Helping Through the Haze

Singapore has made international news lately because of last week’s historic haze.  I was in Malaysia all week for a camp with my church and missed the worst thus far, however many others were not as fortunate.  During the whole week abroad many of us were glued to this website, checking the hourly PSI readings to track just how bad the situation was back in Singapore.  Most of the news stories we read while abroad were increasingly depressing as we learned that all N95 respirator masks in Singapore had been sold out with many vulnerable people, such as children and the elderly, still in need of them.

SG haze

Upon returning to Singapore late Friday afternoon, the PSI was back down below 200. Unfortunately though we have been warned that this is only a temporary breath of fresh air with more haze to be expected for quite a while.  As I began to catch up with some friends this weekend I learned that in reaction to the haze a group of helpful citizens has been mobilizing to help the most vulnerable populations by collecting and distributing N95 masks.  Although Singapore is very warm all year there is still a number of people, particularly low-income elderly residents in rental HDB flats, that live without air conditioning and therefore are very susceptible to illness from the haze.  To help these residents find a place to escape the haze there has even been some Singaporeans that have offered up air conditioned rooms in their homes for those that need it the most.

It has been amazing to see that faced with such challenges there are residents in Singapore that are willingly to go above and beyond to help their neighbors and community.  My hope is that this time will inspire more Singaporeans to be aware of how they can help those around them in need; may it be someone in a neighboring flat today or in a neighboring country tomorrow.

The best cities are not just great because of their environment or air quality, but because of the people who inhabit them.  When these people start to care for each other and the wellbeing of their city, they become more than residents, they become active citizens. Thank you to all of Singapore’s citizens that have made the choice to help through the haze.

 – Melissa

If you are in Singapore and would like to learn how you help the SG Haze Rescue group you can find information on their website or their Facebook page. You can also read more about their effort to pass out mask through my friend’s account here.

Book Review: Bumbling Through Hong Kong

I met architect, author and illustrator Tom Schmidt a few weeks ago while he was visiting Singapore on a book tour.  Our mutual friend introduced his book to me as “a travel guide of Hong Kong designed for kids.”  Although I didn’t have time to actually attend his book event that weekend I did find a copy of his book on my colleague’s desk when I arrived at work the following Monday.  To my surprise, his “travel guide for kids” turned out to be addressing much more complex urban issues in Hong Kong than I expected. The book is written as an illustrated novel, and is presented from the point of view of an American architect traveling through Hong Kong.  The story addresses many serious issues facing Hong Kong as a city, such as development’s impact on the environment and preservation of historic structures.


As another American living in Asia and a researcher that studies many of the issues Tom writes about, and deals with in his other job as an architect in the hospitality industry, I was very excited to see these urbanization issues presented in such an accessible manner.

Bumbling through Borneo  Sumatra COVER

This is the third book in the Bumbling Series by Tom.  His first books,  Bumbling Through Borneo and Bumbling Through Sumatra, use the same graphic novel approach to address issues facing these less urbanized areas like deforestation and the importance of ecosystem systems services.

For more information on Bumbling Through Hong Kong and Tom Schmidt, a full  book review was written by my friend Mallika Naguran at Gaia DiscoveryBumbling Through Hong Kong can also be purchased on Amazon or through the publisher, Kakibubu.

Basically Sessions: Hosting Singapore’s Arts Community


In my last two years in Singapore I have found myself exploring, researching and even becoming involved in hosting community arts events.  A few weeks ago my friends and I organized our sixth Basically Session in collaboration with our friends at, Participate in Design‘sUpcycle Art Village Project.


Our friends from PiD sharing about their work.


Maggie Stools made at another PiD event and used in the Upcycle Arts Village

Basically Sessions started almost two years ago as a group of friends in the creative industries coming together with the idea of providing a platform for Singapore’s creatives to showcase their work and share their artistic aspirations. The first sessions were held at a friend’s cafe and included a range of sharing from musical performances, to landscape architects speaking on their work, to showing short documentaries and even creative entrepreneurs sharing their stories of how they came to where they are today.  Recently Basically also partnered with other events such as ArchiFest in October 2012 and then PiD in April 2013. 

