Urban Inspiration

Happy Monday!  Here are a few bits of urban inspiration to help you jump start your week.

Public Participation in Singapore Library Design

Singapore reopened its Library@Orchard last week (23 October 2014) with some beautiful new design elements. So far it has been very successful in attracting library goers into its creative space. According to some friends in Singapore it has been so successful in its first week that it has been difficult find a seat. Located in a mall, this library’s overall design is the first in Singapore to include user feedback into the design and services. According to the Straits Times of Singapore the feedback process involved the National Library Board working with about 30 students and lecturers from Singapore Polytechnic to “understand the habits and needs of library users before coming up with design prototypes.” Read more at the Straits Times.

Safer Pedestrians in Lisbon

The City Fix featured an article a few weeks ago about a whimsical dancing traffic signal in Lisbon designed by Smart. It uses a real time feed of people dancing instead of the static red man traffic signal.  The results reveal that people actually stopped because they were entertained and as a result became safer pedestrians.

Public Art Challenge

Bloomberg Philanthropies has issued a Public Art Challenge that will “grant at least three cities up to $1 million each over two years to support temporary public art projects that celebrate creativity, enhance urban identity, encourage public-private partnerships, and drive economic development.” Applications are due Dec 15, 2014. For full application details check their website. I’m excited to see what projects result from this grant.

Small Interventions for Good

In the last six months I moved from a large Asian city to a small town in upstate New York, quit my job at a large university and now work for a much smaller organization, a coffee shop. I also became a wife. My passion for understanding urbanization though has not been completely abandon. Now that I am not focusing my working hours on large-scale urban policy issues I seem to notice and appreciate many smaller urban interventions in my daily life more than ever before.


As an employee of a third place instead of merely studying third places I have not only come to appreciate amazing coffee but also the details of each coffee shop that allow it to truly contribute to its community. From planters beautifying the neighborhood, to strategically placed outdoor tables on a sunny day, to walls for local artist to share their work, even down to looking forward to the changing artwork on our chalkboards outside, each of these aspects of a cafe helps to build community. Many urban planners note the importance of “café-culture” and sidewalk cafes as contributing to the public life of cities, but its certainly a more hands on experience helping to maintain these details as my work now instead of just documenting them as a researcher (See Jan Gehl’s related research on pedestrianization and cafes in Melbourne here).

Although my contribution to urban planning as a field may now feel smaller than it was in my previous job, I am excited to see the immediate influence of the details surrounding our cafes that shape our larger community. I am reminded also that it is not how large or influential my work is that matters, but having a heart behind it that is willingly to serve others. Be it a daily dose of caffeine to graduate students or writing a research paper trying to shape urban policies, each action contributes to the common good of a community.

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As this next stage in my life continues to be filled with changes and many unknowns I keep challenging myself to appreciate the little things which make my city home and also to recognize more little things that I can do to contribute to my community. Today this may mean providing a hot cup of coffee and welcoming environment for people to exchange ideas inside, away from the chill of an autumn day. Tomorrow these interventions may take another form. In the mean time though I hope these thoughts challenge others to look for small ways they can also contribute to their cities.


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 http://meladegypsie.com/

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

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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.