide and a tunnel for the Yi Pei Square Playground site, proved very popular with people of all ages, especially young kids because of the sense of discovery that the equipment encouraged.

The Design Trust is now pushing to make the proposed designs a reality over the next 1–2 years. “Our aim is to guide, disrupt, and challenge the question of what public space is and what it can do for the community,” said Yiu. “The parks are a representation of how we respect our space.”

Mary Hui is a freelance reporter based in Hong Kong


How Leith took on property developers – and won

When development plans in the Edinburgh district of Leith threatened to displace locals, the community successfully mobilised. Eve Livingston reports

Campaigners at 2018’s Leith Gala Day: Photo: Save Leith Walk/Deborah Mullen

When you ask residents of Leith, the waterfront neighbourhood to the north of Edinburgh, to describe their community, there are a few words which come up again and again: family, creativity, diversity, close-knit community. ‘I’ve lived in a few different places in Edinburgh and never felt at home until I came to Leith,’ says 26-year-old charity worker Clara Boeker, originally from Germany.

The neighbourhood might be best known to outsiders as the setting for Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and The Proclaimers’ hit song-turned-musical Sunshine on Leith, but it has undergone something of a transformation since the early 90s, and its depiction in these cultural milestones. Today, Leith boasts Michelin-starred restaurants and an array of fashionable bars and local businesses – but crucially, it has also managed to retain the working-class community spirit and artistic tradition which have always defined it.

Leith residents have protected their community for years, enjoying the benefits of development while resisting the creep of gentrification. But in early 2018, its delicate balance came under threat when Drum Property Group proposed a £50 million redevelopment project on the iconic Leith Walk, the central road which links the area to central Edinburgh.

106–154 Leith Walk

Mirroring the contentious expansion of university buildings across Edinburgh itself, the proposal included plans to demolish 106–154 Leith Walk – a 1930s terrace of red sandstone buildings housing a range of local shops and businesses, community hubs and social enterprises – to make way for student accommodation for 532 students and a 56-room hotel, both operated by the University of Edinburgh. The shops and businesses were invited to take the new development’s retail units but at higher rents than they are paying, meaning most would be displaced.

“There were a group of us who had already worked on a right-to-buy community campaign nearby,” says 27-year-old local Frances Hoole. “We were tipped off to a community council meeting where [the redevelopment plan] was being discussed and when we got there, there were just far too many people to fit in – obviously because they all wanted to discuss this particular issue. So a meeting was set up and everything went from there”.

The ‘everything’ to which Hoole refers is the almost year-long community campaign Save Leith Walk, of which she and Boeker are both members. The group’s tactics involved a central petition to stop the demolition; encouraging and equipping community members to lodge planning objections; several community workshops and even a guerilla light projection to raise awareness of the issue.

A packed-out community meeting. Photo: Save Leith Walk/Deborah Mullen

While the campaign focused on retaining the spirit of Leith and the local importance of the businesses housed in the threatened buildings – the food shop Punjabi Junction, for example, also trains up Sikh and BAME women to help with employability and social exclusion – it has also sought to articulate concerns about a planning system rigged in favour of developers.

“It’s in a conservation area,” points out Hoole. “You have to test what that means at a planning level and in a committee vote. This development would have begun changing the face of Leith Walk. When buildings are maintained by private developers you get rent increases for new businesses. It would have changed who it was for – no more small, local businesses or young musicians renting practice space.”

59-year-old musician Ray Neal became involved in Save Leith Walk because his partner’s business – much-loved local beauty salon Lovella – sits directly opposite the development. Having moved from New Haven, Connecticut, he could immediately spot danger when it emerged the University of Edinburgh would be the development’s single biggest tenant: “Yale University bought the whole city [of New Haven] and threw out all the local shops – it’s like a Disneyland for students,” he says. It’s a view which is supported by research showing that Yale has become New Haven’s largest commercial landlord. “Leith has a certain energy and character, a creative vibe. I was worried about that being lost.”