Basically 02

Basically 03 at Broun Cafe

Our most recent Basically, in conjunction with the Upcycle Art Village, was unique compared to the first few sessions. It was held as part of a larger community arts event in MacPherson, an older Singaporean public housing estate.  As much fun as we have had hosting others in a cafe, this event, with the help of the upcycled furniture display, felt like we set up a living room in the middle of the neighborhood shopping street and invited the neighbors to stop by.


As part of this Basically Session, instead of just hosting other creatives, we also did our own little community art project called “The Faces of MacPherson.”  Our photographer friend Amelia offered to take portraits of families we came across in the estate.  The idea was to not only share works of art about people and events outside of this community but to also feature local residents in their everyday life as works of art.  In exchange for being part of this project Amelia also shared the portraits with the families; instead of merely treating them as subject in our work, we wanted to also give them something in return.

Faces of MacPherson

The Faces of MacPherson

After and afternoon of hanging out and sharing the works of Singaporean creatives I can’t say that all of the concepts on community building and the arts I study at work played out in our event exactly as the academics theorize, but I can say it was nice to be a part of an event that provided a place for everyday people in Singapore to sit down and see something new created by their fellow Singaporeans.  It’s not every day that you walk out of your supermarket to see a brother and sister singing, or see a short documentary, or simply see portraits of your neighbors in your neighborhood. As Singapore and other cities seek to use the arts as an active method for building better community bonds I hope that residents and community organizers alike make the time to sit back, enjoy, and appreciate the creative works of their city’s citizens.



All photos by Amelia of

The Upcycle Art Village @ MacPherson was supported by Singapore’s PAssionArts.

More information on PiD’s Upcycle Project can be found in this short video.

Finally, you can keep up with future Basically Events on our Facebook page.


I wanted to share some of my favorite portraits as street art from my travels over the past year.  I know it has been quite a while since I last wrote here and I miss this creative outlet to think about cities and to share inspiring work.  In an effort to revive a sense of creativity and inspiration in this little corner of the internet, here are a few photos from the creative cities of New York, Jerusalem and Melbourne. Enjoy!

Laneway Street Art in Melbourne

IMG_1380 IMG_1382

View from the High Line in New York City




Space to Imagine: Singapore’s Playgrounds

Playgrounds don’t often find their way into urban planning studies, but recently a set of “old school” playgrounds in Singapore has become quite popular, inspiring works of  art, a digital book, design products, and more importantly a conversation about how these spaces allow children and adults to image.   Unlike other spaces in a city, playgrounds are specifically designed for children, yet as one landscape architect friend recently noticed, they are often enjoyed by all age groups.  If we really pay attention to the use of a playground we will see adults and children alike using these spaces.

As a child of a somewhat wooded suburb, playgrounds to me were only associated with school.  But as I grew older I recall retreating to the playgrounds in our downtown parks as I hung out with friends.  Although there was plenty of other “urban furniture” designed for teenagers and adults, the empty swings were just much more alluring than the benches facing the playground.  I’m not quite sure what it is that draws us to playgrounds but I have to believe that sense of delight from swinging does not diminish with age (as the upper age limits on most playgrounds may suggest).

As for these playgrounds in Singapore they are special because they are designed based on distinct items or ideas from Singapore and the region. The book “Mosaic Memories: Remembering the Playgrounds Singapore Grew Up In” documents a few of these inspirational playgrounds through interviews with the original designer and profiles of recent creative works that have been inspired by these playgrounds. Here is an excerpt:

“The thinking then was to have more local identity and themes. We wanted something different, designs that reflect what we see in Singapore,” explains Mr Khor. He took inspiration from Singapore’s culture and history, transforming the bumboat and rickshaw into play spaces for instance.”

Excerpts from the book “Mosaic Memories”

This weekend I finally took sometime to see one of these playgrounds that I had read so much about, a “baby dragon” in MacPherson.  I used this map also compiled through the Singapore Memory Project to track it down.  Unfortunately I also just learned that two of my favorite old playgrounds (based on the photos I had seen) have been “replaced.”  These being the Watermelon in MacPherson and the Pelican in Dover.   Although it maybe inevitable that one day all of these beautiful works of art may be replaced due to safety concerns, I am delighted that there are still a few left in Singapore for adults and children to enjoy and to inspire other works of art in Singapore.

- Melissa

All photos are from the “Mosaic Memories” book by the Singapore Memories project except for the last photo which is by the author. 

