Cities for citizens, by citizens: Public participation in urban planning

Singapore has long been lauded for its highly efficient urban planning strategies. However, city design rests primarily in the hands of the experts instead of actual users. Why is public involvement essential to city design and what are some initiatives that encourage citizen participation?

Singapore’s urban planning successes are in large part due to the government’s far-sightedness and determination to turn the country from a developing city into the metropolis that it is today.

Currently, city design largely rests in the hands of government agencies such as the Ministry of National Development (MND) and Urban Redevelopment Authority. Singapore’s development is guided by Master Plans that map long-term strategies to balance land use needs such as housing, transport and community facilities.

The Housing Development Board, in particular, has been a crucial agent in planning spaces that nurture community cohesion and a sense of belonging, such as void decks and common corridors. This rigorous and systematic approach to city design may have worked to achieve a uniform standard of living in the past, but can it still be applied today?

The need for citizen participation in city design

 With population growth and demographic changes, the government is already looking into ways to improve infrastructure such as transport. However, this does not necessarily take into account the increasing diversity resulting from a burgeoning population. To plan spaces in a manner that is actually inclusive for all users of the city, the focus needs to shift from infrastructure to the needs of citizens.

Experts discussed strategies to incorporate ideas from the public in the urban planning and management process in a recent panel discussion. Titled ‘Citizen Design Science in Urban Planning’, the session was held at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP), part of the National University of Singapore. The speakers identified a few reasons why public participation is crucial.

Firstly, giving a voice to the people will allow important communal spaces to be addressed. According to Mizah Rahman, co-founder of Participate in Design (P!D), small spaces such as playgrounds or senior activity centres tend to be overlooked in the larger scheme of design plans.

These communal spaces where residents spend time interacting with each other are integral to community cohesion. Therefore, people who are not usually part of the decision-making process, such as seniors or children, should be allowed to voice their concerns about what should be included in design proposals.

This also extends to issues of safety and livability. As Dr Johannes Mueller, researcher at the Future Cities Laboratory (FCL), explained, the benefits of little design facets that have been contributed by residents may only be seen after implementation and experienced by those actually using them. Even minor elements such as wheelchair ramps go a long way in ensuring neighbourhoods are more inclusive to residents of all needs.

The MND does attempt to foster citizen participation through initiatives such as roving exhibitions. However, some argue that leaders should do more to ensure adequate citizen input in city planning as these efforts do not surmount to public consultation – merely communication of plans.

Secondly, increasing accessibility of urban planning information allows for crowdsourcing of solutions. Making the design process more transparent by teaching citizens about urban planning “(demystifies) very complex planning and architectural issues”, thereby improving accessibility of information, according to Rahman. This gives them the opportunity to put forth their own solutions to problems they have identified.

It only makes sense to harness the power of crowdsourcing in the policy process, after all. Although expert guidance is necessary, sourcing ideas and viable solutions from the public allows the government to tap into the collective wisdom of those who will benefit from those policies.

Remy Guo, Senior Assistant Director at the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC), cited the example of how Seoul has successfully boosted citizen empowerment and capability development. Residents are offered a series of training programmes so that they can understand the planning process and their own neighbourhoods better. These programmes teach residents how to identify issues and not just provide a bottom-up perspective, but also solve their own problems.

This strategy would in turn lead to the third benefit of allowing greater public participation – creating a greater sense of ownership amongst citizens. Encouraging residents to solve their own problems will give them increased responsibility, thereby fostering a sense of pride in ensuring that everything in their neighbourhood runs smoothly.

However, this would require a certain amount of political will in providing greater autonomy to the public. As Guo explained, the current approach in Singapore is to nurture its citizens. Conversely, in Seoul, the leadership believes that community empowerment naturally follows if citizens are given the authority to make decisions.

Providing support for schemes that encourage citizen participation would also be beneficial to leaders in the long run, as involving residents in the decision-making process would increase the public’s trust in the government.

However, allowing misinformed people to feed into the process of urban design could cause more damage than benefit, according to Scott Valentine, Assistant Dean and Associate Professor at the LKYSPP. He highlighted that governments should take note on whether the public wants such responsibility, and whether they can provide quality input.

Valentine cited the example of Taiwan’s waste management system, which requires citizens to deliver trash directly to the trucks. He stated that although on the surface the initiative appears to build social capital by allowing greater public interaction, if citizens were given a choice, they would most likely vote to scrap the scheme.

Therefore, citizen capability development by means of training or workshops is essential to ensure that the public can indeed willingly participate and provide useful solutions.

Facilitating citizen input through technology and community engagement

Thanks to technology, it has become easier for government agencies to explore ways to understand changing demographics and citizen needs. According to Dr Mueller, citizen design science is a strategy that integrates ideas from citizens in the urban planning process using e-participation and online design tools. This could range from online surveys and questionnaires, to programmes that facilitate city design.

An example of a government agency harnessing the power of technology is the HDB, which is currently exploring how big data could be harnessed through neigbourhood sensor networks. This would in turn allow them to examine the impact of spatial design and residents’ common interests.

Additionally, other agencies such as the FLC and P!D are also generating ideas on how to better engage the public. Participatory city design may become a reality sooner than expected thanks to some of these initiatives.

FLC’s Quick Urban Analysis Kit

Online platforms can help people on the ground to imagine and propose creative design solutions. For example, the FCL established by ETH Zurich and Singapore’s National Research Foundation, for example, has been developing design tools, such as the Quick Urban Analysis Kit. The online object viewer allows people to manipulate 3D objects in order to visualise how structures can be incorporated into a space.

CLC’s Tangible Interactive Modelling

The CLC has worked with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to create an interactive urban planning tool, whereby planners can move around LEGO blocks that represent different amenities and structures. By allowing members of the public to use this tool, the different permutations simulating various kinds of land use can be analysed in real time to determine desirable city designs.

P!D’s community engagement schemes

P!D aims to get people involved in the process of finding solutions instead of merely complaining about problems, thereby fostering community empowerment.

In 2017, the organisation participated in the Neighbourhood Renewal Programme in Tampines North, as the Member of Parliament representing the area, Baey Yam Keng, wanted a new approach that would greater involve residents.

Rahman said that by conversing with residents and holding community design workshops for in-depth discussions on urban design, people were encouraged to shift their mindsets.

However, planners must also manage the expectations of citizens. It is necessary to design an exit strategy that ensures residents continue solving their problems once their capabilities have been developed, instead of leaving an endless feedback loop.

Rahman suggested that once the consultation efforts or design workshops have concluded, exhibitions or online platforms showcasing insights and findings could be set up as a means of closing this loop.

What these current initiatives have demonstrated is the huge potential for a coordinated approach to city design, especially with the use of technology and big data. It will be interesting to observe how increased citizen participation could change the face of Singapore’s ever-evolving urban landscape in the future.


This piece was written by Prethika Nair.