Campaigners in front of the community-led vision for Leith Walk. Photo: Save Leith Walk/Deborah Mullen

“I didn’t know a single other person when I turned up,” says Boeker says of her participation in Save Leith Walk, which she describes as her first taste of activism. “A lot of people didn’t. But the meeting was full of all different people – different nationalities, ages, people who’ve lived there forever and people who’d moved in. We always say in the campaign: ‘We’re all Leithers – it doesn’t matter when you arrived or where you came from, we’re all Leith’”.

This diversity and energy set the tone for a community organising campaign which saw artists provide artwork and merchandise, local businesses donate products for auctions, and venues host workshops free of charge; there were at least five musical benefits held in support. Community support even included an anonymous “yarn bomber” whose crocheted protest signs persistently popped up around the area. The campaign also attracted support from Leith heroes Irvine Welsh and The Proclaimers as well as political figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Edinburgh-based Mercury prize-winning band Young Fathers. Ultimately, the community group collected 12,500 signatures on its petition and over 3,000 official online objections to Drum’s plans, totalling 15,800 objections.

‘Still want to know why is Edinburgh University developing properties instead of minds?’ Photo: Save Leith Walk/Deborah Mullen

In January of this year, the group won. Drum’s planning application was rejected unanimously. “The day of the council meeting was incredible,” says Neal. “Councillors even laid into the arrogance and entitlement of the developers. We were stunned and elated.”

Hoole puts the success of the campaign down to the diversity of tactics utilised, with activists deploying their skills in artwork, street stalls, drafting planning objections and facilitating workshops. “And it was a symbol of a much bigger problem,” she adds. “So many people have felt a lack of agency in their community – they were excited that a group had managed to make their voice heard.”

Campaigners are quick to point out that the fight is still on: the developers still own the property and have a chance to appeal the decision (when approached for a response, Drum said it was considering its options and had no comment). Save Leith Walk’s original petition had the clear – and now, realised – ambition of stopping the demolition and retaining the businesses, but it continues to advocate for any development to be put to community use, and campaigns more broadly for better provision of social housing. But for the activists, everything has changed.

Staff from local business RS Coachworks in front of a campaign sign. Photo: Save Leith Walk/Deborah Mullen

“I’ve got a family now that I didn’t have a year ago,” says Neal of his fellow campaigners. “And it’s shown the community that their faith in their voice has won out.”

“I think everyone agrees the world sometimes feels messed up,” Boeker agrees. “It’s been great to channel all that energy in a way that feels productive locally and shows people what is possible.”


Eve Livingston is a Scotland-based journalist specialising in social affairs, activism and inequalities. You can find her on Twitter or her website 

Preserving public art in a city of earthquakes

Mexico City’s public art is an integral part of the city’s identity and history. But in a country prone to devastating earthquakes, what is the fate of these creative monuments, asks Martha Pskowski – and is meaningful preservation possible?

Centro SCOP’s vibrant mosaic murals before the 2017 earthquake. Photograph: Thomas Ledl

Mexico City is a bastion of public art in the Americas, with murals, mosaics and monuments lining its most important streets. Yet the city is also highly vulnerable to earthquakes. Currently Mexican historians, artists and architects are contending with a unique predicament: What do you do with historic public art, when an earthquake can bring it tumbling down in a matter of seconds?

When a massive earthquake hit Mexico City in September 1985, roughly 10,000 people died. Alongside this devastating tragedy, hundreds of buildings were also destroyed – among them, some of Guatemalan artist Carlos Mérida’s defining works. 

“I think to some extent it was fortunate that the maestro Mérida died before 1985 and did not see the destruction of the work that he was most proud of,” wrote Alfonso Soto Soria, artist and curator, in his 1988 book on Mérida’s work.

