An HDB Town Centre furnished with commercial shops and amenities within walking distance from the nearby flats. Photograph by Housing & Development Board, 2016.

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Neighbourhood Concept. Image by Housing & Development Board.

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A community library and café space converted from a previously under-utilised HDB void deck (i.e. empty space at the ground floor of our block of flats). Photograph by Housing & Development Board, 2016.

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An HDB Town Centre furnished with commercial shops and amenities within walking distance from the nearby flats. Photograph by Housing & Development Board, 2016.

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Unlike many cities in the world, the majority of people in Singapore live in quality public housing flats.  Coupled with a homeownership rate of over 90%, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) neighbourhoods (or what we call “Heartlands” in colloquial terms) are naturally the places where social relationships are developed and common experiences shared.  The strong, closely knit HDB communities form the basis of Singaporean society that is cohesive and inclusive.  


During the mid-1950s to early 1960s, the clearance of squatters and re-housing of a rapidly growing population into flats were of paramount urgency for the Singapore Government, who had taken the lead in designing the nation’s neighbourhoods.  While a state-driven approach was adopted, these neighbourhoods have always been planned and designed around people and communities.  Residents only need to take a short walk to have their meal, buy groceries, attend schools, work-out, and even enjoy a community event with family and friends (see Image 1).

A hierarchical planning model is used where major facilities for shopping/eating, education, sports, healthcare, community and institutional facilities, parks and open spaces, are provided at the town centre. The town centre serves nearby neighbourhoods, which each, comprise about 4,000 to 6,000 dwelling units (see Image 2).  In each neighbourhood, smaller nodes such as neighbourhood centres (NC) with similar amenities are provided to bring amenities closer to residents.

Neighbourhoods are further sub-divided into precincts comprising 400 to 800 dwelling units). Within each precinct, a myriad of flat types for households of different incomes and social profiles ensure social mixing remains integral to design. This is further achieved through the ethnic integration policy to ensure that neighbours comprise a balance of Singapore’s diverse ethnic groups (Chinese, Malay, Indian, Others).  Public spaces like lift lobbies, common corridors, pavilions, 3-generational playgrounds and fitness corners are also purposefully designed to foster interaction within the micro-communities, while socio-communal facilities including childcare centres, senior activity centres provide social support for the families, right at their doorsteps. Today, there are 23 towns in Singapore, where the management of the common properties is assigned to Town Councils (akin to municipal estate manager), run by the local elected politicians.  


Getting the design and social mixing algorithm right has been a result of continuous experimentation and iteration with community stakeholders.  Valuable insights from our five yearly nationwide Sample Household Survey and regular feedback from residents; local community and political leaders, and; staff spread across our 23 Branch Offices and service centres, constantly feed into our design guidelines.

So far, the data tell us that we are in the right direction.  The percentage of residents satisfied with their neighbourhoods have stayed above 90% since 1987.  Satisfaction with estate facilities were at a high of 96.1% in 2013, while those who developed a sense of belonging to their estate have also been rising, from 79.1% in 1993 to 98.8% in 2013.


Five decades on, our populace today is more educated and vocal; they have views and ideas about their neighbourhoods that they want heard.  Leveraging this, the HDB had, since 2013, initiated deeper engagement to involve the communities in our town/ neighbourhood planning and renewal processes.  This shift empowers communities and prompts their active involvement in transforming neighbourhoods as cited in the following three examples.

1.      Remaking Our Heartland (ROH) scheme launched in 2007 and is designed to update existing towns (like Bedok, Hougang, Yishun and Jurong), proposed changes - including fresh facilities (e.g. food centres, community sports complexes, plazas), more greenery and better connected spaces (e.g. cycling paths) - were distilled from discussion sessions with residents of different age and race, and community stakeholders.  The ideas are in the midst of being implemented.

2.      The Neighbourhood Renewal Programme (NRP), focuses on block and precinct improvements, using a Building our Neighbourhood’s Dream (BOND!) engaement approach, that includes focus group discussions, workshops, community walks and streets polls.  Over  42 neighbourhoods have gone through this program. Ideas are currently being incorporated into the final design for the neighbourhood (See Image 3).

3.      Hello Neighbour! is a new pilot project which allows residents to co-design with us and ‘incubate’ new ideas that would help activate the public spaces in their towns. Ideas are then incorporated into the annual events calendar (see Image 4).



The use of a mix of engagement methods is critical in ensuring greater participation from the residents in terms of number and diversity.  It has been found that one of the barriers for participation is time constraints.  Hence, informal platforms such as pop-up roadshows and interactive boards installed at high footfall areas like lift lobbies and walkways of residential buildings, allowed for quick participation (see Image 5). 

Formal platforms such as focus group discussions and design workshops were then adopted to enable residents to come together, hear out and appreciate one another’s ideas and concerns and build consensus on the neighbourhood plan (see Image 6).  This  also cultivates a community that is more aware of how planning and design decisions are made and the consequences their decision might have on the larger community.

To tap into the creativity of our people, ideas on how our public spaces can be enlivened are also crowd sourced through ideas competitions akin to “hack-a-thons” - sprint-like event in which computer programmers and others involved in software development, collaborate intensively (1 day to 1 week) on software projects.  At the same time, community-initiated place making efforts are also encouraged with our Friendly Faces Lively Places Fund, which calls upon the people to pool together their own community’s resources to provide a fund match of at least 30%.  

Central to such participatory planning process is also the establishment of a collaborative platform on the ground.  Inter-agency working teams, comprising agencies like Town Councils (municipal estate manager); the People’s Association (agency looking into fostering community ties); and the National Arts Council (who brings Arts to enliven our public spaces) are always formed.  The platform allows for a more holistic engagement with the community and robust exchange of information and resources between local knowledge (residents, community) and expert knowledge (professionals and government agencies).



While our attempts to partner the community more closely are still in their nascent years, it is heartening to see our efforts reaping positive outcomes; evident from the video analytics (using CCTV cameras), field observations, surveys and qualitative feedback from the communities.


Under-utilised common spaces have been successfully converted into lively community spaces (see Image 7).  Over 95% of those whom have participated in our engagements felt they had a greater say in influencing their neighbourhood plans and the community’s response to the Friendly Faces Lively Places Fund has been encouraging, with close to SGD$40,000 worth of resources generated and contributed by the community within the first six months of the fund’s inception. 


More importantly, beyond these ‘physical’ outcomes, the participatory processes have forged tighter community bonds, strengthened residents’ sense of connectedness and ownership of their neighbourhoods.    

Hence, though such participatory processes can be lengthy, with many iterations between HDB and the various stakeholders, we strongly believe that the continued partnership with our people in the planning and development process is key to successfully creating greater neighbourhoods in Singapore. 



issue 2. summer 2016