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A Guide to Activating and Shaping Spaces Around You

  Published: 21 December 2021
  Theme: Placemaking
  Written by URA

Always wanted to activate spaces around you but do not know how to go about doing so? Here are some placemaking stories, lessons and tips to get you started.

This article is adapted from URA’s placemaking book, How to Make a Great Place (PDF, 12.9MB).


Placemaking is a way of thinking and a process where communities and stakeholders come together to proactively create, shape and sustain great public places around us, whether it is a park, a street, a small corner, a void deck, an entire neighbourhood or precinct, to benefit the area and communities.

Placemaking also seeks to deepen our connection to places and one another. From around 2010, there has been a growing network of active communities working on placemaking efforts in Singapore, and many public spaces have taken on greater life and meaning as a result.

These placemaking efforts have grown in scale and impact over the years. In the initial days, placemakers mostly experimented with simpler ideas. With time and experience, these have evolved to include more regular space and street activations, with some leading to permanent enhancements.

Below, we showcase a range of placemaking stories from over the years and share some lessons learned and tips. Hopefully, this can inspire more people to get started on shaping public spaces around us!

Temporary experiments

First featured at PARK(ing) Day 2014 and 2015, ping pong tables and pianos were the two temporary experiments that took off. Inspired by the positive public responses, the groups went on to set up more ping pong tables and pianos at various public spaces around Singapore.

Calling their initiative, KamPONG, local environmental company, Innoverde, saw this as a way to celebrate the kampung spirit with a friendly game of ping pong. During the i Light Marina Bay festival at the Marina Bay promenade in March 2016, over 25,000 people stopped to play ping pong, based on Innoverde’s count. The tables were also set up at other locations such as Asia Square, Raffles Place, and the Civic District.

KamPONG initiative at PARK(ing) Day.

The other group, Play it Forward, started in 2015 to activate public spaces by making used pianos accessible to the public

“At the start, the public needed some encouragement to overcome their apprehension of playing music in public. Once we started to play, many gradually warmed up to the idea,” said Yan Chang, one of the co-founders of Play it Forward and URA architect. The two other founders are his friends, Billy Soh and Jean Hair.

“We were so happy to see complete strangers coming together and bonding over music. And to see that our pianos are able to meet the needs of a diverse group of people, ranging from children who absolutely enjoy playing in public, to adults simply looking for a quiet place to play.”

Play it Forward
The pianos under the “Play it Forward” initiative are located at 11 public spaces across Singapore.

Activating streets for people

Closing and activating streets has become a very familiar feature in our urban scape. In fact, many of us are likely to have fond memories of street festivals. Such street activations and car-free zones enable us to not only experience a more intimate street atmosphere, it also creates spill-over spaces for business and social activities and interactions and makes our streets more vibrant and inviting.

One of the key champions for street closures was Lorenzo Petrillo – founder of Singapore-based urban design studio LOPELAB – who organised 11 street festival editions at Keong Saik and Jiak Chuan Roads, together with his team from LOPELAB, from 2016 to 2019. His many street closures helped to raise greater awareness and interest on the importance and value of such efforts. His various editions also attracted more sponsorships and created a wider range of programming and activities.

Lorenzo Petrillo of LOPELAB
Lorenzo at one of the street activations at Keong Saik Road.
Keong Saik street closure event
Various activities attracted buzzing crowds at the Keong Saik Road street closure event.

“In my experience, what public events do is not only transform a public space and show how to enjoy it in a different way, but also get people to socialise,” said Lorenzo.

In fact, his efforts have brought the businesses of Keong Saik together. “I’m excited because some of the other stakeholders want to do stuff too, asking can I do a bakery class?

Another lady wants to do a workshop on cutting clothes. An Indian restaurant will bring Bollywood dancers. So, you see how all these cultures come together.”

More walkable and delightful streets

Beyond temporary street activations, individuals and stakeholders have also contributed towards more permanent enhancements in creating more walkable and delightful streets in the city centre.

Queen and Bencoolen Streets

In 2014 and 2017, URA and other government agencies such as the National Heritage Board and Land Transport Authority collaborated with Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts students to paint and design new public benches on the wider sidewalks along Queen and Bencoolen Streets.

These were part of the larger efforts to create more walkable streets in the Bras Basah.Bugis area that included widening the sidewalks and reducing the road lanes, for example.

These public benches made it more enjoyable to walk around the area, which has evolved into a vibrant art, heritage and learning enclave from the 1990s.

Bencoolen St benches
Public benches at Bencoolen Street. Image credit: NAFA

Armenian Street pedestrianisation

Another meaningful initiative due to active stakeholders was the pedestrianisation of Armenian Street.

The street used to be a four-lane road that had not been heavily used for some time. Over time, it had been turned into a lively street in the evenings, filled with temporary activities and events organised by stakeholders such as the Peranakan Museum, that is managed by the National Heritage Board.

The stakeholders at first saw the potential for road dieting to widen the previously narrow sidewalks. From 2015 to 2018, stakeholders along the street and various government agencies (URA, National Parks Board) explored possibilities and options, leading to the eventual permanent pedestrianisation in 2019.

Armenian St
Transformed Armenian Street today.

Getting started

Inspired by the stories and interested to get started to activate a space/place or to do something to shape spaces around you? Here are 10 things to think about:

  1. You can start it
    Anyone, whether resident or stakeholder in any area, can propose activating a space or street or can contribute to shaping spaces around them.

  2. Do it almost anywhere
    You can propose activating a space and place in a wide variety of locations across Singapore.

  3. Understand the place
    Take some time to understand the place and space you are keen to activate. Where is this located? What is its relationship to the surrounding uses and place/space? Who are the people living here or using the place/space?

  4. Determine what to do and why
    Do it to benefit the community and to enhance and add to the place. How can your activity and action bring out the best qualities of the place/space and engage people?

  5. Start small
    If it is your first time, begin with a simple and small idea first that you can implement easily; you can tap on your personal passion and interest to spark off ideas for the community.

  6. Get support
    Identify other passionate and interested individuals, friends to join, to give support or help you realise your idea. Also, get the buy-in of other stakeholders.

    In addition, find out and seek the necessary permissions from the authorities and/or venue owners to implement your ideas. You can research and check if there are any support schemes or grants to help realise your ideas. For community-driven placemaking projects, you may refer to the Lively Places programme to see if your project qualifies for funding. There may also be other programmes and funds from other public agencies (such as Singapore Tourism Board, National Arts Council, National Heritage Board), depending on the nature of your ideas.

  7. Don’t give up
    Keep on experimenting and trying new ideas.

  8. Be mindful about public safety
    Consider how people can use and access spaces safely.

  9. Do it again
    Learn from past attempts or other people’s efforts and try it again next time; consider maintenance for long-term efforts.

  10. Stay curious
    Walk around and take the time to explore your neighbourhood and spaces around you. You may just be inspired with fresh ideas and find new opportunities to play your part in shaping spaces around you.