The work he was referring to is the bas-relief figures that once adorned the exteriors of the Benito Juárez housing complex in the Roma Sur neighbourhood of Mexico City. Mérida employed dozens of stoneworkers who chipped and painted Mesoamerican figures out of the housing complex’s concrete slab blocks, designed by architect Mario Pani in the early 1950s. 

Carlos Mérida’s work on the Mario Pani-designed Benito Juárez housing complex in 1985, before the earthquake that destroyed it. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mérida was an exemplary proponent of integración plástica, the mid-20th-century artistic movement which sought to merge sculpture, painting and architecture in public works, and brought a distinctively Mexican twist on the otherwise typical modernist apartment blocks. The movement coincided with the Mexican government’s biggest investments in public works and public art, and so has become the most emblematic style of the city – a part of its identity.

32 years to the day after the 1985 disaster, in September 2017, Mexico City was hit by another major earthquake. Hundreds were killed. Again, important buildings and works of public art were damaged. One of these was the Morelos apartment complex, originally completed in the city’s Doctores neighbourhood in 1971.

A remaining tower of the Morelos apartment complex following the 2017 earthquake. Photograph: Martha Pskowski

At Morelos, architect Guillermo Rossell de la Lama enlisted the Arte en Acción collective, led by muralist and leftist activist José Hernández Delgadillo, to design murals built into the sides of the apartment buildings. After sustaining structural damage during the 2017 earthquake, two buildings in the apartment complex were demolished this year, destroying over 100 apartments as well as the Arte en Acción murals.

Another structure, the Secretariat of Communications and Transportation building in the Narvarte neighbourhood (known locally as Centro SCOP), is an iconic example of Mexican modernism by architect Carlos Lazo, inaugurated in 1954. The building is covered in 20,000 sq m of celebrated mosaic murals, designed by Lazo in collaboration with artists Juan O’ Gorman and José Chávez Morado. Despite suffering damage in the 1985 earthquake, the art and architecture was rebuilt following a long restoration project. But following renewed structural damage in 2017’s earthquake, the building is now condemned to be demolished, and the fate of the sprawling mosaics remains unclear. 

Centro SCOP before the 2017 earthquake. Photograph: Pablo López Luz/Archivo Diseño y Arquitectura

A suggested plan to relocate the murals to a new airport on the outskirts of the city has been interrupted as the construction of the airport itself was (controversially) cancelled by Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in October 2018 following a public referendum and criticism from environmentalists and urban planners. A new airport, on a smaller scale, will most likely be built at the Santa Lucía military base. Overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the airport, there has been no further discussion of relocating the Centro SCOP murals.

Some had argued against the relocation of these unique works of art, however. “The murals were conceived as part of the architectural whole of the building,” wrote Renato Mello, director of the Institute of Aesthetic Research at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), in an open letter addressed to federal officials in April 2018. “It would be difficult to conserve their value as cultural and artistic patrimony in a different architectural context, in which their function would not be the same as in the original.”

Centro SCOP under scaffolding following the 2017 earthquake. Photograph: Martha Pskowski

Integración plástica remains a celebrated age of Mexican art and architecture, when the country’s top architects were employed to build homes for Mexico City’s middle classes, instead of the super wealthy. Mello believes relocating the Centro SCOP artwork from a public building in the heart of the city to an airport an hour away, which aims to attract tourism and international investors, would fundamentally disrupt its meaning. “It’s a difficult dilemma, because the building is seriously damaged,” Mello says when I speak to him. “Yet at the same time its cultural importance is staggering. We have to seek solutions that consider these two realities.”

Earthquakes have fundamentally shaped Mexico City’s urban landscape, erasing iconic buildings and influencing a strict building code. The vestiges of collapsed buildings are quick to be built over, to meet the housing need of a burgeoning population. Mexico City is going through a construction boom, but a public art programme on the scale of the integración plástica movement is unthinkable in an age when developers are more interested in minimising square-metres and maximising profits than beautifying building exteriors. 

