A chance for real, lasting change

Concept Plan 2011 may sound like yet another bureaucratic exercise that will produce another paper to be filed away – and many people have simply ignored it. Past history shows that Concept Plans can actually be a big deal, though.

Just look back a few decades. Minister for National Development Mah Bow Tan said recently: “In the first Concept Plan in 1971, we drew up plans for major infrastructure projects such as Changi Airport and our first MRT lines.”

Two decades later, “in the 1991 Concept Plan, we systematically planned for the decentralisation of commercial space from the CBD”, he added.

Recommendations in those two Concept Plans have radically transformed Singapore.

A further two decades on, it may now be the right time for another radical change. This time, though, the initial recommendations announced early this month make it seem like Concept Plan 2011 could focus as much on the softer side of Singapore’s soul as on infrastructure.

It has the potential to catalyse far-reaching changes that could create a more vibrant place to live. To make a real difference, though, three unpolished gems amid the concepts floated so far may need a lot more polishing to make a real difference.

One of those gems is – as the focus group said – that the city needs buzz. With only 43 per cent of respondents in the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s 2009 Lifestyle Survey saying they are satisfied with night-time activities and events here, many Singaporeans seem to agree. The recent CB Richard Ellis study showing that Singapore had dropped to 11th place for cities where top world retailers are located reaffirms the need for vibrancy.

Yet much more than closing downtown streets on weekends and putting art on the streets is needed. Renowned researcher Richard Florida says that knowledge workers prefer things like a “vibrant music scene, outdoor restaurants, organic supermarkets, juice bars”, rather than “passive cultural amenities” and “big-ticket items”.

Innovative ideas for more far-reaching concepts – from edgier entertainment to entirely new models for restaurants and retailers – may need to become key parts of the mix.

A second gem involved concepts for buildings that included recommendations for changes such as organic growth in “distinctive neighbourhoods” like Bugis or Little India, and space for inter-generational bonding.

All are good concepts. Again, more transformational changes than tweaks to HDB flats may be needed to bridge the generational and diversity divides.

In one of his books Harvard professor Robert Putnam cites a dozen success stories – such as the Chicago public library branches that have become vital locations for building social connections – as examples of how to build social capital. Multi-cultural multi-ethnic Singapore may have even more opportunities than the United States, and out-of-the-box thinking could create new concepts that better connect this diversity of people.

The concept of diversity, too, could be expanded to refer to anything from art havens to lifestyle choices.

And third, the focus group recommended environmentally-friendly projects ranging from bike lanes and better public transport to creating a Heritage Charter to preserve historic buildings. But rather than just pulling down old buildings or clearing away parks to make way for the new, co-chairman Lee Tzu Yang said it is important to “try and build a consensus among all the stakeholders in a particular district as to how to cherish, safeguard the things we love”.

These ideas are good too, yet, as reporter Ong Dai Lin noted in Today’s coverage of the Concept Plan 2011, “their suggestions echoed popular calls that have been rejected time and again”. More transformative projects, perhaps something like solar panels on the roof of every public building to make Singapore a world model for alternative energy, could offer changes that remake Singapore.

This once-in-two-decades chance to transform Singapore through the Concept Plan seems too important to ignore. What may be needed to propel Singapore forward is more input from more people and truly innovative ideas for creating vibrancy or improving fundamental policies.

While small focus groups and lightly-publicised requests for feedback that drew a few thousand responses are a start, only around 0.1 per cent of the population has provided input on what could truly be a plan to reinvent Singapore yet again. Now is the time to put the power of many more people to work.

Source : Today – 27 May 2010

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