Race matters: Los Angeles’s ethnic neighbourhoods & cultural empathy

‘Ethics should walk on one side of the road.’

‘I have noticed interlopers from the Islamic countries sneaking in so I guess the standard of places will fall and crime will increase.’

‘This is Australia, fit in or f*** off.’

Community responses I receive while working on revitalisation projects across multicultural Sydney neighbourhoods vary — from frustrations, hate and prejudices towards people who are different from them; to desires for cultural diversity and intercultural understanding. While racist comments are often omitted in public documents, intercultural conflicts manifest themselves via social media and surveys — a reflection of our society, and too palpable and too deep to brush under the rug.

I also hear comments that are less driven by hate, and more by fear and anxiety. Established residents feel that they are being pushed out of the neighbourhood they have been in for decades, with their identity no longer celebrated in the public realm: ‘Australian influences and English-speaking signs are now the exception or secondary at best. Enclaves breed isolation and exclusion.’ Cafes have changed hands and menus; ethnic supermarkets have moved in selling goods they don’t recognise; the small family-run tool shop is now gone; all of a sudden, their town centre is designated as a cultural precinct, Chinatown or Little Italy, which they don’t’ feel a part of.

How do we help each other see that the celebration of one cultural group does not reduce that of our own? How do we collectively understand that sharing the public realm doesn’t mean melting away of group differences? In the state of New South Wales alone, population growth due to net overseas migration is projected to be 1.74 million (2011-2036). We will need additional infrastructure, social/educational services and amenities, yes, but equally important is building community capacity for all to get along, and to feel a sense of belonging no matter how small their demographic representation.

 

Long-simmering racial and class conflicts 

I remember seeing the footage of the LA Riots in 1992, when my family was exploring emigrating from Seoul to New Zealand. The riots had broken out of conflicts and injustices that built up over time involving white police officers, Korean immigrants and African-Americans and killed more than 50 people and injured thousands. Shops were torched, destroyed and suffered $1 billion in damage (the riots were the manifestation of a complex series of conflicts as shown here). Perhaps the riots draw a rather grim picture of multiculturalism – but it also teaches us in Australia, with a relatively short immigration history, that intercultural understanding is something that can and must be continually nurtured.

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Koreatown today is a safe precinct known for best Korean food outside of Korea.

The current demographics of Los Angeles’s neighbourhoods reflect the racial and class hierarchies established through housing policies in the 30s. In 1939 Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) categorised the neighbourhoods from A to D: A being colour-coded green and the best investment; and D being red and the worst investment. ‘Those communities depicted in “red” usually contained minorities: African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans, and sometimes newly arrived immigrant groups like Slavs, Jews, and Italians’, writes Ryan Reft of KCET. The disinvestment in the redlined neighbourhoods led to a vicious cycle of blights.

 

The social heritage and authenticity

Today, neighbourhoods in and around downtown serving low-income ethnic groups (see interactive map) including Little Tokyo are having to make way for luxury property developments and chain stores. Little Tokyo’s history dates back to late 1880s, with the first group of Japanese immigrants settling and building businesses there. A poignant public art project, Memories of Little Tokyo, takes visitors through a timeline of small shops that used to line the streets: 1905 Miyagishima, barber; 1914 E. Fukushima Bookstore; 1925 Iseri Pharmacy…During World War II people of Japanese ancestry were forcibly taken to internment camps leaving the vibrant Little Tokyo behind. 1/3 of them returned after the war, and Little Tokyo re-emerged with the rise of community-led organisations including Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC), a community development and housing organisation.

Dean Matsubayashi and Grant Sunoo of LTSC explain that Little Tokyo is one of only three Japantowns left in the US, and faces rapid gentrification. We talk about the many sides of ‘heritage’ – architectural heritage can be somewhat protected by policy, but less tangible social heritage is often overlooked — although it is those local community members that keep their place authentic  and vibrant (see San Francisco’s cultural and social heritage case studies). To support the community with identifying their own assets, a program called Takachizu, or treasure map, was set up. Through a temporary, low key exhibition and an online platform, the locals share images of their cultural assets, including this Evacuation Order for all persons of Japanese ancestry and this light-hearted one about a Korean-Japanese adoptee’s Little Tokyo experience.

1Little Tokyo
Memories of Little Tokyo show what the shops used to be on footpath edges.
2Little Tokyo
“Immigrants wanted to have a community where they could feel comfortable with their native tongue — Archie Miyatake

 

Inclusive ethnic neighbourhoods 

While the mission of LTSC includes promoting Japanese culture, it is delivered by people of many ancestries, for people of all ancestries, leading to an inclusive celebration of one ethnic group. Shops and restaurants in Little Tokyo transport me to Japan with their manga-inspired products and delicious ramen broth, but well caters for non-Japanese people. Signage and menus are in English, staff speak English, and the businesses are easy to find online. These seem like simple things to do, but still remain a challenge in Australia.

LSTC’s +lab project brought together the unusual mix of Latina teens and senior members of the Little Tokyo community. During Older Americans Appreciation Month, the young women, participants in a photography training program called Las Fotos Project, were invited to take portraits of the older people and aimed to identify the character of Little Tokyo through photography.

 

Community, culture and self-worth

The Las Fotos Project provides participants, between the ages of 11 and 18, access to equipment and training in photography, storytelling and interviewing. “Why just girls?”, I ask Eric Ibarra, the founder and executive director of Las Fotos Project, to which he explains his prior experience working with girls taught him that young women need their own space that isn’t dominated by men. The program is an opportunity to learn photography and to formally exhibit artworks, but its impact goes beyond obtaining technical skills.

My visit to the Las Fotos gallery coincided with the City Rising exhibit, which is supported by KCET that produced a documentary exploring gentrification with the same title. Gentrification has brought on an additional level of anxiety for the Latino community, especially for those who are undocumented and cannot speak up about substandard housing or other injustices, says Ernesto Espinoza of East LA Community Corporation.

14 girls participated in the City Rising project with photographs they took of communities, people, traditions and cultures of Boyle Heights and south LA, two low-income Latino neighbourhoods under gentrification. One of the goals of the exhibit Eric says, is “for young people to understand what gentrification is…on the individual person scale”. The participants went out and asked for the permission to take portraits, listen to the individuals’ stories of how the change is impacting them. Engaging with the community members was an important part of the process, through which the young participants could learn that “there is value in these traditions and they deserve to be displayed and seen by everybody”, and connect with their self-worth, history and culture.

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A young woman reads the City Rising exhibit introduction.
4Las Fotos
City Rising exhibit includes photographs of people, traditions and cultures in Boyle Heights and south LA.
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A group of older men play cards in Mariachi Plaza, Boyle Heights.
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Young men skateboard in Mariachi Plaza.
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A bold restaurant mural draws attention in Boyle Heights.

 

Ultimately cultural precincts or enclaves shouldn’t be just about celebrating one’s own culture. They should connect people of different of backgrounds, and build capacity and empathy to together fight systemic eradication of underrepresented cultures. There is a growing interest in “community placemaking as a new form of activism” in Los Angeles, as Tridib Banerjee of the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy puts it. In this city, ethnic groups are learning to treasure their own and each other’s cultures.

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Downtown LA is raw, diverse and authentic; and under gentrification.

 

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At the Grove (shopping and entertainment complex), trolleys carry people, a fountain sings, security guards keep shoppers in check, the farmers market sells ‘homemade’ products and hidden speakers play Frank Sinatra from every corner. This is the other face of Los Angeles.

 

Many thanks to these organisations:

 

This blog post was made possible by Westpac Social Change Fellowship, during which Julia Suh is visiting 15 cities to learn from their governments, social enterprises, consultants, academics and community organisers about how they are addressing inequality via design and management of the public realm and bringing about positive change. 

 

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Portland community placemakers: we lead, you support

It is an asphalt intersection built like hundreds of other intersections in Portland’s neighbourhoods and around the world, yet Share-it Square is no ordinary intersection. My visit to Portland aligned with the community’s annual harvest day. Neighbours, comfortably dressed in jeans, shorts and t-shirts, appeared one by one carrying domestic items that typically belong to homes. Folding tables and chairs with colourful tablecloths were soon set up in the car-free intersection. Plates of roast vegetables, dips and fresh tomatoes were laid out to be shared. Pastel-coloured papers, glue and scissors waited to be played with. But the day really was about apples. Buckets of crushed apple pieces were poured into a wooden fruit press, and a couple of men laboriously turned the cast iron handle down. Curious children paused cycling, put their helmets down and watched the group effort.

 

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Neighbours gather around to pour crushed apples into a wooden fruit press.
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With the streets closed to cars for the day, children roam about.