The Centro SCOP murals alongside a Mexican flag, before the recent earthquake. Photograph: Oswaldo Bautista

Mello believes that the spirit of the movement has not been entirely lost, though. “The great architects of that era were the teachers of the important architects over the next decades,” he says. “On an ethical and conceptual level, there was a lot of continuity.”

What’s more, Mello cautions against a purely nostalgic view of integración plástica. The movement was promoted alongside vast public works projects, overseen by presidents from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the mid-20th century. “These buildings are testimonies to a specific era,” says Mello. “But admiring them does not mean abandoning a critical vision towards that time period, because the government was very authoritarian.”

The PRI government may have spearheaded major public works and housing complexes, but it was also deeply undemocratic. The 1985 earthquake also shook the country’s politics, as the PRI’s failure to contain the tragedy spurred a citizen movement against one-party rule. People were disillusioned; the seeds of opposition to the PRI had been planted.

On Mexico City’s unsteady ground, buildings and monumental art are ephemeral. Not all the lofty ideals of mid-century architects can coexist with the city’s seismic activity. The public art of mid-century Mexico City must be preserved not to glorify it, but to understand a defining moment in Mexican history. 

Authentic Anren: How China’s largest museum split a city in two

When culture-led regeneration commercialises heritage at the expense of authenticity, a city suffers. Barclay Bram Shoemaker reports on how tourism has transformed, and divided, the Chinese town of Anren

Part of the large-scale regeneration of Anren, tramway tracks have become a physical marker of a divided city. All photographs: Barclay Bram Shoemaker

Anren, in China’s south west, is a small town with a big museum. An hour’s drive from Chengdu, the provincial capital of Sichuan, Anren is the site of the Jianchuan Museum Cluster, China’s largest private museum set across a sprawling complex of 35 museum buildings housing over 8 million items, including a 28m-tall decommissioned intercontinental ballistic missile.

Before the arrival of the museum in 2005, Anren was an unremarkable Chinese town; a few dilapidated, early 20th century, republican-era manors in various states of disrepair and an old street — 树人街 (Shuren Street) — with a series of shops, restaurants and tea houses, largely unaltered from their original state By the time I first visited in 2015, it had already been completely transformed.

Shuren Street mid-transformation

When Fan Jianchuan, a multi-millionaire entrepreneur, arrived in the early 2000s to build his eponymous museum, he quickly purchased many of the republican-era manors and a number of the more impressive storefronts on Shuren Street. In 2008, he sold up to the Chengdu Culture and Tourism Company (Wen Lu, as per its Chinese name) making a tidy return on his investment after the tourist potential of the town started to become clear as curious visitors started to visit the new museum. Wen Lu quickly set about renovating the old town.

One of the company’s first schemes was to build an Art Deco-style cinema at the top of Shuren Street, and a tramway that ran close to the museum and a recently completed Sheraton hotel. In laying the tracks, however, the company inadvertently cut Anren in two. On one side is the old town, where many of the inhabitants still live. On the other side is the museum, Shuren Street and the increasingly commercialised tourist hub of the city — in other words, the new-old town.

Anren’s tourist-oriented neighbourhood

Small towns all over China are latching on to obscure pieces of local history — or inventing them entirely — to try and lure domestic tourists with “heritage” sites. (Chinese tourists embarked on five billion domestic trips in 2017, generating over 4.5 trillion Yuan (nearly £500bn) in 2017.)

The city of Lijiang in Yunnan is emblematic of this trend. The ancient city was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1997 and subsequently over-restored for the tourist gaze, at the expense of the diverse local population. Despite this, “lijiangification” 丽江化 is a term often trotted out enthusiastically by local officials.

The ‘Art Deco’ tramway

In Anren, this trend has manifested itself most clearly in the tramway in the centre of town — boxy and sleek with vague allusions to Art Deco chic. The only problem is that Sichuan never had trams, and it is Shanghai — a city over 2000km away — which is the home of Chinese Art Deco. What’s more, the design of the tram was based on a model that ran in Harbin, a city so far to China’s North East that it’s technically in Siberia and was once part of Russia. It didn’t come cheap either; Anren’s tram is reported to have cost roughly 27,000,000rmb (£3,000,000).

