SINGAPORE – A HIGH-DENSITY CITY WITH SPORTING CHARACTERS
Chapter 13: The future of sportification in Singapore
Expansion and diversification of the city’s sporting lifestyle
From the very beginning of its modern urban development Singapore has embraced the principles of the New Town Movement – an urban planning concept of high-density satellite cities consisting of public housing blocks, which was adopted in countless eastern and central European cities after the destructive World War II (for more information, please read ‘Central planning of an emerging urban sporting culture’). While many European satellite cities have degenerated into ghettoized low-income and crime-ridden vertical neighbourhoods over the past decades, Singapore’s mass-produced high-rise public housing estates can, by contrast, be hailed a success story; due to the city’s growing population and changing socio-economic objectives, the Singapore government has continued to rejuvenate established public housing areas as well as private condominiums by replacing older residential structures with higher apartment blocks of improved quality and higher density.
Given the projected increase in population Singapore’s urban plasticity is expected to become a permanent urban planning feature for decades to come, providing potential residents with the much-needed living space. Without being specific on the year, Lue Thai Ker, the master planner of Singapore and Chairman for Centre for Liveable Cities, recently said in a Bloomberg TV interview that “Singapore should plan for a population of 10 million people”.
In order to sustain high levels of liveability and to preserve the city’s vibrant sporting culture during such transformational period, the projected demographic alterations, for instance, would inevitably need to be addressed in any future urban densification strategy in Singapore. Hence, the city’s continuously growing ageing population will definitely need to be at the top of government’s agenda. While in 2008 only 12.8% of Singapore residents were 60 years old and above, this proportion has skyrocketed within a few years alone, reaching slightly above 17% in 2014. According to the United Nations World Population Prospects, Singapore will become a geriatric society by the mid-2020s, calling it a demographic time bomb.
An inevitable transformation into Old Town Singapore? As the city’s proportion of older residents has been growing at rapid pace, the gerontological aspect will dominate the city’s future planning strategies of this prosperous, ageing city-state.
As physical mobility declines with old age, the city’s planners could consider making further adjustments to public space, sporting facilities and recreation amenities. For instance, high density networks of visually stimulating trails between residential estates and larger parks would possibly encourage more older folks to go for longer walks – the only viable physical activity for many elderly.
Although the current generation of older Singapore residents tend to choose walking over any other physical activity, it is reasonable to assume, however, that the present (physically fitter) middle-aged residents – that is, the future older generation – will be able to continue carrying out their favourite physical activities into old age; hence, any future urban planning would need to address the anticipated fluidity of popularity levels of various sports activities and the projected participation rates within various age groups. To achieve this objective, the composition of the city’s parks and sporting facilities should in the near future be tailored specifically to the needs of lifelong physical activity-seeking, older residents.
In the morning hours older folks regularly practice Qigong on the small HDB-games courts.
The current generation of older Singapore residents choose walking over any other physical activity. The future of Calisthenics, Taijiquan and Qigong remains unclear, as the present young and middle-aged residents display only little interest in these physical activities.
As repeatedly discussed in this special report, public sports facilities and city parks are the defining features of Singapore’s urban planning concept, facilitating the emergence of the city’s vibrant sporting culture. Yet the limited diversification of sporting options in the key residential areas and the lack of any substantial expansion plans for the HDB-sports complexes could increase the risk of creating a sporting monoculture, in which individual, monostructural and aerobic-centric activities account for a disproportionately high share of all physical activities. Since the late 1980s a growing trend towards such monoculture has, in fact, been noticed in Singapore, with nearly 60% of physically active Singapore residents now being engaged in individual-aerobic activities (as displayed in the chart below, this surge during the past three decades has largely been attributed to walking and running).
Over the past 25 years the individual-aerobic activities has consolidated its dominance, while the share of racquet games has dropped significantly. The recent increase in ball/team games can be attributed to greater popularity of basketball and soccer among young adults.
Among Singapore residents the share of individual-aerobic activities increases with age.
The proportion of Singapore residents choosing to play ball or racquet games – which foster the development of dexterity, the activation of various metabolic functions and the formation of socio-psychological behaviour – have, in contrast, plateaued or even declined. As demonstrated in the chart above, this trend is particularly evident among middle-aged adults and seniors who rather choose aerobic activities over other sporting options (largely because of their causal link to reduced obesity levels and lowered risk of chronic cardio-vascular conditions). If this shift towards devaluation of team games and multifunctional sports continues, the potential of stimulating activity-dependent brain plasticity processes across various cortical areas and the prospects of developing highly transferable teamwork skills will inevitably remain unexploited by large parts of Singapore’s society.
Given that the variety of the 10 most popular sporting activities among Singapore residents has barely changed over the past 20 years, except for squash’s decline in favourability and the surge in gym workout participation, it can be speculated that the development of the largely identical HDB-sports complexes has led to this status quo – which is exemplified by the long-time domination of just a handful of sporting activities. It is thus plausible that over the past few decades this selectively imposed sports offer has dampened the diversification of sports participation across the vast HDB-public housing estates, in which 80% of Singapore residents live.