 

Not an overnight success

The scene is almost too good to be true for zealous placemakers, but it hasn’t come about overnight. “In 1996 the community started this project with just chalk — basic chalk on the street. They wanted to reclaim the public space and create some kind of a gathering point that was a place where people could come together and build a community”, said Sarah Heath who has been the neighbourhood’s community organiser for the last five years. She took me through the 19 years of Share-it Square history. The chalk drawings at the intersection eventually got washed off by the rain every time, leading to doing a more permanent mural in paint around 2001. While it initially surprised the local authority, they are part of the same team now. The residents come up with a new design and paint something different every year. Closing the streets for a day is easily done, through a simple process with the local authority.

Each corner of the intersection has been changed to bring the neighbours together. One corner has a DIY bench with a woman’s head carved into the back — Angel Bench it is called, dedicated to a former resident that passed away in a house fire. In front of it, a 24/7 tea station resembles an oversized umbrella and invites passers-by to grab the mugs hanging off the pole. Little toy trucks and a ride-on unicorn lead to a kids’ club, a kind of a tree house with signage that reads ‘howdy folks, welcome parents + players’. A series of random books are available in a book share, perhaps to be read on the Angel Bench with a cup of tea.

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Kids’ Club has shared toys and a set of rules established over time.
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There is trust between the community and the local authority. Closing the street is pretty simple.

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Please, not another pretty photograph of community murals

I often come across photographs of places that resemble this scene at a superficial level – places with book shares and murals, information boards and community events. But the key difference between self-sustained places like Square-it Square and top-down managed places lies in the process. Who identified the assets and opportunities? Who initiated? Who maintains?

What we ultimately want is not intersection murals or tea stations specifically, but rather communities with capacity to self-organise, initiate projects and become guardians of the places they live in. Capacity building is harder than getting a project done. When asked about challenges of fostering community spirit like this, Sarah says the community members themselves have to be invested in their neighbourhood and be willing to put in the time and energy to look after it. Luckily, a few people in her community are coming forward to ensure the Share-it Square spirit continues, beyond their residency.

 

Micro-scale community projects

If you would like to live in a place like the Share-it Square neighbourhood, what’s stopping you from making change?

I overheard a young student a few days ago, talking about how roadworks in her suburb are impacting her. I asked what she thought she could do to influence the environment around her, and her answer was pretty simple: move. Her reasoning was fair – living with her parents now, why would she go through the trouble of writing to the authorities or initiating change? It is way easier to move to a place that suits her values and needs.

She is not alone in feeling uninvested in her neighbourhood. Thinking about my own situation, there is no shared space around my apartment block that residents can appropriate. The typical 6–12-month lease periods don’t provide the certainty we need, to want to emotionally and financially invest in the place long-term. It is too hard to navigate the local council system and get support for a community project.

We often talk about inviting the community to become part of the solution. What will it take for the community to feel invested, have the capacity to identify their own assets and lead micro-scale community projects? What are we doing now to build that capacity?

 

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Portland Bureau of Transportation challenge citizens to think differently about how their streets can be used, on Park(ing) Day. The last time I was involved in a Parking Day in Sydney, the police came to move us on.
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A landscape design consultancy created this seating that reads ‘park it!’
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A restaurant extends out to a parking space with a Parklet. This is on a more permanent basis.
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Inside the Parklet is more seating and quirky elements that make the street feel alive.

 

Many thanks to these organisations:

This blog post was made possible by Westpac Social Change Fellowship, during which Julia Suh is visiting 15 cities to learn from their governments, social enterprises, consultants, academics and community organisers about how they are addressing inequality via design and management of the public realm and bringing about positive change. 

The Amazon impact on marginalised Seattleites

A Banista smiles from behind a cart packed with crates of bananas. “Take one,” the signage says and sure, I grab one. The Community Banana Stand, set up by Amazon in two locations in and around South Lake Union two years ago, offers free bananas to everyone: Amazonians and non-Amazonians, brogrammers and non-techies. My visit is to an unassuming two-wheel cart with wood panels, parked between Meeting Centre and Doppler, two of about three dozen office buildings Amazon occupies. The generosity of giving out 4,500 bananas per day is at odds with a few things. The unethical and pesticide-intensive Dole and Chiquita brands seem to have been served in the past (not my choice of a ‘healthy’ snack) although on the day of my visit the supplier is One Banana, a certified Fairtrade trader. The ‘Community’ Banana Stand is a top-down operation – it appeared out of nowhere “originally conceived by Jeff Bezos”, and may disappear without any community input. Given its location in the heart of the Amazon campus, it is not a surprise that it doesn’t attract people who desperately need food.

Much like the Banana Stand, Amazon’s urban campus is contradictory. Its 40,000 employees – up from 5,000 in 2010, and 55,000 anticipated in the next decade – have boosted retail, real estate and food business. Amazon has put $5.5mil into a new streetcar line and donated a fourth car, to be part of the bigger public transport network. South Lake Union before Amazon was a car-oriented, grey suburb largely with on-ground parking, warehouses and industrial buildings with 677 residents in 1990. It now has all the usual elements expected in a good walkable public realm: bike lanes, bike racks, sculptures, benches, integrated landscaping, street trees, awnings, footpaths with different treatments…So why is it that this public realm doesn’t feel authentic? In the new private and public spaces still being rolled out in the neighbourhood, it is hard to find features or shops that are uniquely Seattle, a public realm appropriated by the local community, or a place for diverse Seattleites not just those in tech. (Locals talk about the city’s soul in this thread)

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South Lake Union’s public realm is walkable, bikable and green, but missing diversity of people, community appropriation and unique features.
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The Community Banana Stand offers free bananas to the locals.
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Amazon’s new office, three glass biospheres, features about 40,000 plants.

 

Urban or suburban campus?

Little information is available regarding displacement of the existing businesses and communities in South Lake Union. The locals tell me there would have been some sort of consultation, but if so, it is hard to find any remnants of them and the past in the public realm. As I walk past blue-badged workers, I realise that on the surface I blend in – I am young, Asian and likely to pick up lunch from one of the 35 food trucks (although I would be part of a small female workforce at Amazon or in tech). Now in the biggest company town in the US, Amazon occupies 19% of A-grade office space in Seattle, equal to the next biggest 43 companies’ square footage combined. Google and Facebook have joined the neighbourhood. South Lake Union’s daytime demographics reflect a typical tech company’s workforce – no children, homeless or elderly people are seen; and the retail and food scene caters for high-income earners. Seattle’s non-tech workers are feeling the impact of a housing shortage and getting priced out. Tech companies are not to be solely blamed, considering other factors such as Wall Street investors, but their link to affordable-housing and homelessness crisis is at the centre of Amazon’s second headquarters (HQ2) debate . 10,730 homeless people currently share the city – the third largest in the US – and a state of emergency was declared on homelessness in 2015.

Is it better for tech companies to be part of the city’s fabric than to be in an isolated suburban campus? Yes. On so many levels, from the perspective of workers’ well-being, environmental footprint, spillover economic growth beyond tech and the kinds of collaboration and social interaction that physical proximity affords. This is considered generally a good deal also by the cities, although some are choosing not to offer hefty tax incentives or participate in the HQ2 bid. But thinking about the quality of life for marginalised communities, less evidence can be found regarding how the growth ultimately ‘trickles down’ to benefit them in the long run.

 

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Pike Place Market, a public market, is a major local and visitor attraction in the heart of Seattle.
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The Alaskan Way Viaduct will come down to make way for a new public realm.

 

The Amazon (social) impact

Amazon has a few great projects and initiatives that are rewriting their philanthropy strategy. It supports FareStart, a social enterprise that trains and hires people with barriers to employment, and provides food to vulnerable citizens. Spaces for five eateries, accessible by the general public, have been donated and furnished by Amazon. To tackle homelessness directly, Amazon is also building homes for 65 families — Mary’s Place, a homeless shelter, was given a former motel as a temporary shelter last year, which will eventually be redeveloped. Instead of being displaced, the residents will be rehoused in Mary’s Place Family Shelter, which will occupy 47,000 sq. ft. of space integrated into a new office building. Last year, Amazon helped ‘The University of Washington with a $10 million donation towards development of a new, state of the art Computer Science & Engineering (CSE) building’; and continues to partner with various technology NFPs such as Girls Who Code, CoderDojo and Code.org.

It will be interesting to see how Mary’s Place patrons get involved – so I would hope — in the shaping of their homes and the built environment around them. Will there be any services, shops and public spaces that reflect their needs and values? Other tech giants are looking into the public realm too. Apple has recently claimed the term Town Squares to call their privately owned public spaces and Facebook is building their own ‘village’ – will the public realm remain truly public?