Philosophically, China’s new-old towns represent an interesting problematic to our concept of authenticity. Much of the historic fabric of these towns was destroyed during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76) when the policy of “smash the Four Olds” (old customs, habits, culture and thinking) saw the wholesale destruction of much of China’s millennia-spanning material culture. What was left has often been swept away in the madcap pursuit of growth and development.

Mass-produced ‘authentic’ sculptures

As such, 古城 (new-old towns) are sometimes constructed directly on top of the scant remains of genuinely old areas of town — as in the case of Anren’s Shuren street which directly incorporates original architecture — and in others, like Shanghai’s Xintiandi shopping district, they are built entirely from scratch; Potemkin antiquity.

When I asked Wei Jianmin, the head of publicity at the Jianchuan Museum who had formerly worked on the development of Anren as part of the Jianchuan company, about whether the lack of authenticity in some of the developments bothered him, he shrugged. “People like to have a good time,” he said, “and now there’s lots of ways for people to enjoy themselves here.”

Urban development in progress

One day in Anren I was curious about where the tramway led; I realised that despite weeks in the town I’d never seen it run. I followed it from its start outside of the Sheraton, through the new-old town, passing over into the actual old town. There was a tea-house full of elderly men playing majiang and smoking. Across the street a shop selling elaborate funeral wreaths sombrely kept watch. I continued, walking through a construction site until I finally got to the end of the line. I could see the gleaming trams in their depot. Nearby, a security guard watched me intently. I asked him when they were next scheduled to run. He looked at me quizzically. “I have no idea,” he said. “I can’t remember the last time we actually used them.”

From struggling football club to vital community hub: the story of CS Lebowski

Just outside Florence, the first fan-owned football club in Italy is working to support local communities and promote inclusivity. Chloe Beresford reports

A recent victorious match at CS Lebowski’s home ground, Centro Sportivo Tavarnuzze in the town of Impruneta

When is a football club more than just a football club? This is a question posed by an amateur Italian team, CS Lebowski, based in the small town of Impruneta just outside Florence. Their supporters could find top-tier football just down the road at ACF Fiorentina, the Serie A powerhouse located in the city. Instead, they have invested everything in a project that benefits the entire community.

Centro Storico Lebowski was named after the Coen Brothers’ film The Big Lebowski, in honour of the main character, The Dude. The image of a slacker like him was consistent with a team that were the bottom of the lowest league in Italian football, a side that would lose every week by large scorelines. 

In 2004, a group of local disenchanted teenagers named Marco, Fosco and Duccio discussed their exasperation with the corporate world of modern football. They decided to become ‘ultras’ – an organised group of ultra-fanatical support – for CS Lebowski, a team that was, at the time, somewhat of a joke. What started as typical teenage anti-establishment sentiment soon grew into an unexpected initiative, and a far cry from the hooliganism that ultras are often associated with.

Celebrating a win in ‘ultras’ style

Six years later, those teenagers had become young adults and had slowly attracted others to support the team. They had an ambitious vision to take over CS Lebowski and create a community-based and fully inclusive club that welcomed anyone who wanted to watch the matches or even play for the side – no matter their faith, gender, sexuality or ethnicity. Despite some progress, football in Italy remains a white, male-dominated environment; in some places, incidents of racism are not unusual. By actively promoting its inclusivity, CS Lebowski made it easy for minorities to feel welcome.

No-one stood in the way of the Lebowski Ultras when they came together to take over the struggling club, and form the first fan-owned, community-focused club in Italy. The idea of not having a powerful owner in charge was unheard of, even in the minor leagues, but among them these supporters could now boast qualified football coaches, doctors and lawyers, all of whom could contribute their skills towards the team. ‘Our club is not dependent on the fortunes and whims of a single owner, but is the expression of a collective project, economically and politically,’ explains David Ginsborg, a former volunteer for CS Lebowski and doctor of social anthropology.

