NUS Professor imagines Singapore as a 'Happytown'

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I am inspired by the contributions on happiness! Digesting all the good thoughts I decide to formulate some ideas on “happy town”.

The ideas run up and down from nano to micro to meso to macro scales. Nano scale is the dwelling unit. Micro is the building design. Meso scale is the town design and macro is regional or world scale. Lets start with the meso scale then move down and then up.

Imagine the town without cars and trucks. These are relegated to only certain places. Sometimes below and sometimes on the edges. The life blood of the community flows through main and minor arteries. People move about on bikes and electric scooters.

Learning places are intermixed with work and cultural places. Book learning is augmented by life learning. Little kids can wander about watched over by kindly stall holders pitched along the arteries in total safety.

Formerly the bent little old ladies are now comfortably set up in little huts where they make a decent living mending and altering clothes in dignity. School kids sit at their feet to listen to their stories of the olden days. Older students translate dialect for them.

A community bank in the past known as a tontin is run by and regulated by the local residents committee. These consist of teenagers and active adults. People deposit cash with the bank which lends out in micro credit fashion to finance small businesses. Interest earned sustains the bank.

Rent is low for many SMEs (small and medium enterprises) in the humanised economy that establish all along the arteries. They offer in exchange for low rents tutorials and mentorship to students and adults alike. Learning is self fulfilment – the happiness quotient!

Artists and street theatre enliven the street culture. Small furry animals are part of the community. Magpie robins have returned and their songs have been retrained by the 1950s recordings of their calls. (You see these birds are mimics. Having been introduced from different far away places their songs have become confused.)

Just like that, there is a loss of the “modernising malayan values” to anxious monetizing, a new culture is being formed that is kinder and happier for it that life activated by sustainable livelihood that cares for kids and old people that happy town’s design generates.

Following the meso (i.e. the level at the scale of the town), I now focus on the micro scale of the residential cluster. Each cluster should be low rise built around a conducive community space set back from the main artery. Here the community can do what ever they like. This is a very important feature to actualise real democratic culture.

The form of the cluster will be made up of dwelling units. This is nano scale ie the design of private family space (i.e. the flat). If these are big the design of the cluster will be affected and the community space will get too small. Big units penalise community space. So how small can the units get is the big question. This is a complex but key question.

If we think up and down the scales we may conclude that Happiness depends not on asset value tied to the size of the apartment but to the quality of the community space as place for human expression within a non-inflationary economy and one that values every kind of human productivity and effort be it in doing art or running e-commerce or managing community services or even equity owners of robotic factories aimed at export income.

How is this so? The accumulated effect of regarding our apartments as real estate assets we realise that real estate is unproductive. While it gets financial gains for individuals it causes inflation that translates into higher costs of living and higher rents.

In a small place like Singapore high costs seep into every corner of the island. There is no escape. The net effect is high rents. Rents get so high that enterprise dies. We are in danger of becoming a nation of grumblers and dependents.

How strange it is that our instinct for asset enhanced flats undermines ourselves as individuals and as a community! Our enterprising DNA got withered away by high rents!
So if we stop hankering for big flats and real estate gains we can remake our society and our economy. How? Whats next?

Tiny homes and wonderful community space is the way forward. Low rents by zoning and a lively arterial system for learning, community banks, social enterprises, equity in robotic factories, strong innovative SMEs.

The housing clusters should be U shape like an embrace. All the homes look onto the entrance shared community space which is their fore court. Everyone has an undivided shared ownership of it.

There is a void deck in which is located a childcare place with its own little garden. The kids keep rabbits which they love and learn to care for. A laundromat with coffee machine and reading materials is the natural meeting place for neighbours.

All these U-shape housing clusters front onto the minor arteries of Happytown. No cars – only bikes and scooters. Cars are parked either below or in silos on the edges of the neighbourhood.

The homes are tiny homes designed by our young talents. Very comfortable with private bed spaces, a work room surrounding a large kitchen/living room. Cooking, eating, chatting involves everyone.

No need for maids. Family life bonds through shared duties. Small means easy upkeep. Small means low cost. Money saved is invested in education and innovative self employment. Home office means telework. No need to commute.

All workshops along the main arterial routes are nearby. Small enterprises provide employment and income. Cushions against global economic slowdown. Walk to work. Meet new friends and customers, get new ideas. One person’s expenditure is another’s income. The local economy cycles round and round spreading well being.

Life long learning is a must to transform Singapore into a productive democracy of happiness. The role of government is to ensure fair-play and social enablement.

Therefore a new zoning system that separates global costs from local costs is created. This is distinct from commercial zoning where global costs are earned by the land owning govt and the developers. A mix of living, earning and learning makes Happytown possible from export earnings.

Happytown is conceived and zoned as a CAMPUS! When land is cheap creativity arises! Creative people are happy people.


Tay Kheng Soon is a practicing architect and adjunct professor at National University of Singapore’s school of architecture. He was president of the Singapore Institute of Architects and founding member and chairman of SPUR (Singapore Planning and Urban Research).

This article is an edited version of Mr Tay’s posts on ‘Happytown’ which were first published on his Facebook.