This Singaporean wants to design neighbourhoods with citizens

Interview with Mizah Rahman, Director and Co-Founder of Participate in Design.
Nurfilzah Rohaidi SMART GOV Gov Insider 10 Jul 17;

An empty playground is a sad sight. But take a step back and ask—why aren’t children playing there?

In the suburb of Aljunied, Singapore, one of the playgrounds “was badly located” and not well-used, Mizah Rahman, Director and Co-Founder of nonprofit Participate in Design (P!D), tells GovInsider. This design flaw is an example of the housing board “assuming that people wanted a playground in that area”, Rahman says, but instead they faced problems with littering and vandalism, she added.

Rahman’s P!D wants to introduce “participatory design” in Singapore. This is where citizens guide the design of their neighbourhoods and environments, she says. Facilities are more likely to be built in the right places, and will actually be used by the people who live in the area. “It is really looking at design in a much more community-centric view,” she says.

The citizen designer

Many cities use participatory design, such as Hong Kong, Bandung, Taipei, New York and Copenhagen, says Rahman. “But we couldn’t find an example in Singapore of any architects or organisations that advocate for such a practice,” she notes.

There was a “missing gap within the design landscape in Singapore”, one that Rahman hopes to address with her nonprofit. “Without any kind of engagement, people do not have a sense of ownership [of their environment],” Rahman believes.

P!D see themselves as architecture experts, there to listen and co-design with the “local experts” – the residents. “We need collaboration between these local and design experts to create something more meaningful, to foster a sense of pride and ownership,” Rahman says. Participatory design is about “mobilising the community” to share their vision of the space, she adds.

“We need collaboration between these local and design experts to create something more meaningful.”
Co-creating spaces

Currently, Rahman and team are upgrading the Tampines North neighbourhood under the Housing and Development Board’s Neighbourhood Renewal Programme. P!D brought together almost 4,500 citizens to plan and design their living environment over four months in early 2017.

Rahman and team conducted interviews, workshops, and feedback sessions. They also reached out to citizens through social media, and even set up idea boards in public areas where citizens could freely scribble their thoughts on improvements for their neighbourhood.

Residents are unlikely to make “unreasonable” requests, instead asking for simple changes like more comfortable seating. “It’s such a simple design intervention when you think about it, but it’s something that somehow the current landscape doesn’t provide,” she muses, adding that “nature came up quite a bit, and is something we’re hoping to provide more of”.

Hacking the playground

This focus on the natural world can be seen in P!D’s playground projects. The organisation runs Hack Our Play, where children, parents and educators all come together to co-create play spaces using recycled materials and local expertise. “We want to rethink how we design and build playgrounds… in a way, disrupt how we look at play space design,” she explains. The project started early this year, and has a local focus to ensure that play spaces reflect their community.

Building on this, Rahman hopes to change mindsets in Singapore Government, so that officials see the architect’s role as “designer, facilitator and community organiser” – rather than a contractor. In the future, participatory design could even mean “institutionalising citizen participation as part of designing public spaces in the neighbourhood,” she suggests.

Learning from other cities in the region, Singapore is opening up its design to include greater feedback. P!D is at the forefront of this community revolution.

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