 

To belong to a community

Marginalised communities outside of the tech neighbourhoods are at risk too. Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda), a community development organisation, was formed in 1975 to revitalise and preserve the neighbourhood whose community members mainly are from low-income and non-English speaking backgrounds. MaryKate Ryan and Julie Neilson of the team understand the ins and outs of the place. With only 4% home ownership rate, a sense of security is not easy to establish, leaving residents at a constant fear of being displaced. ‘Belonging’, however, has a lot to do with being part of a community rather than just the physical design of a place, Julie says. SCIDpda’s work involves the acquisition and management of affordable housing and commercial property, coupled with social services. SCID is currently one of four neighbourhoods earmarked for $6.5 million investment by the City of Seattle’s Equitable Development Initiative (EDI). (Open pdf Seattle 2035 Growth and Equity Analysis)

I hear similar insights from Rania Qawasma, an architect and author of This is Home, a book aimed to guide recently resettled Arabic-speaking refugees with small but important bits of information. We share our own culture-shock stories settling into our respective countries: Rania in the US from the Middle East, and myself a South Korean migrant to New Zealand. What seem like simple know-hows now, we weren’t so familiar with back then – using the garbage disposal, (not) talking to random children in the public space without their carer’s subtle permission, or knowing when to water the lawn.

We often overlook how capable people are in setting their own paths. They just need the right resources and support. At the Tiny House Village, one of seven encampments set up for the homeless by Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI), a resident was taking his shift monitoring the site. When asked what he would like to see improved, he replied, “there is a good community here, I wouldn’t change anything.” I left the beautifully set-up Village in the hands of Seattleites who, with housing sorted, at least for now, have self-organised into a community. Surely improving their lives, and those of the most vulnerable, must be the priority for the city’s growth, not an afterthought.

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Chinatown is one of the neighbourhoods where residents are at the risk of displacement.
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SCIDpda residents set up a vegetable garden in an underutilised space across the street from their apartments.
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A boy punches the air while running out from the SCIDpda apartment courtyard.
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Tiny House Village is home to a community of couples and singles.
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Tiny House entries are beautifully personalised with pot plants and an owl.

 

Many thanks to these organisations:

 

This blog post was made possible by Westpac Social Change Fellowship, during which Julia Suh is visiting 15 cities to learn from their governments, social enterprises, consultants, academics and community organisers about how they are addressing inequality via design and management of the public realm and bringing about positive change. 

Shifting gear: the end of Calgary’s oil boom

Climate criminal, sprawling city, cowboy town – Calgary is not exactly known for walkability or human scale design. In the 70s, its oil and gas industries sent the city’s economy skyrocketing, bringing with them well-paid jobs, continual population growth and houses that sprawled. Some 87% of Calgarians live in the suburbs today. Driving through a generous 8-lane ‘avenue’, only about 15 minutes southwest of the city centre, it is a bizarre sight – even the blocks surrounding a train station lay relatively flat, with a couple of 3-storey retirement villages, a shopping centre and a Park and Ride carpark. 15 minutes on the train would get me to the heart of downtown for CAD$3.25​​.

In some aspects, this is the kind of utopia that many Australian communities aspire to: live in detached houses with large backyards, have plenty of street/mall parking and no traffic jam, while being close to the city centre and amenities. I was born a ‘masterplanned neighbourhood baby’ in a dense part of Seoul, grew up in a Christchurch suburb and moved up and down the inner-outer suburb spectrum in the US, Vietnam and Australia. I admit that as I age, I appreciate the quiet and greenery of my current suburb somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, which I would have abhorred even three years ago. Inner-city living – despite many proven health and happiness advantages – isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, especially in cities like Calgary where there is plenty of land, cheap fuel and not enough amenities in the city centre to allure residents.

But Calgary is changing. This is a city slowly shifting that deeply embedded suburban culture that spans across Canada. From political directions to community actions, and from large precincts developments to small benches, I was in Calgary to witness who is playing what roles. (see map: change in population)

 

Political leadership to fight sprawl

Calgarians for a long time didn’t have many lifestyle choices: live in a house in the suburbs, or live in a house in the suburbs. Now faced with a fast-growing population, the new Mayor Naheed Nenshi wants to shift the citizens’ mindset and support growth that creates ‘a financially, environmentally, and socially sustainable future’. In this article, he explains a new off-site levy bylaw to discontinue the subsidy of the cost of off-site infrastructure and encourage denser living.

One large development project taking place in the city centre is East Village (EV) led by Calgary Municipal Land Corporation (CMLC), an arms-length subsidiary of City of Calgary (City). CMLC was created in 2007 to lead the City’s urban renewal projects, following reports of corruption involving developments. Established as the city’s first neighbourhood in the 1900s, East Village for decades suffered from disinvestment and a high level of crime, but now is undergoing a major change. The government bought back 70% of the land over time and claims ‘since 2007, CMLC’s commitment of $357 million into infrastructure and development programs has so far attracted $2.7 billion of planned development expected to deliver $801 million of Community Revitalization Levy (CRL) for the City of Calgary, our sole shareholder’. I spoke with the staff at the EV Experience & Sales Centre about what kind of a community they are trying to create. The staff say the condos are likely to attract professionals, families and empty nesters downsizing. Currently there is no supermarket, insufficient critical mass to support a new school, or things to do generally in the neighbourhood. But 40km-long cycle and walking paths along the stunning Bow River connect suburbs northwest to southeast, and the City Hall C-Train Station is a few minutes away. Perhaps not a big deal in cities like Sydney, but there is even a high-rise apartment block without carparking (and is selling for less than those with, at c200K for a one bed). This neighbourhood may just start a new trend — people choosing not to own cars.

1East Village Model
A model of East Village is displayed at EV Experience & Sales Centre.
2Container mall
East Village Junction, a temporary container mall is set up in East Village behind the New Central Library. The containers include Lululemon, an ice cream shop and a CMLC East Village Ambassador.
2East Village riverwalk
Along Bow River are walking and cycle paths.
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East Village is changing. In the background the brown building is Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre.

 

The existing social network

As is the challenge with many large redevelopments, East Village is at risk of displacing existing marginalised communities. They include residents in senior housing, affordable housing and Calgary Drop-In & Rehab Centre, the largest homeless services centre in North America that serves a thousand people a month. These existing buildings will stay untouched by the renewal, however, I anticipate the kind of a place East Village is envisioned to be are more likely to serve the new demographic, as rendered in promotional photographs that feature condos with rooftop gardens, markets and artisanal breads. No physical displacement doesn’t mean no impact. How does the renewal improve the lives of the marginalised people? Studio Bell, a new national music centre, just opened its doors and the CAD$245-million New Central Library is under construction. Who are the new amenities for?

In the city centre there are already existing networks of homeless communities. The Mustard Seed, a homeless services provider, offers basic services, housing, employment and spiritual care. I visited one of the sites they own a few blocks from East Village, where Bill Nixon, Director of Community and Spiritual Care, and Boris Lesar, Clinical Director, shared their mission, successes and challenges. The 12-storey building doesn’t look too different from other apartments from the outside, but the inside is designed as a one-stop support centre. On the ground and first levels are computer training labs; employment services; spiritual services; carers, counsellors, psychologists and doctors on shifts in private rooms; a communal kitchen where residents can cook, share and freeze meals; and recreational spaces. A pharmacy is moving in soon. The upper levels are ‘sober’ apartments with a communal space on each floor. The idea is to provide wrap-around support for the residents many of whom fled from bad situations and suffer from trauma. The social network is a significant factor that determines well-being – the resident’s relationships with the carers as well as other residents provide the safety net to focus on other issues. Boris is passionate about training young university graduates to be compassionate and empathetic, and cites a study that shows homeless people don’t feel welcome in hospitals. (I found one such study here)

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Residents in East Village’s senior housing enjoy the sun in their garden, also accessible by the general public.
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The Mustard Seed’s one bedroom unit is neatly prepared for the next resident.

 

Community values in the public realm

The locals tell me there is no other neighbourhood better known for social cohesion than Sunnyside/Kensington. There lives a community that is self-organised and active – they stood against a new train line splitting up the neighbourhood, have several SPIN farms (Small Plot Intensive) where local produce is traded or sold, and dot the streets with pieces of handmade book shares and benches. The 40m x 160m blocks mostly have a mix of 3-storey flats and small detached houses. Without garages dominating the street fronts, coherent, diverse and interesting streetscape is formed with front porches, gardens and balconies. This kind of public realm, where it is evident that the community is emotionally invested in the neighbourhood they live in, doesn’t just happen out of nowhere. There are local champions leading the movement.

Alla Guelber, a local resident and a community organiser, takes me on a walking tour where my questions all point in a similar direction centred on motivation and logistics. How did this movement take off particularly in this neighbourhood? How is the City of Calgary letting go of the control over the public realm? A set of movable tables and chairs placed on the footpath (and not chained!) look simple, but there must have been a step-by-step trial through which the permission to do so was negotiated. Will they be left overnight? Who will be responsible for safety issues? Will the furniture be certified by a qualified person? In this neighbourhood, ordinary citizens are leading change via small pilot projects, and showing the rest of the city what a welcoming, walkable and green neighbourhood can look and feel like. As the signs for gentrification start to emerge here, it is the locals like Alla – who organise Jane’s Walks, cultivate underutilised lands and identify opportunities – who will help protect the place’s social heritage.

