Building a soft city where slow is efficient

On a recent trip to Vietnam, I came across the following story:

Somewhere in Vinh, a historically significant city in the north-central coastal region of the country, lies a low-cost, upgraded housing area. The interesting process that led to its successful upgrading holds lessons for Singapore.

As many such houses do not have proper kitchen and sanitation facilities, urban renewal projects typically require considerable government subsidies on top of the owner’s investment.

However, current policy favours those who can afford a loan to increase their unit sizes, while those who cannot afford it are usually made to relocate with minimal compensation.

But in the case of Vinh, the residents banded together, redrew the area map, identified the issues in their community, and came up with a plan that satisfied the upgrading goals with a smaller increment in unit size. More amazingly, no households had to be relocated. It was a collective effort that resulted in cheaper construction cost, shorter processes (no evictions and therefore no compensations were required), improved facilities and increased space – all accomplished while maintaining the existing community network.

In fact, one of the residents is a single old lady who could never have afforded the upgrading cost. But she was not evicted, because her neighbours agreed to pay for her walls so that she only needed to pay for her roof.

An important lesson was learned through such communal encounters.

The residents realised the significance of community building and environmental planning. They were willing to put together a community development fund regardless of how small their contribution would be, to co-develop with the local government shared infrastructure and public spaces.

Indeed, it was a win-win for both the local government and the residents.

After decades of urban development, Singapore is now enjoying good public infrastructure, facilities and entertainment in the city. Various public housing upgrading schemes have also benefited many residents. Our context is vastly different from developing countries such as Vietnam.

Nevertheless, perhaps we can still learn a thing or two from this story.

Soft infrastructure may be the strongest type

Vinh showed that the community could create a better development plan because they knew their actual needs and opportunities more intimately than the experts.

In a conference last year, Banyan Tree Holdings chairman Ho Kwon Ping remarked that the future challenge in urban transformation – both globally and locally – is neither physical nor technological, but social.

Social infrastructure or ‘soft infrastructure’ entails multiple dimensions – such as the availability of public spaces, people-friendly transport systems, urban design that promotes physical health and psychological wellbeing, preservation of heritage, and programmes that foster interaction and mutual help.

Soft infrastructure has become increasingly important in developed cities, as we shift from a knowledge-based society to a more diverse, creative one.

Complex urban issues (such as transport and ageing) faced by most cities are becoming more challenging and are unlikely to be solved by merely technical solutions. Instead, they require a more human-centric approach in adapting to the changing needs and aspirations of citizens. Cities that invest in soft infrastructure and involve its citizens also become more attractive, making them more liveable and highly desirable in the creative economy.

Slow is efficient

The ‘slow food’ movement has given rise to other similar concepts such as ‘slow city’. ‘slow democracy’ and ‘slow design’. The story of Vinh is a good example of slow design, showing how a holistic and participatory design approach can create “appropriately tailored solutions for the long-term wellbeing of the people”.

Yes, it was much slower in the beginning, and getting the residents to go through the collaborative design process could be really challenging and lengthy. But once the plan was made, everything fell into place. The process was smooth and the results were much more appreciated by the residents.

If we were to measure success not only in terms of economic productivity but also community nourishment (like how the slow food does), this could be the new definition of efficiency.

Simple but rich

Also part of the slow movement is ‘slow living’ or ‘simple living’, which emphasises less quantity of material and more quality of life.

During my trip, it was not difficult to find people indulging in Vietnamese coffee by the street side, watching the busy world go by. Some of them shared their dissatisfaction with the physical infrastructure. But when asked about their lives, they were all very happy with what they have and the lives they lead.

In developed cities too, more people are choosing to live simply, for reasons of spirituality, health, work-life balance, ecological footprint, taste and a variety of others.

They form new relationships with their physical environment, creating new meanings with simple activities such as walking, jogging, cycling, skating, or surfing in the city. We could start to include soft indicators such as the Happy Planet Index on top of gross domestic product to measure our success, since more people are aiming not to be rich, but simply happy and healthy.

As a counterbalance to today’s fast-paced and stressful city life, we should consider designing a ‘soft city’ for the future – one that is planned with soft infrastructure, slow design processes, and simple goals in life.

Civil society, designers, planners and the public should all play their part. For a city should be built to nourish people, not just to house people.

Perhaps one day, we will also be willing to pay for our neighbour’s walls.

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