Jan Gehl in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on “Cities for People”

I had the honor this week of speaking at a conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on some of my research in Singapore (I promise to write more on that next).  However the exciting part was not sharing my work but getting to meet and spend time with one of my favorite urbanist, Dr Jan Gehl of Gehl Architects in Denmark.

Jan is most famous for writing the book “Life Between Buildings” in 1971 and for his subsequent consultant and design projects over the last five decades which have reshaped city spaces to be people oriented.  His firm has worked throughout the world consulting in New York City, Melbourne, Singapore, Jordon, and Moscow.  Their approach uses research as a major tool to understand how the city works before they make any suggestions.  I love how the firm calls itself “Urban Quality Consultants,” instead of planners or architects.

Petronas Towers in KLCC

Jan’s latest book “Cities for People” tells the story of few cities that have embraced the humanized scale and people oriented concepts he has taught about and helped to design solutions towards.  This book also has a few tools for designers and planners to use as they examine their city’s spaces.  As part of the conference Jan also taught a brief workshop where he shared on these tools which are in the form of 14 simple questions about people’s conception and experience related to protection, comfort and enjoyment within the public spaces of a city.

Redesigning a KL street in a workshop.

As a planner and research who’s training was greatly influenced by the writings of Jan Gehl, Jane Jacobs other famous urbanist that emphasize the importance of people oriented cities, experienced on the street and not from above, I often take for granted all of the work that our predecessors have done to refocus our profession on people and not buildings or cars.   Much of Jan’s problems with how our cities are shaped today come from how we use traffic engineers to make cars (and drivers) happy and urban designers and architects to make places that look good from above or on maps.  As he said,

“No city seems to have a department of people, pedestrians and public life”, but “I have seen lots of traffic departments”  with lots of statistics on cars in our cities.

Instead he urges us to take a much simpler look at what makes a good city by evaluating it from the perspective of a pedestrian.  Can we walk around our cities without the fear of traffic accidents?  Can we sit and rest in public spaces throughout or city?  Are we able to have conversations in public or is our city too loud? Or simply is there even room designated to walk along our city’s streets?

I have been blessed to live in New York City and Singapore, two very walkable cities.  I also realize though that there are many of these simple lessons which we can still put into action to help make Singapore, especially the heartlands outside of the CBD, much more people instead of car oriented.   In the meantime I will leave with one of my favorite quotes from Jan:

“A good city is like a good party – people stay longer than really necessary, because they are enjoying themselves,”

- Jan Gehl

Jan Gehl and I with our Malaysian Institute of Planners hosts.

A special thanks to MIP, REDHA, PAM, and KL City Hall for inviting me to participate in the 2012 WCSC Conference.

- Melissa

Hi people. Its been too long…

Yes it has been entirely too long since I last wrote here.  Last week though I went to this event in Naples, Italy where I had the opportunity to catch up with old friends from NYU that are working for amazing organizations and writing groundbreaking books. I also was reminded of why I love cities enough to study them and am trying to find my way in this often ambiguous but still exciting field of urban planning.

Cities are complicated, often chaotic places but their distinct character evolves from the people who live in them, the who work and play in them, the people who want to preserve parts of them and the people who strive to improve them. People that have lived in one city their whole life and people who constantly move between cities. People with ideas, skills, and crafts. People with different experiences, training and ambitions.

No matter how we relate to cities they are always made distinct because of their people.

That said here are a few photos of people from my travels and everyday life in Singapore over the last four months. I know I have much catch up blogging to do, but I promise to keep contributing here, to this great experiment of urbanization.

- Melissa

Singapore: People eating with friends

Singapore: People being creative.

Colombo: People commuting

Mt Lavinia, Sri Lanka: People enjoying Sunday sunsets

Colombo: People flying kites

Colombo: People dodging the rain.

Bangkok: People sharing their stories.

Naples, Italy: People shopping.

Vatican City: People on pilgrimages.

Rome: People making music.

Rome: People celebrating.

Rome: People sightseeing

Naples, Italy: People ballroom dancing, in a public square, at midnight.

Me: taking it all in.