The outer suburbs with large plots, double/triple garages and massive roads will never have the character of Sunnyside or East Village. They will continue to be more exclusive than the inner suburbs of Calgary that now have the opportunity to densify and be inclusive of the existing communities as well new ones. Some people will always prefer to have more space and privacy than to be part of a tight-knit community, and that should be a choice left for the individuals to make at appropriate environmental costs; some will make different choices at different stages of life.  The demise of suburban living however, is when it is designed as a bubble in which the residents become or choose to become oblivious to the pain and sufferings of fellow denizens who share the city, and the planet.

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Young people hang out in a temporary public space created by volunteers and an arts organisation.
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Movable furniture is left outside for all to enjoy outside of trading hours.
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An artist from Alberta Printmakers Association works on a utility box in Sunnyside’s main street.
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A resident shares books, flowers, and exhibits a lego world in Sunnyside.

 

Many thanks to these organisations:

This blog post was made possible by Westpac Social Change Fellowship, during which Julia Suh is visiting 15 cities to learn from their governments, social enterprises, consultants, academics and community organisers about how they are addressing inequality via design and management of the public realm and bringing about positive change. 

 

 

The making of New Orleans’ public spaces: form follows people

“In going up St. Peters Street & approaching the Common I heard a most extraordinary noise, which I supposed to proceed from some horse mill–the horses tramping on a wooden floor. I found, however, on emerging from the houses to the Common, that it proceeded from a crowd of five or six hundred persons assembled in an open space or public square. I went to the spot and crowded near enough to see the performance. All those who were engaged in the business seemed to be blacks.” (Excerpt from Benjamin Latrobe’s notes — see full text here page 33-34)

This 1819 description of a public space by architect Benjamin Latrobe, is one of the earliest accounts of jazz and the evolution of African music and dances in New Orleans. Under the Catholic Spanish and French rule, African slaves were allowed take Sundays off, and would gather in the open space to beat the drums, play string instruments, dance and freely socialise. The name, use, users and political context of the space changed over time, and included being named Beauregard Square in 1893 after a former Confederate General. The City of New Orleans renamed it Congo Square in 2011. (If in New Orleans, visit The Historic New Orleans Collection to learn about the city’s complex history.)

“Public space in New Orleans may be the opposite of design,” says Jared Genova, Resilience Planning and Strategy Manager at the City of New Orleans (the City), citing various social episodes that appear spontaneously in places that weren’t designed for that purpose. For him, resilience means creating everyday social and economic opportunities, and goes beyond the hype of post-Katrina disaster readiness. Over my three-day visit his remark turned out to be fair, as I would often observe locals hanging out on the front porches, the musically talented jamming on the streets and young people skateboarding below interstate highway overpasses. In this city, design of the public realm is often facilitated based on the locals’ organically developed use of the place, driven by the user groups themselves and/or the City. Such manner of planning has presented different kinds of success indicators. In neighbourhoods where resources are limited, there may not ever be a perfect concept design, a completed project or a refined sense of materiality. Instead, there is genuine and resilient DIY spirit emerging from people who desperately want a common ground where they can just be.

1CongoSq
One of the earliest accounts of the evolution of jazz refers to Congo Square.
2buskers
An impressive 8-person band draws a large crowd at Jackson Square, the heart of French Quarter.
3buskers2
Tourism is one of the main industries in New Orleans.

 

Active citizens

To see this spirit in action, I paid a visit to a DIY skatepark under an overpass, created initially by a group of skaters who literally made concrete walls and ramps on site. It was illegal and got knocked down. Disappointed, but unwilling to let go, they built a much better and bigger second skatepark. It also got knocked down. Their response? They formed a not-for-profit and successfully negotiated with the City for it to be formally designated as Parasite Skatepark. Tulane School of Architecture students stepped in and designed the next phase through various collaborative workshops.

Arts Council New Orleans’ Youth Solutions program guides young people to take ownership of their own neighbourhoods and implement improvement projects. Its impact lies in helping youth overcome anger, powerlessness and helplessness associated with trauma, with creative placemaking projects. Paid practical internships such as carpentry and welding, as well as mentorship, are available. The program has seen young people learn to empathise with the needs of younger kids and create a pop-up park for them; build seating for public spaces; and interview locals for asset mapping.

 

4Parasite
Parasite Skatepark is well used by the locals.
5Playground
Under the concrete slabs of overpasses are playgrounds and other types of gathering spaces. On hot summer days, they offer some respite from the heat and humidity.

 

Go to where the people are

For activists like Imani Brown, founder of Blights Out and director of programs at Antenna, supporting active citizenship means creating a space where dialogue can be generated and art can make the streets its home. I get a sense of what that might look like at an event held in a bar, Street Spirit, where Imani aims to bring “artists, activists, scientists, spiritualists etc who come from a myriad of different backgrounds but whose work intersects in a way that is unexpected and hopefully is delightful and engaging”. The event is a mix of music, talks, poetry, and surprisingly a presentation by a Certified Floodplain Manager explaining New Orleans’ urban planning and flooding history, and micro-scale stormwater management solutions for the individuals in the audience. Raising awareness on hazard mitigation starts here, where the people are.

Imani tells me about the many prejudices, systems and laws that have taken a toll on New Orleanians’ lives: the Brown Paper Bag test, which was used to determine the status of a person of colour based on the skin colour (and colourism still exists); the loss of free public spaces when the beaches and pools were closed to African Americans; and most recently, a segregated school system that is further suffering from the replacement of ‘veteran black educators’ following Katrina. ‘Integration’ is a politically charged word especially in New Orleans, where hundreds of years of unjust systems continue to influence and segregate its communities. Imani would like to see more places where different people feel the invitation to connect.

6Antenna
A diverse group of people gather in the back of a music venue for Street Spirit.
6Imani
Imani Brown opens Street Spirit and brings together artists, activists, scientists and spiritualists.


Learning from the neutral ground

When the newer American residents and French-speaking Creoles began to cohabit the city in 1800s, their quarters were separated and demarcated by Canal Street – Americans to the west, and Creoles to the east in the French Quarter. The area of demarcation was thus known as ‘the neutral ground’ and the term has been generally used to describe all median strips in the city since. Neutral grounds today are where people socialise, walk and rest (and where people can park to prepare for flooding). Melissa Lee, Senior Advisor for Commercial Revitalization at New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA), wants to see the celebration of inclusion continue on these grounds. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, for instance, has a neutral ground, which will be improved to signify the social justice history and connect the local community. Following the public spaces where people already are, NORA is also working on creating an ‘edible walking trail’ for a neighbourhood, where its elderlies tend to walk up and down the street for exercise, and the culture of community gardening has evolved into urban farming. It is hoped that the loop encompassing African, Vietnamese and Latino communities will lead to unexpected and positive cultural exchanges and community cohesion.

Public spaces in New Orleans could have been left empty, and neutral grounds stripped off any character or sense of ownership. Instead, New Orleanians – whether they are old Vietnamese gardeners or young African American students – are finding ways to manifest their values in the public realm. As the City develops strategies to overlay water infrastructure with public spaces, I imagine this culturally unique city could also prove to be the most technologically innovative and socially inclusive.

7CanalSt
Canal Street used to separate the newer American residents and French-speaking Creoles.
8FrenchQuarter
French Quarter is human-scaled and beautifully maintained.
9StreetSignage
Street signage on the footpath is often seen in neighbourhoods.

 

Many thanks to these organisations:

 This blog post was made possible by Westpac Social Change Fellowship, during which Julia Suh is visiting 15 cities to learn from their governments, social enterprises, consultants, academics and community organisers about how they are addressing inequality via design and management of the public realm and bringing about positive change. 

 

The Detroit model: greater than the sum of its parts

Google Maps gave me four options for getting to Recovery Park from my downtown hotel: one-hour walk along an eight-lane M-3 then through a grass-covered neighbourhood; a 45-min walk-bus-bus-walk combination with buses running every 60 min; a 16-min bike ride on the vehicular road; or a 7-min drive on an interstate highway with a giant partial cloverleaf.

I resorted to Uber. Andrew, the Uber driver, swiftly took me to the neighbourhood, known as Chene Ferry, North Black Bottom or Poletown depending on who’s saying it. Following years of residential demolition works, nature transformed the land back to its beautiful green state, with vacant lots creating open spaces in a grid. It was a bizarre sight, reminding me of Christchurch after many landmark buildings had been demolished following the earthquakes. Unable to find signage, I got off the car in an approximate location and started walking, only to find Andrew drive back toward me 5 minutes later. “I think I found the building, and I didn’t want to leave you here walking around by yourself. I don’t know what this area is like – jump back in, I will take you”, he said and I obliged with much appreciation. Guns. I wonder if that’s what was on his mind. It certainly was on mine when I reached the building entry with signage that read ‘gun-free community’.

Being back in the US, my perception of safety is influenced by my lived experience in New Haven where I would receive regular email updates on local shootings from the police chief and my university would provide door-to-door shuttle escort service after 6pm. Prevalent media portrayals and data on gun violence and hate crimes don’t help. Detroit, despite its generally improving violent crime rate, still comes out on top as America’s Most Dangerous City.

