The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence 2018
Berkeley Prize 2018

[ID:1909] A City Playground

Singapore

“ I want to go out and play but I don’t know the people there….” – Ashley Tay, 9

“ I like videogames because it brings me excitement beyond what a playground does! ” – Nelson Tan, 14

“ don’t like to play in the playground lah…, so boring..got only a swing..” - Cai Yuqiang, 11

“ We are more fortunate last time, hungry can go pluck bananas, bored can go jungle catch monkey with neighbours…..not like now, all my son does is watch tv and surf internet ” – Lim Ah Bee, 53

Singapore is a vibrant and cosmopolitan city-state which has undergone immense urbanization, reinventing itself from a struggling nation in the mid 1960s to become a technologically savvy business hub in just over 40 years. As a country with few natural resources, Singapore has relied heavily on its human resources to achieve its present level of economic success; the contributions of its strong work force are evident. However, it often goes unnoticed that people of all ages play an important role in sustaining the city, whether by contributing economically, or by bringing life to the urban environment. Unfortunately, the rush towards rapid economic development and the desire to keep up a competitive edge in various fields has lead to an overemphasis on efficiency, such that the emotional needs of its people has been somewhat neglected.

With Singapore’s globalisation and urbanisation, old villages, also known as kampungs, have made way for skyscrapers while intimate niches have been lost to impersonal squares. Rigid grid planning of streets and residential clusters have resulted in a level of over-urbanisation and sterility of the environment. To accommodate the population growth, people were shifted out of the kampungs into high rise apartment blocks. Despite the density of these housing districts with people living in close proximity, people are often “missing” in the public scene. One of the groups of people whose absence is most strongly felt is children.

Children between the ages of 5-16 years contribute to 19.7 percent of Singapore’s total population. Statistics from Housing Development Board of Singapore show that 79.1% of children live in high density housing urban districts. Children between 6-16 enjoy a 99% literacy rate (UNESCO, 2000 ) due to our effective political framework. Also, children are not subjected to cases suffering from floods, droughts or starvation. However, there is an undesirable trend that children are no longer spending time outdoors and are becoming a diminishing sight in public. Why are children not playing outdoors today? How do I bring children back to the city? These are the main considerations I have in embarking this proposal.

One of the main factors that lead to the decline in the number of children who spend time playing outdoors is the lack of attractive outdoor spaces. Outdoor spaces which can attract children, double up as communal spaces to meet and initiate spontaneous activities. However, intimate spaces such as garden niches and semi-private streets found in kampungs have been replaced by impersonal concrete squares. Streets like Chinatown have increasingly become more tourist orientated such that vehicular traffic and commercial activities dominate. Worsened by the fact that newly constructed playground have deterministic activities, places where children can mingle freely with friends in a cosy, comfortable and secure environment are lost. As such, no meeting of children occurs to allow any from of spontaneous activities in the outdoors. The absence of children in public creates a form of positive feedback such that even fewer children go outdoors to play. This results in an increasingly lifeless and uninviting environment.

Further exacerbating such trends is the pervasiveness of media and technology in young people’s lives. This has resulted in a change of mode of children’s play from outdoors to the sheltered indoors – captivated by their computers, TV and TV games. Studies from the National Youth Council of Singapore show 70% of children aged 5-16 are more interested spending time indoors than outdoors, be it online, or playing games in arcades and at home. In another survey in the 2002 Singapore Census, 85% of local children watch television programmes daily. As such, the “playground” of children has been shifted into the virtual world. In such a situation, children are kept away from each other physically and are deprived of the opportunity to benefit from interaction with others. Compared to playing games in the outdoors, such a lifestyle is both emotionally and physically detrimental.

Though these phenomena may seem trivial, the repercussions are, in fact, not. The effects of children being subjected to isolation and long hours spent indoors are detrimental to their own well-being, and also have adverse effects on the cityscape. Spending long hours alone indoors playing games or watching television programmes may equip children with poor interaction skills. Without fostering relationships with neighbours, children do not see any point in going outdoors but stay home instead. This causes the loss of emotional attachment to their surroundings and sense of belonging. Being cut out from the public, they do not see themselves playing a role in contributing in the society. Only 35% of children are involved in social work more than once a month according to the National Youth Council. As such these emotions of not being “involved” or even a sense of rejection from the public may be induced to the children. Health in terms of physical involvement in outdoors for children is also affected when “couch potato” syndrome occurs indoors in front of computers and television sets. Boredom and due to inadequate play spaces, children will then tend to turn to videogames or television which also exposes them to inappropriate amount of violence, sex and gore.

Children are by nature lively and can inject a positive atmosphere into the environment. Children screaming with enthusiasm in their rowdy play, or groups of giggling school girls gathered on sidewalks often bring smiles to the people watching them. According to Jan Gehl, an urban planner and architect, “people are always attracted to people.” Children, being lively and enthusiastic, tend to have the greatest “attraction” for the general public. Without children’s presence in the city, there would be lesser point of attraction and topic of conversation between the public. The synergy between the play of children and involvement of adults is a self reinforcing process. The lack of children’s participation would indirectly create dull and depressing cityscape.