City Beautiful: Understanding Art, Understanding Singapore

One of my young Singaporean friends declared the other day that she finally understood what art is for.  After 20 years of thinking it was merely a way of beautifying our surroundings she realized that it can actually be used to make a statement about something which we may not be able to say with words.  Of course this led to a much longer conservation about how art can be used to communicate simple ideas with graphic design, communicate how to use something through industrial or product design, or it can simply exist to convey more complex, controversial, and even perhaps politically charged ideas.

With her revelation in mind I wanted to share two recent works of art by young Singaporeans which I thought communicate some uniquely Singaporean urban phenomena.  The first work deals with the Singapore’s limited land area as an island, and thus limited space for landfills, through a study of trash.  The second piece draws attention to how Singapore’s “multi-ethnic, multi-religious” population often lives in very dense highrises without actually knowing each other at all.

Republic of Pulau Semakau

Zinkie Aw’s “Republic of Pulau Semakau” highlights one of Singapore’s pressing environmental problems — limited landfill space.  She uses a series of portraits with filled trash cans in place of individual faces to present “things owned and disowned by people.”  She describes her work:

Pieced together, this body of work anchors to issues of waste management in Singapore — to realise things that we as individuals discard, will collectively contribute to Singapore’s only landfill on the offshore island of Pulau Semakau. In 1999, after having exhausted the landfills on mainland Singapore, Singapore then created a Semakau landfill by enclosing Pulau Semakau and a small adjacent island with a rock bund. In this light, we, could all be considered ‘Founders’ of this reclaimed portion of the island. It has never occurred to us where all these rubbish end up in land-scarce and over-populated Singapore. Hopefully these dustbins will form a reality check for all of us.

My favorite portrait in her series is “Ms Mamashop,” named after the neighborhood convenient stores, mamashops.  The trash in this image is mostly packaging, but by being set in a shop this piece highlights how the waste problem is not just about the items that we own and then choose to disown.  Instead it reflects how our each day consumption of  conveniences items contributes greatly to our ecological footprint.

At Our Doorsteps

Although photographer Sam Kang Li lives in a high-rise tower block with 44 other families he admits that after living there 17 years he “could barely count on one hand the number of residents [he] could readily recognize.”  In his photography project, “At Our Door Steps” he seeks to meet all of his neighbors and to take a family portrait for each of them.  Through this project he mentions not only meeting neighbors for the first time but also discovering old family friends that had been living in his block all along.  He describes his work:

…this is never a project about me, nor is it a self-expression piece. This is a project that aims to bring out the best sides of the residents of my block. So it is really satisfying for me to see people actually inviting themselves into the pictures and inviting themselves into the conversations.

Although Kang Li doesn’t directly mention this in his documentary or its description, but his work indirectly reflects the outcomes of Singapore’s efforts to create a “harmonious” society where people from multiple ethnic groups and religions live together in HDB tower blocks because of a quota system.  In an effort to prevent marginalizing minority groups Singapore implemented quota policies long ago to help promote a more integrated society. However as Kang Li’s documentary shows these policies have not led to as much integration as one would hope. However I was very excited to see that Kang Li was able to get all of his neighbors to participate in the project because they wanted to know their neighbors better.

Even though art such as these projects is considered beautiful, I hope that its story does not stop with aesthetics qualities.  I hope these projects inspire more us to invest in our city, be it through environmental improvements or by simply getting to know our neighbors.

- Melissa

All photos are from the photographers Zinkie Aw and Sam Kang Li

Field Trip to Melbourne

ImageI know its been quite a while since I last posted, and being busy is never an excuse, but I have something to share as a result of my “busyness.”  I wrote a paper.  More exciting than the paper though, I got to travel to Melbourne last week to share the paper at a conference.  Of course while I was not at the conference I spent my free time exploring “Australia’s cultural capital.”  Part of my explorations included interviews and field visits for work, I also had time thought to enjoy a few of Melbourne’s famous coffee shops, cafes, laneways, bookshops and an independent movie theater.

After a few days in central Melbourne, Carlton, and Fitzroy it is hard to image that this city center was practically empty in a few decades ago.  With the help of a few key urban planning and design policies through the streets have again become active with pedestrians, cafes with out door seating, and people gathering in the city after 5pm. Additionally Melbourne maintained much of its character when decided to keep its laneways, or alleys, that had become filled with street art, and some crowded with shops and cafes.  According one city official this decision has greatly contributed to the cultural scene that exists in Melbourne as compared to other cities like Sydney that redeveloped its laneways.