Decline, bankruptcy, violence and poverty may have dominated Detroit’s headlines for decades, but the locals say the last three years have seen an unprecedented progress since the new mayor Mike Duggan took office. With good leadership, citizens have also gained momentum on their initiatives to serve their communities and build places. The local thought leaders I met with face complex challenges everyday yet see opportunities everywhere. Their resilience, expertise and empathy is changing Detroit one place, one neighbourhood at a time.

1Neighbourhood
Few buildings remain to tell a story of what Poletown used to be.
2Cadillac Place
Cadillac Place was General Motors’ world headquarters for 80 years till 2000.

 

Urban farming by people with barriers to employment

There was virtually nobody walking around but the evidence of community in Poletown East was visible in the public realm. A small community garden on a vacant lot, a custom-made bus shelter and a mural painted by high school summer program students – these are a few of the community projects that Recovery Park facilitated to bring life back between derelict factories and remaining houses. Its CEO Gary Wozniak takes me back to a time – only about 4-5 years ago – when the city went bankrupt. Two thirds of the street lights didn’t come on, buses didn’t run, garbage didn’t get picked up and street sweepers didn’t work. In that turmoil, people who could find opportunities elsewhere left. Only one third of its peak population (1.8 million in 1950) remain today.

While the Detroit Land Bank, an authority set up by the mayor to manage foreclosures, has been securing 96,000 properties and demolishing 11,900 abandoned and vacant houses, Recovery Park has been streamlining its not-for-profit and for-profit missions. Gary believes everybody should be given an opportunity to develop “a skillset to self-determine their lives long-term”. An ex-offender himself, he understands that for ex-offenders, integrating back into a community is not easy. De-institutionalisation takes time, when your time in prison had been spent following routines and instructions. Recovery Park Farm’s workforce is mainly made up of people with barriers to employment.

I get a tour of the greenhouses, which currently house 20 different products managed by a hydroponic grower Jeff Gilbert, farming manager Michelle Lutz and five associates. It is Monday and the team has just finished harvesting. I get a taste of a tiny freshly picked cucumber with a yellow flower – it’s crunchy and delicious. The rest of the vegetables would bring US$5-6,000 per week in revenue, purchased by regional produce distributors. Anna Kohn of the team explains the associates are provided not only with long-term employment but also wraparound support. “100% paid health benefit, housing, support with substance abuse, getting an ID, even opening a bank account”, she says, as well as above minimum wages, is all important for folks to feel stable and be able to come to work.

The team’s vision does not stop with eight high tunnels and five associates. There is a plan in motion to create a whole neighbourhood of 40 acres, which currently has 17 houses compared to 851 in the past. Gary gives me a tour in his yellow buggy: there are bioswales managing stormwater runoff; houses and lots recently purchased; a grant won from a Knight Arts Challenge that will be used next year to bring chamber music, jazz, blues concerts; a plan for businesses to move into a vacant school; and ambition to transform an old German-Polish meat market into a community gathering spot. Their vision is a place where people have stable housing, meaningful work and a renewed sense of community.

5Recovery Park Farm
The Recovery Park team discuss the day’s harvest in front of a high tunnel.
3Office
Recovery Park office building has a mural painted by high school students during a summer program. In the background is an abandoned building waiting to be demolished.

 

Wraparound support for village-making

The Collective impact model is also at the heart of Focus:HOPE, a civil and human rights organisation founded following the 1967 riots to start ‘fighting racism, poverty and injustice’. Its long history and concrete mission has led to several organisational arms, ranging from food distribution and workforce programs to placemaking and neighbourhood network development. It serves a community that has repeatedly suffered from spatial injustice and human rights violations: water being cut off in occupied homes, overruled community voices, lack of schools, racial covenants, to name a few. Now with 92% of vacant lots secured, Focus:HOPE is working on the HOPE Village initiative, with the aim to support about 5,300 residents in a 100-block area impacted by riots, blight and disinvestment; and ‘by the year 2031, 100% of neighborhood residents will be educationally well-prepared, economically self-sufficient, and living in a safe, supportive environment’. Stephanie Johnson-Cobb, a community development specialist, wants to change the local mentality of young people who feel this is a place where they grow up but where they leave to get jobs and live in the suburbs. The Village includes a Center for Working Families to support with financial literacy, credit repair and employment; an arts department with various cultural programs; and Cool Cities Park.

4FocusHope
Stephanie Johnson-Cobb illustrates HOPE Village initiative’s various programs.

 

Micro entrepreneurship

Detroit’s abundance of land offers numerous possibilities but invites blight when left uncared for. Detroit Future City (DFC), a NFP organisation that oversees the implementation of a community-led vision for Detroit, is guiding Detroiters to help keep their neighbourhoods safe and beautiful. Working with Lots – a Field Guide is a book of local examples and ideas that aims to bring a ‘green culture shift’; starting a conversation about blight and beauty, abandonment and maintenance. It began as a landscape-focused program to help individuals and communities use and maintain vacant lots, but the DFC team is starting to see its impact also as a channel to engage young people about stormwater management and food security.

Detroit’s entrepreneurial spirit perhaps has always been there, nurtured through its long manufacturing history. Citizens, when left with broken systems, found ways to improve their own lives, but there is no doubt organisational support accelerates the process. Detroit Creative Corridor Center (DC3), in its 7th year of existence, aims to diversify Detroit’s economy by supporting creative practitioners. It is an incubator for designers to test ideas, form a network and develop early stage ventures. The city has a unique history and entrepreneurial spirit to draw from, and is on its way to solidify its designation as a UNESCO City of Design.

10Painter
A portrait artist activates Greektown.

 

Greater than the sum of its parts

How will these efforts connect spatially, economically and socio-culturally to form a stronger whole? Detroit covers a large area of 360km² (compared to Vancouver’s 114km², with a similar population). It was originally designed to be automobile dependent and the culture hasn’t shifted drastically. Many still live in detached homes in the suburbs, some a few vacant lots apart. What’s stopping people from living in downtown? The reasons vary from the perception of safety, affordability, lack of schools, childcare and supermarkets, to transport options – public transport is not great, drivers are stuck with expensive car insurance in the metro area, and retail doesn’t yet support everyday living.

Downtown is changing fast however, owing to investors like Dan Gilbert, a Detroit-born billionaire and Founder & Chairman of Quicken Loans, a mortgage lender. His real estate arm, Bedrock continues to acquire properties in downtown (this 2015 map shows 45 ‘Gilbert properties’). With building upgrades, investment into the public realm and amenities is on the way. Vacant buildings are being refurbished. More chain stores are moving in.

A city that has long suffered from class and race struggles, Detroit’s downtown is an opportunity to reset the course. Will the new downtown offer something for folks in HOPE Village, Recovery Park and new immigrants, as well as new professionals moving in? Or will the communities live in their own bubbles?

Supporting micro businesses with street level retail spaces, new restaurants sourcing ingredients from local urban farms, and public realm improvements upskilling future designers – I left Detroit thinking about the possibilities, greater than the sum of its parts.

6Campus Martius Park
Campus Martius Park is the city’s major civic hub. In the background is Campus Martius Building, which houses Quicken Loans’ headquarters.
7Vacant Buildings
My walking tour guide points to the building on the right as a lovely apartment where he lives in. The rest of the high rises are currently vacant but being refurbished.
8BID
Greektown is included in the Downtown Detroit Business Improvement Zone.
9Greektown
Public realm investment is evident is Greektown.

 

Many thanks to these organisations:

 This blog post was made possible by Westpac Social Change Fellowship, during which Julia Suh is visiting 15 cities to learn from their governments, social enterprises, consultants, academics and community organisers about how they are addressing inequality via design and management of the public realm and bringing about positive change. 

Urbanism & ethics: Londoners changing the business of city-making

I would have liked to have taken a class titled urbanism & ethics at the school of architecture 20 years ago, alongside modern architecture, urban design and environmental science. In that class, I imagine, we would learn to design and critique plans and strategies through the lens of ethics, and ask ourselves ‘does this harm any individuals or organisations in the process of change’, and ‘how can it create long-term, multiple-level positive impacts on the individuals involved and beyond’.

We often hear stories of displaced residents and gentrified neighbourhoods. Through the development process, somebody, knowingly or unknowingly, made specific decisions that led to the outcomes; decisions that would affect the most people without financial resources and social capital and have no control over the change. Urban development professionals can hugely impact people’s lives yet we don’t talk about moral principles as the basis for decision-making. Doctors are required to study medical ethics. Teachers are required to adhere to the code of ethics. Urbanists should recognise the magnitude of our ability to touch people’s lives directly, especially as our contact with participants increases with participatory planning.

 

The ethics lens

I spent two weeks at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) studying Qualitative Research Methods. While discussing methods, research ethics would at all times underlie the application of methods and engagement of participants. ‘Doing the right thing’ sometimes is not so clear-cut. I have worked on projects where conflicts of interest arose between resident groups; where I had to regularly question the validity of informed consent from vulnerable participants; where I had to navigate the reality of the project outcomes and participants’ expectations. There are no text book answers. But at least we – all those involved in decision-making including the communities — can dissect our processes and outcomes through the ethics lens; and ultimately take responsibility for them.

