Shophouse & Co is a placemaking studio in Singapore that helps city agencies, companies and communities turn urban spaces into vibrant places for living, working, and playing. We speak to co-founder and director ADIB JALAL about transforming citizen’s perceptions and uses for Telok Ayer Park with their unique placemaking methods.
Tell us about your unique Placemaking Method and how this has brought success in your past events.
Shophouse & Co believes that a successful place happens when community, culture, and urban spaces are interconnected as a whole and our approach has been to embrace the diversity and complexity in the interplay of these elements. With that, our method of placemaking draws from knowledge and practices across diverse fields – design, human sciences, creative culture, events production, economics, and more. We also operate at both the strategic, big-picture level and at the operational and practical-detail level in executing an idea.
Ultimately, we try to see cities in diverse and complex ways to enable us to conceptualise strategies and programmes that are much richer and able to achieve an impact on multiple levels. We are also sensitive to the particularities of the local Singapore and Asian context such as climate, social norms, language, and more which make placemaking in Asia different from other parts of the world.
How did the Telok Ayer Park project come about? Was it led by your company, or did the National Parks Board seek your expertise?
Telok Ayer Park is part of a longer-term placemaking project that Shophouse & Co is working on. As a studio, we have always been curious about what a park in the busy CBD could be for those who live, work, and play in that high-stressed environment. Since we started, we have also always been mindful that our Southeast Asian city climate does not naturally make parks an inviting place during lunch time. In addition, the more reserved nature of our Asian society means that our interaction with a public space is different from what is common in other parts of the world.
Other than our inherent interest, Telok Ayer Park was chosen as a site because of an experience we encountered. We went to Amoy Street Food Centre for lunch after a business meeting and were overwhelmed by the lunch crowd. We decided to pack our lunch and head to the nearby park. While lunching in the park, we wondered why more people weren’t taking time to lunch outdoor in this shady and pleasant park instead of the very crowded food centre. In fact, back in 2014, we did a programme called “How Do You Lunch” at the National Design Centre to encourage people to eat outdoors instead of lunching in and this observation made us continue this exploration further.
At the same time, Telok Ayer Park is almost the archetypal tropical park where it is less than conducive for office workers to spend time in, and instead finds itself being used mostly as a transitional route. Despite this, its appealing location of being situated near a food paradise in the form of a hawker centre (at a diverse heritage district and modern skyscrapers) all mean that this pocket of public space has great potential to be a physical and mental respite for those who live, work and play in the city.
With so many questions, it was natural for us to embark on this exploration and this led us to reach out to National Parks Board and other stakeholders in the neighbourhood to partner them.
Tell us about the initial discovery phase and your community engagement sessions. How did you conduct them and what findings led to the Lunchtime Prototype in February 2017?
Our discovery phase involved a variety of techniques to have an understanding of not just the physical site but also the people in the vicinity. We spent time on-site at various times of the day and the week to observe and interview people on their use, perceptions, and aspirations of the site. We also did walking explorations in the area to understand the surroundings and even became delivery riders for a day to better understand the context!
We came across many food delivery riders during the lunch hour. In our interviews with them, we found that 50% of these riders cycled from home to deliver food in the Amoy Street/Telok Ayer Street vicinity. More than one third of them would work on deliveries for over six hours a day, rain or shine.
An even more astonishing insight showed that 67% of the office workers we polled would eat in their office pantry or cubicles on average two or more days per week.
Through these insights, we started to think about how the park can be a node to encourage them to get out from their office, take a walk, and get some fresh air. We also learnt from the riders that often, they have no place to go to for rest and we wondered if the park could be some sort of pit stop where the bikers could stop to pump their bikes, get some water or charge their phone.
All this led us to conceptualise ideas that we could test in a real-life setting but in a light, quick, and cheap manner. These ranged from moveable seats and tables for lunch, a temporary bicycle pit-stop, a ‘good day/bad day’ gantry, and even ‘passive interventions’ aimed at starting new habits such as meditation, and reading in the park. From these prototypes, we were then able to observe the effectiveness of the ideas and also use them as conversation starters for deeper exploration.
The next phase involved a showcase and prototype as part of Design Trails, Singapore Design Week. Tell us your strategy and methods for that. What were your objectives and outcomes?
For Design Trails, Singapore Design Week, the key objective was to showcase documentation and insights from early observations and Prototype Day. It was particularly designed to bring the idea of ‘placemaking’ to a wider audience which at this point, isn’t a widely appreciated concept. To do that, we conceptualised the one-day event and titled it “Placemaking in the Park”. We not only featured our findings but involved other practitioners and designers as well.
