Jan Lim and Mizah Rahman of Participate in Design, a non-profit organisation based in Singapore, shed light on their work to help neighbourhoods and institutions design community-owned spaces and solutions
Singapore is a city-state of 5.4 million people, with an area that is less than half the size of London. More than 80% of the population reside in high-rise, high-density public housing. Local neighbourhoods of public housing are known as the ‘Heartlands’; they have been a central feature of Singaporean public life where people develop their social relationships and where cultural activities such as Malay weddings and Chinese wakes take place in void deck spaces (the open spaces under public housing blocks).
Despite living in close proximity to one another, most people hardly know or interact with their neighbours beyond a cursory ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’. The issue of neighbourliness and sense of community becomes all the more important in high-rise and high-density living, so we wanted to see if we could help grow this.
Working in partnership with the local community club, and inspired by the Inside Out Project, we conceived of the Dear Neighbour project as an experiment to see if we could encourage more people to pause and reflect on the roles that they play in their neighbourhoods, and how others around them may have made small or big differences in their lives. What we wanted to know was: who would people thank if they had to acknowledge the individuals who have contributed to making their neighbourhood a better place to live in?
Over the course of a day, we collected about 180 portraits in the MacPherson neighbourhood, each of which captures an individual with a chalkboard stating the person he or she would like to acknowledge. Most people struggled a little when asked to think about someone within their neighbourhood whom they were grateful to; some were surprised that they do not know the names of their immediate neighbours. Some offered their thanks to the neighbourhood cleaners; others, the local drinks vendor. One person was grateful to the nearby senior citizens’ home for taking care of his granduncle.
All these portraits contributed towards the creation of a large-scale art installation that we later put up on the facade of one of the housing blocks, forming a visual statement and reminder of the quiet and often invisible people who play positive roles in the community.
This experiment is part of a larger research-in-action project called BetterSG (Better Singapore), where the goal is to develop a participatory design framework that is appropriate for the social, cultural and political context of the city. Participatory design means designing with people, and not just for people – an approach that can be adopted in developing public spaces, products, building, technology, and art – to create outcomes that are well-used and loved by the communities affected. But what we have learnt is that before we can even begin to involve people in creating solutions for themselves and their community, great efforts need to be made towards building relationships and connecting strangers, especially in the fast-paced, urban environment that we are living in. Dear Neighbour is one tool to start achieving that.
All photographs courtesy of Participate In Design and all rights reserved.