In order to propose an appropriate solution to integrate children in cities, there is a need for us to first understand their psyche and preferences. Children are often filled with curiosity with a strong desire to learn new things. One of the most common and most effective methods is by playing. Through exploration, risk taking and venturing to interesting spaces, children are able to learn by first hand experience. Such form of play is usually enhanced when it is carried out in groups. A survey by the NYC shows that 76% of children between the ages of 5-16 prefer to carry out play-related activities in groups than to play alone. In group play, an exchange of knowledge, social interaction takes place such that children are able to enjoy their play for long periods of time despite of their usually short attention spans. Also, the interaction of children is often spontaneous, occurring wherever the opportunity presents itself. These opportunities can be provided at various spaces such as streets, back alleys of shophouses or even near drains! Such spaces should be littered all over the city and should contain elements of flexible use to allow children to exercise their creativity. Thus, in order for children to be involved in outdoor activities, public spaces should have qualities that capture children’s attention such that spontaneous group activities may occur. While such spaces are apparently lacking in Singapore’s urban landscape, these spaces used to exist in olden kampongs. As such, the concept of “Kampung” life is the focus I took in deriving my proposal to improve the urban conditions spatially and physicaly so as to intergrate children into the city.

Kampung life, the local form of communal living, was the typical lifestyle of the locals before the implementation of high-rise density housing in Singapore in the 1950s. Within the village, families depended on each other for surveillance, protection, and livelihood. Porous dwellings used to line a communal street where daily activities, business and recreation took place. Streets were also the point where children met up before venturing into other “playgrounds“ which were found at the periphery of the village. These included “Intriguing and dark” forests, fish-filled rivers and spooky large drains. The familiarity of residents and children with each other, the varied and attractive nature of spaces and the proximity of activity areas to dwelling spaces made it possible to attract children out of their homes and into the public to play.

To relive this “Kampung” experience within the urban context of Singapore, my 3 main extractions from the concept of Kampung are “friends to play with,” “attractive places to play in” and a “fluid distribution of playground” within the urban space.

To facilitate interaction between children, a high level of visual connectivity amongst the residents in the district should first be promoted. Dwellings in high rise houses can have more porous entrances or doorways with verandas so that the level contact between residents is increased. This promotes familiarity within the children in a semi-public space and can help foster closer ties between neighbours such that a level of trust is built up.

Niches of intimate scale can be introduced throughout the city by constructing a variety of interactive sculptures in close proximity to void decks of flats or open city areas. By allowing visual connectivity between residents and children, neighbours can look out for each other in a form of surveillance, as in kampungs. As such, parent would feel more secure when their children are outside, at play. These sculptures can exist in the form of small playgrounds or pavilions where children can gather and begin their activity. Children nearby may also be inspired with the urge to join the activity, thus increasing chances of group play.

These sculptures should be highly interactive and flexible to the users. One method is designing detachable and movable parts so that children may freely modify them as the game progresses. With children’s great imagination, these sculptures, though taking on generic physical forms, “become” cars, trains or miniature towns through different combinations of modules. This allows the children to exercise their creativity to “design” and “build” their own playground or scenarios according to their game. Allowing flexibility and freedom to design one’s space may urge other children to join in the fun as a group, or stimulate them to start their own set of games and ideas. This not only sets up an attractive starting point for children to make friends, it also gives them a certain sense of ownership to the space created by themselves, for themselves.

The latest technology can be applied to these sculptures by hooking them up to the internet so that children from different districts can challenge each other while playing in the outdoors, creating endless possibilities for different levels of social interaction between children across districts.

With such sculptures becoming part of the city landscape, they can be enjoyed and viewed by the general public, thus going beyond simple child’s play but also forming public installations through the innovation of children.

Besides these sculptures, a strategy to create a “seamless” connection of play spaces is by integrating the elements of fun into public furnishings and services. Winding along pipes that weave across drains near pathways may provide a sense of “danger” and excitement to children who wish to “take up the challenge” while walking to school. Tunnels along slopes that double up as slides, or skirting on footpaths that curve up to accommodate skateboard stunts can provide a sense of excitement while venturing from one sculpture to another. Bus-stops can even be equipped with swings instead of only conventional chairs. Care can be taken to design these add-ons such that they are ergonomic and can be used safely, without obstructing public access. Such add-ons provide a fluid progression of play, from their homes into new exciting grounds while remaining in a safe environment.

The benefits children gain from such implementations span from an emotional level to a larger social level. Playing in the public increases the possibility of meeting new people, and promotes interaction between children such that social skills can be picked up from young. This is highly important especially in the context of Singapore where the ability to accept others is essential in a multi-racial society. Through social interaction, a child may also gain confidence and knowledge by learning from each other while playing. Considering the fact that the activities are held outdoors, children will have better views, fresher air and more physical exercise than by being rooted in front of television sets or game machines. Having children involved in the city by creating innovative public installations may also increase their sense of attachment to the city. This is important as concern for society seems to be lacking in children nowadays, as shown in a NYC survey stating that only 38% of children are concerned with social issues and welfare. By becoming contributors to the city, a sense of belonging and identity for the children in their homes as well as in the city is created.

By adopting the kampong approach, projected benefits may also occur at a large scale. Enhancing the element of “play” of children complements the Urban Redevelopment Authorities in promoting the concept of “Live, Work and Play.” To this end, the manageable scale of add-ons and proposed interactive sculptures are likely to be more beneficial and effective than the placement of more playgrounds that generally end up unused. By providing a vibrant environment to attract children into the public more members of the public may also drawn outdoors, thus creating a more dynamic social environment. Also, being district based, the local Town Councils can collaborate with the NYC in applying the “seamless” flow of playgrounds as a method to relate clusters of housing to each other. Through a simple gesture of tweaking small urban amenities, the social fabric of the city can be altered to become more closely knit. In that way, the city of Singapore can be considered a place not only of nostalgia to the older generation, but also a place where its citizens, especially children, can have a great sense of belonging and identity.

Play is the method which I propose to reach out to the children in Singapore so as to involve them in the city. In the face of urban threats that diminish our sensitivity and sense of responsibility to the city, I hope that, through the implementation of innovative gestures to enrich our public spaces in the spirit of Kampung, children and people of all ages are treated with equal importance to live in a city they can truly call home.

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