 

Regular practices with a difference

At LSE, the diversity of students was great. From Japan to Saudi Arabia, and from human rights to finance, the scope of qualitative research questions was broad and considerations for data collection and analysis extensive. If the students had one thing in common perhaps, that would be our desire to understand social realities and scrutinise the way each of our industries has been doing things. In parallel to the more academic hours at LSE, I met with organisations bringing about social change through urban development practices.

London’s challenges are similar to Sydney’s: increasing wealth gap, lack of affordable housing, exclusive privately owned public spaces, spatial disparity, just to name a few. Finding organisations that are responding to these challenges in big and small ways wasn’t easy – they don’t promote themselves as ethical companies, they are just regular practices that essentially have positive impact as the core mission.

1Charles Booth
Charles Booth‘s ethnographic studies illustrate interesting assumptions — we can learn what to and what not to do from history (photo taken from Map Descriptive of London Poverty, 1898-9, Second Edition).

 

Emotional, financial, physical investment into community

Developers who share the locals’ aspiration for cohesive communities are changing the traditionally profit-driven industry. Chris Brown, Executive Chair and Founder of Igloo Regeneration (Igloo), a ‘real estate business’, understands how getting the right mix of individuals who care about their neighbourhood can create a sense of community. We met at Bermondsey Square, Igloo’s recently completed mixed-use development. From having been an economically and spiritually important gathering place as Bermondsey Abbey, to having hosted over 100 years of market activities, perhaps it is only right that the place remains as a community hub. Igloo had a few ideas to make that happen.

Apartments were sold to owner occupiers, who are allowed to only rent under exceptional circumstances such as bankruptcy or moving overseas. They sold quickly and the residents are willing to invest into their new neighbourhood, emotionally, financially and physically. Each household, along with the commercial occupiers, puts in approximately £50-100 per year in Community Fund, which supports various improvements and community events determined by volunteer representatives. The local authority typically doesn’t provide funding or deliver community programs for the area, so citizens self-organise.

The mix of businesses were carefully selected in order to bring social and financial benefit, and got the funders’ buy-in. The community wanted a supermarket, and Sainsbury came on board with the ground level frontage dedicated to local artists to use as an art gallery. A boutique hotel was selected instead of a big chain. A small art house cinema moved in, run by a local, who “knows everybody, a Jane Jacobs character”, Chris elaborated.

Every regeneration comes with its own challenges. Talking about classism, Chris points to a café and a sandpit in the background. Those who could afford to buy in the open market, can probably afford to sit comfortably in the café. Those who bought at a subsidised rate might have a different experience in the square, with preferences for free activities. Do they mix? Not really. Chris would like to see this improved, and mentions the missing middle-income families as a potential tie between the two.

The whole neighbourhood is going through big changes. Walking to London Bridge Station, we stopped at various signs of gentrification. There is an industrial-chic bakery selling baked goods at a price many can’t afford. There is a pop-up florist, selling a handful of wild flowers for £8. White Cube, a new contemporary commercial art gallery moved in a few years ago, bearing criticism it isn’t psychologically accessible to many locals. What will happen next? Chains are expected soon. We don’t have all the answers to gentrification yet. But an investment methodology like igloo footprint® that puts people at heart is a good start.

2Bermondsey Square
Chris Brown of Igloo Regeneration tells the story of Bermondsey Square.
3Gentrification
A beautiful pop-up florist activates the street. It may be followed by more price points that many locals can’t afford.

 

Housing as a human right, not a commodity

Like-minded businesses attract each other. Igloo and London Community Land Trust (London CLT) are working together with an aligned commitment to deliver positive social, environmental outcomes for various housing projects. They made a bid for St Clements in Mile End, and got outbid, but London CLT was invited to work with another developer. They recently completed 23 community land trust homes. Including 58 social rent homes by Peabody, affordable homes make up 35% of the site, integrated into various blocks totalling 252 homes. People have started moving in in June this year, with more expected later in the year.

I joined a group of locals at London CLT’s Q&A session at a resident’s home at St Clements to hear first-hand what the resident’s experience has been like and what potential CLT homeowners care about. Salman, born and raised in Tower Hamlets, wanted to retain roots there, but says he was just working to pay the rent. “Even if my siblings and I combined all our incomes, we still couldn’t afford to buy our mum’s house”, he added. Salman moved into a 2-bedroom CLT apartment with his family two weeks ago, which he purchased for £182,000, about 1/3 of the market cost. He had been one of 24,000 people in Tower Hamlets waiting for social housing and had been waiting for five years when his application for a CLT home was approved. He was selected out of about 300 applicants based on eligibility criteria. They include the applicant’s relationship with the local community for at least five years (e.g. living, working), housing need (e.g. priced out, currently living in overcrowded housing), and placement in the housing ladder (e.g. stuck between not being a priority for council and unable to buy in the open market). The idea is to attract active citizens who want to be part of a community.

Salman now has the security of a 250-year lease, until which time the home can be sold back to the land trust and kept affordable. He is in a good position compared to many Londoners who still remain disconnected from their communities and uncertain financial future.

4LondonCLT
St Clements’ social and affordable housing comprises 35% of the total number of homes.

 

Employment & capacity building

Public realm design projects are opportunities for communities to upskill and demonstrate their ability in the process of change and beyond. Thinking about how to scale the impact of Urban Toolbox, meeting London businesses (see the end for full list) with similar goals was inspirational. Make:good’s community engagement is nowhere conventional, involving chutney-making, popcorn-popping, cardboard-playground-making activities and reaching out to those socially excluded. Meanwhile Space repurposes left-over vacant buildings in underserved neighbourhoods and supports creatives to flourish with a strong network and cheap rent, adjusted to suit what each tenant can afford to pay.

Ben Coles, Groundwork’s Director of Communities and Environmental Services, understands barriers to employment can be more than about skills, being job-ready matters. Groundwork’s training program hires people to deliver urban landscaping works, including people that suffer from chronic unemployment. Job seekers can get placements through a job centre and work on various sites over a 12-week period or longer. The course completion rate is 60-70% and the module is accredited (e.g. sustainable drainage) and can lead to other jobs. Groundwork also fills the gap for corporate teams wanting team building experiences that are more meaningful than just going on a retreat. Under the supervision of Groundwork staff, the teams help build community projects, with knowledge that their work contributes to the wider community. Groundwork is a landscape consultancy, employment provider, training school, community development agency and team building facilitator all in one, that started taking a holistic approach to spatial design 30 years ago.

Today’s urban development industry requires more generalists, more multi-disciplined approaches, and more value-creation than ever before. The majority of the thought leaders I met with are young-ish, design-trained generalists, who felt disheartened by our industry’s loyalty to the way things have always been done. How do we prepare our next generation of architects, landscape and urban designers, developers and planners for a world that will demand more than the physical form and function? Back in Edinburgh, I had a chat with Diarmaid Lawlor, head of Place at Architecture and Design Scotland, about the future of our industry.

5Roof East
Roof East is one of Groundwork’s projects, which transformed a roof car park into a social hub. People gather for food and drink, games, outdoor cinema and live music. And to have a look at vintage sports cars filled with plants.

 

The future of design profession

Diarmaid doesn’t talk like a typical designer and thinks like a systems designer. He says beautiful drawings are not enough, yet many architects and urban designers are not thinking about the bigger system. Architects are often locked to a fee-based future directly linked to construction and their power taken away by the project manager. What should be the role of architects in the future? “Possibility planning”, Diarmaid says – letting the creative mind explore what the space could be.

Systems designers are stewards concerned with the long-term sustainability of the place and I hope our future designers are trained to think this way. Diarmaid cites a social housing example in Rotterdam, where the tenants had to get creative when they didn’t receive the anticipated funding following the global financial crisis. They got together, self-organised and began to manage their building better. Former electricians began to use their old skills, and other tenants acquired new skills. A new social contract was formed essentially, where shared maintenance became the norm.

“Space” and “ability to organise”, Diarmaid says, are critical to sustainable places. We need to provide room (physical and metaphorical) for people to negotiate what their future might look like and appropriate it accordingly. This means we need fuller understanding of the communities we work with – what is the social interaction like, is there peer support, who are the butterflies and introverts? Nearing the end of our chat, he reminds me that the ‘right to the city’ also includes the right not to participate, which we must respect.

Designers don’t share much liability when their designs don’t turn out to be conducive to people’s wellbeing. Architectural awards are given shortly after the project completion, not after measuring its impact over 10 years and beyond. Should we be sharing the risk of stewardship, not just that of functional performance? How do we foster stewardship in design and planning schools? I mulled over on my last day in London at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, where the dead watched hundreds of Shuffle goers celebrate urbanism and creativity.

9Cemetery
Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park is alive with music, games, picnics and film screening.