In that one day event, we featured ideas by design collaborators who were invited to respond to a brief that we crafted out of the insights. This took the form of Lucky Charms, a comedic intervention by Natalie Kwee of Festive Folks; #TheLittleRedHop a paper installation and activity by Black Mongrels’ and Park Life!, a sketch exploration by WYNK Collaborative. This was then complemented with relaxation activities by partners such as Hiverlab, a Singapore-based media and content production company focusing on Virtual Reality experiences, and breathing exercises by Kadampa Meditation Centre.
The event also saw Shophouse & Co hosting a series of panel discussions with placemaking practitioners and stakeholders to discuss initiatives and development of the discipline in Singapore and the region and featured place managers from city agencies such as Kelvin Ang, Director, Conservation Department, Urban Redevelopment Authority; Angelita Teo, Director, National Museum of Singapore; Lai Quan Hui, Deputy Director, Placemaking Department, JTC; and Rofianisa Nurdin, a creative practitioner involved in many placemaking activations in Bandung & Jakarta, amongst others.
As we spoke to the attendees of Design Trails, many felt enlightened on the term ‘placemaking’, and most agreed that more ground-up and research-based ‘placemaking’ is needed not just in Singapore but perhaps in the region.
As one member of the audience shared, “It’s really interesting to learn about this discipline called ‘placemaking’. Singapore has been developed well to become a clean and modern city but it is time we focus on creating places with soul.”
Design Trails participants were also largely curious about how they could be further involved to support future activations.
What were the challenges you encountered, and how did you overcome them? What were the biggest learnings you took away from these two events?
One of the largest challenges in Singapore is the inadequacy and at times, the over-provision of regulatory frameworks in the use of public space. As we organised the prototype and one-day event, we encountered complications in getting the necessary approval as there were conflicting interpretations of what is permissible in parks.
While enlightened officials and collaborators cooperate meaningfully and give constructive advice, there is still a dominant culture of “prohibited unless explicit permission is granted” as opposed to “permitted unless explicitly prohibited” in both the public and city officials.
This makes it difficult for spontaneous use, or creative ideas in our public spaces and this is ultimately an unhealthy condition for the long-term vitality of the city. This risk-averse condition is something that we have faced over the years and we often play the role of the champion of urban spaces – engaging various stakeholders in the spirit of education and collaboration to balance risks, public well-being, and innovation.
Another condition that we embrace as part of placemaking in Asia, is the cultural norm of our people where we are often slightly reserved in the company of strangers. This often impacts how we engage stakeholders and members of the public as we draw them out of their shell to share their input and opinions of the space.
We also have to devise strategies that encourage interaction in a more gradual and less direct manner, while also focusing on shared moments of joy that transcend language and race. To us, this diversity and richness is what makes placemaking in Asia exciting and brimming with potential for our urban spaces to be true melting pots of culture and ideas.
Were there any previous projects that informed your decisions on these showcases/prototypes and if so, what and how?
Prototypes is a key part of our method as it enables us to test ideas at low risk and with less resources. These are designed to inform future short-term activations or even longer-term infrastructure or policy decisions.
One such example is a project called Transitional ___ (pronounced Transitional space) at 115 King George’s Avenue, Singapore. This was a private property that was awaiting license conversion and while waiting for the application to go through, we used the six-week period to convert the ex-storage space into a part-retail, part-workshop, part communal space.
We partnered emerging creative entrepreneurs, local companies and enterprises in the neighbourhood and were able to test some programme ideas and workshops quickly with minimal resources, all made possible through communal resourcefulness and ingenuity.
In the six weeks of being in the neighbourhood, we ‘introduced’ ourselves to the neighbourhood in a non-aggressive manner and created a platform for our collaborators to test potential commercial ideas. The exercise also gave insight to both the property developer and potential collaborators on the challenges and opportunities for the long term. After our intervention, a long-term tenant did take up the space, embracing some of our early ideas.
What’s next for Telok Ayer Park?
We are continuing our engagement with the stakeholders of Telok Ayer Park – from city agencies, private companies, and regular users – and we are working towards establishing a collaboration framework where everyone can contribute to a vibrant park. Ultimately, a vibrant place is not the responsibility of just one stakeholder and it should also be self-sustaining. We are also planning a comparative study of what we’ve discovered at this park with other public spaces across Singapore to extract broader insights and refine our methods.
This story was first published under the now-defunct “Think City Channel”.