A community meal organised by the football club. ‘Ultimi rimasti’ means ‘the last ones left’, and refers to original Florentine residents

After establishing the team in its new form, these fan-founders drew in players from the local area to bolster the squad and improve the quality of those already in place. Even people in Florence and further afield, when they heard about what was happening, wanted to join in. This new and idealistic idea of pooling skills and creating a range of teams has seen the group of friends grow from three fans to thousands of supporters all over the world who identify with the unique community spirit of this project. 

However, the people who have really made a difference are those based nearby. A group of local volunteers give their time to CS Lebowski in order to make it into a welcoming social space to those in the area who feel excluded or displaced from society. On match days an army of people prepare the Centro Sportivo Tavarnuzze — the home of the team — and cook huge meals for the players and their supporters to share dinner together. Away from the pitch, the club hosts communal dinners and social events to unify the community. It has become known as ‘la famiglia Lebowski’ (the Lebowski family).

Where most minor league clubs are an escape for young, adult males, here nobody is pushed aside; women, children and elderly relatives are all actively encouraged to participate by contributing what they can in terms of practical help to keep the club running. ‘Being founded on the collaboration of many individuals means by definition we are open to involving as many people as possible,’ Ginsborg continues. ‘Indeed, the club is reliant upon this involvement in order to continue to exist.’

CS Lebowski’s free football school in San Frediano, Florence

The work of the club is particularly important for the residents of the San Frediano district of Florence, a neighbourhood on the southern banks of the river Arno within the city centre. This is one of the only communities in the heart of the city still predominantly inhabited by locals, the others having seen Florentines forced out by the demand for tourist accommodation. Indeed, according to the Italian tenants’ association, Florence has the highest proportion of Airbnbs of any Italian city, and around 1000 residents of the city are forced to leave their homes each year as landlords turn their properties into profitable holiday rentals for tourists. Many residents of Impruneta were themselves residents of Florence before tourist-driven higher rents and housing scarcity pushed them out. 

In 2015, CS Lebowski decided to support the community of San Frediano by opening a football school, giving local children coaching free of charge. While Florence is a global attraction, the school is a purely local attraction, a part of town that is exclusively for local residents. The school is one of CS Lebowski’s efforts to retain and restore the ‘community soul’ of Florence, which they have seen disappear over the decades.

The project allows the members of CS Lebowski to build a bond with the area, a hub of remaining Florentines, as they work to protect it from large companies looking to construct yet more lucrative developments in the city. The club is also active in organising and participating in protests in Florence against the evictions of local residents.

Children play football in a San Frediano piazza in the 1950s. CS Lebowski shared this photo as an example of the community spirit in Florence that has been lost with the decline of residents

Pulling together in such an inclusive manner is what CS Lebowski is all about, using football as a vehicle for community cohesion – both within the club’s town and within an urban area under threat of tourism. It also allows young people and their families to see the positivity that can be brought about by a game that so often draws negative headlines. 

Most of all though, it harnesses the power of the collective, the idea that so much can be achieved if many people give a little towards a common goal. And speaking of goals – CS Lebowski is no longer bottom of the barrel; last year the team finally achieved promotion. 

All images courtesy of Centro Storico Lebowski

The void deck: Singapore’s secret community infrastructure

An overlooked part of public housing in Singapore performs an undervalued role for residents – and now it’s under threat. Syafiqah Jaaffar reports from Singapore

A typical void deck

The most unassuming places are often the ones closest to our hearts. For 80% of Singapore’s population who live in public housing, this takes the form of the void deck, an empty space located at the foot of a public housing block which serves as the main communal space. Perhaps this was why the recent disappearance of void decks elicited public anxiety about its future.