 

Many thanks to these organisations:

 

This blog post was made possible by Westpac Social Change Fellowship, during which Julia Suh is visiting 15 cities to learn from their governments, social enterprises, consultants, academics and community organisers about how they are addressing inequality via design and management of the public realm and bringing about positive change. 

Co-constructing meaning: Scotland’s Place Standard approach

Pride was palpable in George Square as an eager crowd locked their eyes on the men and women magnificently dressed in green tartans, standing tall to play centuries-old notes. My visit to Glasgow couldn’t have been timed better. The city centre was bustling with Piping Live! and World Pipe Band Championships, bringing into the heart of the city uniquely Scottish tunes; deep, soulful and inviting a moment of reflection. Behind, elaborate details of Victorian emblems and statues on the City Chambers building and former General Post Office – the architects’ portrayal of wealth and status built about 130 years ago – added volume to the atmosphere.

It was a happy, sunny, festive kind of a day. But Glaswegians know George Square carries a meaning beyond festivity, it is a politically charged civic space. There, thousands had gathered for an anti-racism rally and marched against the Iraq War. Going back 98 years, in a riot called ‘Bloody Friday’, it was also where an estimated 60,000 people protested poor working conditions and wages and the Riot Act was read for the last time in the UK.

Glasgow was the backbone of the British Empire once, its growth peaking at the end of 19th century as a leader in industrialisation. Shipbuilding, machinery, textiles and tannery to name a few, contributed to the economic growth, and the city pulled through Scotland’s Blitz during WWII. But with international competition and changing market went manufacturing jobs, and the merchant city’s decline began.

1Glasgow Queen St station
World Pipe Band Championships were held in George Square. On the left is City Chambers building and on the right former General Post Office.

 

The urban narrative

On the same day that I experienced the city’s grandeur in George Square, I also saw a city that never quite recovered from an economic decline. Its impact was felt in the derelict buildings, new developments tightly secured from the street and a public realm uncared for. Within five minutes, you could be shopping at Ted Baker on a bustling main street, then walking along a tagged wall with hostile metal fences and no one around. The city has big challenges: half a century of steep population decline, low voter turnout and volunteering rates, excess mortality, high unemployment and poverty rate with 34% of all children living in poverty. How do you shift a deep-rooted narrative of urban decline?

Since the 2013 launch (delivered in time for 2014 Commonwealth Games), the city’s slogan ‘People Make Glasgow’ attracted positive press as well as criticism for having a destination marketing focus rather reflecting the local values. Some Glaswegians didn’t mind having a good laugh about it though at their own expense. But perhaps the wording of the slogan is not as important as the meaning constructed by Glaswegians in the brand development and through its evolution. Today, #PeopleMakeGlasgow on social media shows diverse Glasgow identities and its promotional website claims: ‘Glasgow’s earned its reputation as one of the world’s greatest cities’.  What does ‘great’ mean, for the locals?

2Glasgow mainstreet
Buchanan Street, one of the main streets with high-end shops, is bustling with shoppers.
DSC00955
New office and residential developments in the city centre are inward-looking.
6derelict
Abandoned buildings with unidentified land owners dot the city.

 

Construction of meaning

Language is complex – what is said, how it is said, power relations surrounding the context, implicit meanings. The many facets of a city, communities and lives cannot be captured solely by statistics, yet numbers are considered to be more scientific and legitimate than language. Urbanists continue to produce rankings of places to indicate their success, yet they are based on a set of constructed metrics. Presented as simple and finite numbers, such rankings inevitably attract criticism from all angles. Just recently, there have been uproars about the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)’s global liveability survey, which Melbourne topped for the seventh consecutive year. Domain Liveable Sydney illuminated what liveable suburbs look like when liveability is seen through the lens of certain lifestyles that not many can afford. Will there ever be a perfect ranking system? No. But I think we can change the discourse of liveability, by shifting the focus from lifestyle aspirations for a few to communal well-being. In Scotland, this has begun to take shape in a structured manner, at a national level.

 

Holistic, inductive approach

The purpose of my visit to Glasgow was to learn more about Place Standard, a tool developed to explore the fundamental causes of inequalities and enable local action. Scotland’s health inequalities have been a priority concern for decades – Glasgow for instance, is doing poorly in every category from general health to long-term health issues and disability compared to the rest of the country. Recognising the link between health inequalities and spatial inequalities, three organisations got together. NHS Health Scotland , The Scottish Government (SG) and Architecture & Design Scotland (A&DS) developed ‘a framework for place-based conversations to support communities, public, private and third sectors to work together to deliver high quality, sustainable places’.

The aim is to use the tool to enable conversations centred on communal well-being. In a group setting, participants are invited to consider 14 categories that range from ‘influence and sense of control’ to ‘work and local economy’. Participants are asked to rank each category on a scale from 1 to 7 creating a visual snapshot and prompting discussions about their physical and social aspects. There is no attempt to arrive at final rankings here, and the NHS and SG teams are clear about why. This tool is not about comparing places or cities, it is about the community conversations and actions that follow them.

 

Meaningful participation

Improving people’s well-being is complex and cannot be achieved by a single-disciplined, short-term, top-down approach. Place Standard overcomes the fallacy of participatory research in urban planning at a time when many rely on a single set of data from pre-designed surveys. Participation in qualitative research refers to knowledge construction and the creation of meaningful content by participants – not ticking boxes on prepared questionnaires.

Place Standard’s big challenge now is analysing the data and putting it into use to influence national and city level policies. Challenging, because the quality of qualitative research depends on how well the research question is bounded; and transparency, reflexibility and generalisability of the research. This gets quite complicated when you start thinking about the data collection process at the local level: what’s the scale of the place, who’s facilitating and participating, who’s missing, are there any vulnerable groups negatively impacted by the process, how will the consents be managed, how will the data be captured, will the data be publicly available and how will it be secured and used?  The facilitators’ role is critical in ensuring the quality of research stays high, as the co-constructed meaning will not only be manifested in written words and diagrams but also implicitly in the participants’ interactions.

In Edinburgh, people are talking about the future of Leith, an area emerging as a new cultural hub driven by entrepreneurs, the government and citizens. (Where is Leith? Think Trainspotting) Leith Creative, a program being delivered by cultural organisations LeithLate and Citizen Curator, is one of the channels through which local conversations are taking place. Leith has suffered from years of inaction but its new image as a waterfront destination looks promising with the old Customs House getting filled quickly up with various creative organisations, since being reopened by GRAS. Edinburgh’s first Tool Library is also based there. The founder Chris Hellawell says one of its aims is to bring communities together in Leith, one of the most ethnically diverse wards in the country. Recent immigrants and established communities for instance, have the opportunity to mingle while making things in the workshop, rather than booking out the room separately.

Scotland’s aspiration to holistically tackle inequalities from different angles – private and public, health and space, local and national – is inspiring. Change won’t happen overnight. But it will happen with meaningful conversations.

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Leith Walk connects Leith with Edinburgh city centre.
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Leith Walk welcomes creatives.
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Tool Library in the old Customs House offers opportunities for the local communities to connect.
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Edinburgh Festival Fringe attracts all kinds of performers offering over 50,000 performances each year.

 

Many thanks to these organisations:

 

This blog post was made possible by Westpac Social Change Fellowship, during which Julia Suh is visiting 15 cities to learn from their governments, social enterprises, consultants, academics and community organisers about how they are addressing inequality via design and management of the public realm and bringing about positive change. 

 

Sharing the ground level: how Singapore is building community resilience bottom-up

“105,000 people are homeless in Australia. Of them, 42% are under the age of 25. Young people in our major cities have little hope of owning a decent home unless their parents can help them out”, as I set the scene, my Singaporean audience looked puzzled. What do you mean, you don’t have housing for people? Where do people live then? How do they work without having a home to return to every night?

Yes, that’s my point — and the point affordable housing advocates have been making forever. To solve homelessness, we need to provide housing, structured practical and psychological support and employment.

Housing for Community Cohesion

In Singapore, 80% of the population live in public housing or more commonly known as Housing & Development Board (HDB). I wouldn’t associate the term public housing with good quality living in Australia, but in Singapore, there is a sense of community, affordability and safety that comes with it. Singaporean nationals are able to purchase a flat at a subsidised cost, drawing down on Central Provident Fund (Singapore’s social security/superannuation), a pool of savings that comprise 20% of their salary and 17% contribution by their employer. Home ownership rate is 91%, noting however, that ownership in Singapore means a lease period of up to 99 years — properties are returned to the state after the lease period for redevelopment or lease renewal. As HDB was only formed in 1960, Singapore is yet to see the full impact of lease expiration.

Citizens have a high level of trust in the Singaporean government, and also a high level of expectation that the state will take care of them. After all, Singapore’s GDP growth since the 1960s is astonishing, especially when compared to neighbouring countries that started out similarly. The older generation in particular, who remember Singapore’s poorer past, are appreciative of the significant improvement in their quality of living.