There are many other planning policies and projects in Melbourne that have contributed to this creative city.  What I find most interesting though is that these policies are not just actively about creating space but are also about maintaining existing spaces in their seemingly “unplanned” state.  Enjoy some photos from my trip below.

ImageFlinders Street Train Station


Federation Square, once called Melbourne’s “Living room”


The sun setting behind St Paul’s Cathedral, seen from Federation Square

A laneway with filled with cafe, pubs, and street art

The Harlem Globe Trotters in Fitzroy

A studio at Boyd School Studios, one of the spaces leases by the City under Melbourne’s Creative Spaces Program

To read more about Melbourne’s urban design strategies see the 2004 study conducted by Gehl Architects: Places for People.  All photos were taken by the author.

- Melissa

“Changing Landscapes” in Southeast Asia

my visitors exploring Dempsey Hill

Last week while my parents were in town I spent some time as a tourist in Singapore.  After about seven months of living and researching here it was nice to have a few days to explore and enjoy many of Singapore’s amenities that I never seem to have time to see.  For instance I finally explored Singapore’s Botanical Gardens, Rochester Park – an area of black and white  bungalows, and Dempsey Hill – former British military barracks, now restaurants.  I even had time to enjoy my favorite urban tourist activity: enjoying the view from one of the city’s highest bars (in Singapore atop the Swissotel).

view of Marina Bay and the Harbor of Singapore from the Swissotel bar

During their stay in Asia my parents and I also took a short trip to Ubud in Bali.  Although not the typical Balinese beach town you imagine, the cultural, mountainous town of Ubud was a nice break from Singapore. It didn’t hit me though until we got off the plane and into a car, on the disorderly and unpredictable roads of Bali, that the clean, planned, and orderly Singapore was very similar to Bali not too long ago.  As anyone who has studied development in Asia knows the “Singapore story” is famous for many development achievements including eliminating all slums, housing 80% of the nation’s population in public housing, and cleaning up the polluted Singapore River in 10 years time.  But knowing this story all to well from my work, I also wonder what was here before all these projects, and how different is it from the current state of Singapore’s neighbors?

the streets of Bali

women going to the temple on Sunday in Ubud

fields of rice in Ubud

on the way to Ubud

cooking ribs street side in Ubud

On their last day in Singapore I took my parents to one of my favorite used book stores in Bras Basah Complex and happened to come across a book written in 1983 about the “transformation” of three Singapore neighborhoods: Singapore Changing Landscapes: Geylang, Chinatown and Serangoon.  The book, published by the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation, conveniently presented the positive side of these urban renewal stories, and avoided any of the controversies that come along with massive up grading projects.  I have to admit I bought the book for the photos and not the story.  Particularly because some images of Singapore in the past seemed strikingly similar to Singapore’s less developed neighbors today.

Chinatown 1983 - from "Singapore Changing Landscapes: Geylang, Chinatown and Serangoon"

Serangoon aka "Little India" 1983 - from "Singapore Changing Landscapes: Geylang, Chinatown and Serangoon"

The Singapore River circa 1980 - from "Singapore Changing Landscapes: Geylang, Chinatown and Serangoon"

I hate to romanticize underdeveloped, impoverished places but the similarities in what Singapore was and how Bali still is leave me to wonder what was lost at the cost of this development?  Although this clean, green, efficient city is wonderful to live and work in compared to the sprawling, congested megacities in other Southeast Asia countries I still often wish that more of Singapore’s past could be seen in the current urban fabric.  Since the past is not visible in the physical landscape of the city I cherish every story that my Singaporean friends tell about their city’s past. Stories about fruit and dragon themed playgrounds of their childhood, the significance of the recently closed McDonald’s at the beach during their teens, the hours spent in void decks with good friends late into the night, and their grandparent’s businesses along the Singapore River before it became a tourist trap.  With each new story Singapore’s past becomes much more personal to me.

At the end of their trip my Dad advised me to take my next out of town guest to Bali first then to Singapore so that they could fully appreciate what Singapore is today and also better understand the stories about its past.

So who wants to visit me in Southeast Asia next?

- Melissa

The Singapore River Today

Image Credits: the first seven images and the last were photos taken by the author.  All other images are from the Book “Singapore Changing Landscapes” 1983 Published by the Singapore Broadcasting Association.