It began in 2016, when several of Singapore’s town councils installed railings to render the void deck unusable for ball games in some estates, a move which generated a whole slew of tongue-in-cheek articles on mainstream media such as The Straits Times and alternative news platforms such as Mothership about how the government is adamant to prevent children from having fun. It also led to a surge in art projects seeking to document the space, including by Singaporean photographer Nguan, known for his signature pastel-hued photos of everyday spaces in the city. Recently, as part of Archifest 2018, an annual architectural festival in Singapore, Kite Studio Architecture created a pop-up void deck for the festival’s Pavilion as a nod to how integral the void deck is for Singaporeans’ everyday life.

Children play in one of the city’s many void decks

The void deck generally houses the lift lobby and letterboxes. For some larger blocks, it can also be home to amenities such as coffee shops, sundry stores, and public kindergartens, often staffed by and catering to residents or those who stay in the surrounding area.

Despite their emptiness, void decks have come to function over the decades as third spaces; not quite home, but definitely away from the workplace. The void deck morphs itself to be whatever its users want. Children turn it into a sheltered space to play. The numerous “Do Not” notices nailed authoritatively onto the walls do little to deter them. For families, the void deck can be transformed into an event space for weddings and funerals alike. It is also a convenient meeting point, a resting area for labourers assigned to nearby projects and, of course, shelter from the erratic Singapore weather.

The spaces host all kinds of community events. Photograph: Choo Yut Shing

Since the void deck’s incorporation into public housing designs since the mid-1970s, following former Law and National Development Minister E.W. Barker’s push to have a sheltered playing area for children its most distinctive trait has been the flexibility of its open, uninhabited space. But with mixed residential-commercial complexes being the preferred model for newer public housing estates springing up across the city, the future of the void deck remains uncertain.

Clementi Towers, for instance, is a public housing development located in the western part of Singapore, consisting of two 40-storey towers. Instead of a void deck, these sit atop a four-storey shopping mall and a bus interchange. Residents access their flats via lifts within the mall. When the project was completed in 2011, it was hailed as the first of its kind, a groundbreaker for a new integrated type of public housing; but one that left its residents without their void deck.

Clementi Towers, one of the new types of pubic housing without void deck spaces

Similar models have since been announced for future housing developments in other parts of the city. Northshore Plaza is a public housing estate set to be completed in 2020 in Punggol, an area in the north-east. Like Clementi Towers, it will feature public housing blocks integrated into a shopping complex and a direct link to the nearest train station. Communal spaces for residents would no longer be in the forms of void decks, but ‘precinct pavilions’ or rooftop gardens shared across the various housing blocks in the estate. However, being located between floors, or at the top of the building, in blocks restricted only to its residents, such spaces are not quite the same as the porous empty spaces of the void decks which are more accessible due to them being on the ground floor.

It would be easy to dismiss public reservations about the changing face of the void decks as simple nostalgia. But the void deck has indirectly served as a space for the private citizen to negotiate their relationship with the state and its economic ambitions. It marks the transition into a space where the individual is freed from the unrelenting demands of economic productivity expounded by the state that is tied to the workplace as well as commercial districts.

Void decks perform many roles for residents

However, in integrated public housing blocks which are no longer developed and sold by the state, but by private developers contracted to do so by the state, and the latter’s tendency to convert empty spaces into profiteering spaces, where is the space of disengagement from the economic system to be found?

Perhaps the anxiety expressed at the loss of these void decks speaks of broader fear: the sublimation of neoliberalism into the private sphere. The mixed-use model is defended as a way to make sure that available land space in land-scarce Singapore is maximized and not ‘under-utilised’: code, of course, for not letting space go to money-making waste.

Void decks, as free spaces that constantly refuse to serve any single purpose exclusively, are thus anathema to such ambitions. The state’s push for mixed-use developments will likely spell the end of the void decks in future public housing. But in 2017, in response to the concerns expressed by citizens at the loss of the void deck, the state formally declared it part of the country’s community heritage. Who knows, in an ironic twist of fate, the politics of heritage might allow these void decks to stand empty once again.