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Supertree Grove at Gardens by the Bay are vertical gardens, viewing platforms, creative lighting and beautiful sculptures all in one.
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Singapore’s GDP growth since the 1960s is astonishing.

Singapore’s ethnic composition is 70% Chinese, 15% Malay, 10% Indian and 5% Other; 45% of total population are international migrants. Pulling together the diverse ethnic groups under the umbrella of Singapore has been a challenge, and many policies have been geared toward creating ethnically diverse and mixed-income neighbourhoods. Selling a flat is not just a matter of finding a buyer – it is a matter of finding the right buyer that meets the ethic and income quota for the specific neighbourhood. All Singaporean kids are required to attend public schools, with some exceptions given to international diplomats or similar. Inclusionary Zoning has been widely practised, but ethnic zoning? “Does this really work?”, I asked Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC), the research and advisory arm of the Singaporean Government dedicated to sustainable and liveable cities. There has been no specific study to measure its success, there are of course a number of contributors to Singapore’s community cohesion; but CLC cites the low number of racially provoked incidents as one indicator.

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Little India is where the locals shop and socialise and embodies a wonderful sense of authenticity. It is also the site of the Little India riot of 2013, the first riot since 1969, considered to have been flamed by years of neglect on migrant workers’ rights.

Everybody Contributes to the Garden City

This well-organised city accommodates 3.9 million residents in an island half the size of London. Most notably, the MRT system (No. 2 attraction on Tripadvisor!) is efficient, clean and affordable costing around 70 Singaporean cents for a short journey, compared to A$2.42 off peak minimum cost in Sydney. Coupled with the bus network and strict car ownership control, public transport can get you pretty much everywhere, fast. With so many people, one might expect crowded and dirty streets, but the abundance of greenery provided and maintained by commercial buildings, residential flats and individual shops creates places that are quite pleasant to be in. In fact, everyone seems to love greenery. There is always a small garden, pot plant or green wall all cared for voluntarily – no space is wasted, there isn’t much to go around. Even commercial buildings and shopping centres are quite generous with their contribution to the public realm, whether it is large setbacks with fountains, lush greenery, seating for the public, or through-block links. Urban Development Authority recently implemented Design Guidelines and Good Practice for Privately Owned Spaces, mandatory for applicable private developments and stipulated in the conditions of land sales from the state.

While Singapore’s international image may have been high-rise shiny towers, there is a movement toward bringing back more human-scale, diverse experiences onto the ground level. The Singaporean Government is seeing that this cannot be provided by the government alone; the citizens need to be the drivers of change.

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People relax in the generous public domain. Footpaths offer much more than long, narrow straight paths to walk through.
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Older men play a game of Go in a Chinatown restaurant.
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A corner of The Arab Quarter has a number of shopfronts showcasing bold murals.
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Older men get haircuts in a quiet residential laneway in The Arab Quarter.

The Case for Citizen Engagement

Melissa Kwee, CEO of National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, cites three factors that are driving the desire for improved citizen engagement: increasing interest in participation from the citizens; the government’s plan to build community resilience bottom-up and reduce social services cost; and the young generation’s desire for purpose and independence. Participatory planning is still new in the country and cultural shift hard, but Mizah Rahman, Co-founder of Participate in Design, believes citizen engagement is critical especially in Singapore where top-down culture has been the norm. She quizzes me as an example: “You share a corridor with your neighbours, and your next-door neighbour leaves a bike that gets in your way. What do you do?” “You ask them to keep it inside”, I reply. Singaporeans? They would call or write to their town council who will then notify the neighbour about the inconvenience. Mizah says Singaporeans will try to avoid conflicts where possible, and community participation can be challenging. I hear a similar story from Bernise Ang, Co-founder of Zeroth. When asked what’s the one thing she would like to see more of in the future of Singapore, she says healthy debates – cultural permission for people to have stimulating discussions without feeling uncomfortable or being shut down.

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Young and old people play with coloured dots at a participatory installation, Obliteration Room, at the National Gallery Singapore.

Who’s Missing?

Then who are at the risk of being excluded from such conversations?

While Singapore’s public housing policy caters for most Singaporeans, those that don’t fit neatly into the typical Singaporean category face systematic discrimination from accessing affordable housing. Typically, Singaporeans live with their parents until they get married. Marriage is part of the eligibility criteria for public housing application for those under the age of 35. So what do you do if you are an unmarried single mum, gay or simply haven’t found a suitable spouse? You live with your family until you turn 35 or if you are lucky enough to be young and wealthy, you can purchase a private flat where no ethic/mixed-income quota applies. Marriage in Singapore is more than just a celebration of love, legal commitment or practice of tradition. It is a pathway to financial independence and empowerment, made harder to achieve for those already suffering from social stigma and exclusion. Also, the falling general marriage rate, rising first marriage age and the increasing number of inter-ethic marriages may prompt policy reform.

Low-skilled foreign workers are also at risk. They include labourers from India and Bangladesh, and domestic workers from the Philippines. Domestic workers, for instance, tend to be live-in workers/nannies who get free lodging and food. While this may seem like a good financial deal, it also means they don’t have a genuine first place (home) or second place (work); and finding a place to unwind in the public realm may be more important than for an average Singaporean. Money is tight (my Singaporean colleague tells me her helper is paid S$700/mth, however, this article suggests less) so dining out in cafes or going to a ticketed event is difficult. Instead, they need free, safe places. In Singapore, that place seems to be St. Andrews Cathedral, which recently opened its gates to not only visitors and mass attendees, but also those who have nowhere else to be. Every Sunday, domestic workers gather to picnic on the church grounds, use the toilets and don’t have to worry about getting moved on.

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Domestic workers socialise at St. Andrews on a Sunday.

Learning from Singapore

Singaporeans tell me their social connection is declining and people are seeking more privacy as flat sizes are getting smaller. New and high-end public housing seems to reflect this, with more upper-level sky/roof gardens (still with full public access), and less vibrant ground-level shared spaces. Private housing is gated and exclusive to the rich. This is a shame because there is a lot to learn from community-oriented flats.

The ground levels of residential developments are freed up for resident activities both indoors and outdoors. Rather than ‘ground levels’, I would like to say ‘ground plane’ because the different neighbourhoods share the whole plane without much physical barrier in-between. Depending on the community’s needs, they are appropriated as community gardens, seniors’ hubs and wedding/funeral marquees etc (some seem to get used better than others, and I am yet to see studies on this). For example, GoodLife! Makan, a community kitchen for seniors living alone, provides a space where they can cook and share meals, rather than have social services deliver food. The ground levels are pedestrian- and bike-friendly, kept safe with passive surveillance, and well-integrated into the neighbourhood without hard barriers/fences.

Mixed-income housing isn’t just about the mix of different people; as a result, the neighbourhood’s economy and amenities respond to their different needs. High-end flats have cheap eats as well as wine bars, free outdoor exercise equipment as well as private gyms, and children’s playgrounds as well as seniors’ game spaces. There is little spatial disparity between the city’s neighbourhoods.

In Australia, we need to think hard about what goes on in our ground planes. Parking, carpark entries, storage, fences and blank walls do not contribute to community cohesion. Our exclusive neighbourhoods – closed off to too many physically, financially and psychologically — create deeper social divides. Singapore’s strategy to build community resilience bottom-up from the ground level is a valuable lesson for profit-driven housing development that pays no attention to social cohesion.

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The Interlace, private development designed by OMA, is a gated community with its own pool, ponds, gardens, community hubs and playgrounds. Gated developments in Singapore seem to be desirable because of the high quality amenities on offer, rather than security reasons.
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The Pinnacle is a high-end residential development (public housing) with a 50th storey Skybridge open to the public.
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Strathmore (mid-end public housing, foreground) and SkyVille Dawson (high-end public housing, background) share the ground plane without much physical barrier. Moving between the public and semi-public realms is fluid.
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Residents of Tiong Bahru (low-end public housing) are invited to gardening.
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A resident at Tiong Bahru has personalised the shared corridor.
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The worst condition I saw was at Jalan Kukoh (low-end public housing), with defensive materials and deteriorated amenities.
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While in a poor condition, Jalan Kukoh still has everyday shops, eateries, gardens and playgrounds on the ground level.

Many thanks to these organisations:

Neighbourhoods visited:

  • Jalan Kukoh (low-end public housing)
  • Aljunited Crescent (low-end public housing)
  • Tiong Bahru (low-end public housing)
  • Strathmore Estate (mid-end public housing)
  • Dawson SkyVille (high-end public housing)
  • Dawson SkyTerrace (high-end public housing)
  • The Pinnacle at Duxton (high-end public housing)
  • Caribbean at Keppel Bay (high-end private housing)
  • The Interlace (high-end private housing)
  • Not visited but recommended to study: Ardmore Park

 

This blog post was made possible by Westpac Social Change Fellowship, during which Julia Suh is visiting 15 cities to learn from their governments, social enterprises, consultants, academics and community organisers about how they are addressing inequality via design and management of the public realm and bringing about positive change.