The popularity levels of swimming have remained relatively stable, whereas the participation rate of jogging/walking has almost tripled since the late 1980s. The latest popularity decline in swimming, jogging/walking and gym workout can not be explained with certainty.
Much of the space in the HDB-indoor sports halls is designated to badminton, partially as a result of great interest in this racquet game among female foreign workers from China (Yio Chu Kang HDB-sports complex).
Outdoor tennis courts are integrated into a number of sports complexes, such as the Yio Chu Kang sports complex. The demand for this racquet game, however, appears to be fairly low on weekdays.
A realistic approach to boosting the popularity of ball and racquet games could be the development of a recreational sports league scheme, which would integrate city-wide contests for various sports games on weekends. By making use of the ever more expanding HDB-Town Dual-Use Scheme (according to which sporting facilities at schools can be utilised by residents for evening training sessions), local teams could establish stronger bonds with the HDB-residents. Such a competition-centric sports scheme would certainly encourage more residents to participate in various physical activities. After all, the highly popular running events on weekends are a good indicator of the society’s enthusiasm for competitive and collective sports events (for more information, please read ‘Urban running cultivation’), suggesting a huge potential for the rather unexplored organized competitive sports.
As for the future of Singapore’s sporting culture, the growing imbalance in provision of public and private sports facilities is another matter of concern. It is becoming evident that the utilisation of a disproportionately large number of facilities is now limited exclusively to residents living in private condominiums – yet only 12% of Singapore residents live in those gated residential communities. And over the past 15 years the number of key sporting facilities located in HDB-public housing estates has plateaued, while Singapore’s overall population has risen by nearly 1.5 million (!) during the same period. Indeed, the available information indicates that there is a clear trend towards skewed concentration of sporting options, resulting in increasingly unequal sporting opportunities.
To the government’s credit, though, it has recently started expanding its Dual-Use Scheme (DUS), which would allow residents to use sports facilities at schools during weekday evening hours and on weekends. But nonetheless, if the current sports participation levels of various sporting activities continue to increase, Singapore will eventually have to overhaul its entire subsidised public sporting infrastructure by expanding the present size of its urban land designated for recreational use. To adjust the supply of infrastructure to the growing demand for sports and health (and to the growing population), future expansion plans could, for instance, capitalize on the already existing large HDB-sports complexes (for more information, please read ‘Sporting the HDB-nation’).
It remains unclear, however, whether the recently announced construction of five new Regional Sports Centres (or ‘Lifestyle Hubs’) in selected districts will be the answer to the supply-demand-mismatch mentioned above. Although the overall number of sporting facilities will indeed increase, this planning strategy contains the risk of following the old, well-trodden path; by merely providing sporting infrastructure that predominantly offers locally established, traditional facilities (swimming pools, tennis courts as well as badminton and table tennis amenities are suggested in the official proposal for these Regional Sports Centres), this conventional approach will do little to significantly alter the status quo and dominance of the top 10 sporting activities in Singapore.
Stadiums are typically embedded into HDB-residential areas, such as this stadium in the outer western district of Jurong West. Judging by the recent urban planning activities, however, it is fair to suggest that the long-lasting era of building sports complexes across the city has come to an end.
In Tampines a compact, multi-purpose ‘lifestyle hub’ will, for the first time, replace an established public sports complex. As more such ‘lifestyle hubs’ are being planned in other districts, this could be an indication that such centres could in the near future replace the traditional public sporting facilities (i.e., sports complexes).
This new generation of multi-functional ‘lifestyle hubs’ will integrate a medium-sized soccer stadium, swimming complex, badminton courts and gym facilities as well as major commercial and administrative amenities.
Besides, these planned Regional Sport Arenas (or ‘Lifestyle Hubs’) with their large seating capacities could also be in danger of becoming so-called ‘white elephants’, if the utilisation of the facilities is restricted to competitions at national or international level. Hence, this upcoming sports infrastructure will only add value to the city’s emerging sporting culture, if community-use is considered a high priority.
Again, more sporting facilities are required across the HDB-public housing districts, for at least one key reason: Singapore’s population is projected to grow from currently 5.5 million to more than 7 million by 2030. This fairly plausible prediction calls for a major expansion of sports complexes as well as an overhaul plan for HDB-sporting facilities across the entire city.
The high share of privatised sporting facilities is likely to deter some sporting activities from reaching higher participation levels. The divergence of public and private sporting facilities points to a much wider trend reflecting the city’s shift from provision of public goods to the prioritisation of private services.
Around 12% of Singapore residents now live in gated private luxury condominium complexes, which typically contain indoor gym facilities and outdoor swimming pools.
Yet building indoor sports halls and outdoor arenas with large seating capacities, which appear to be designed to prioritize use for events, will barely serve the potential health, sports and leisure demands of present and future generations of Singaporeans. And neither will visually uninspiring surroundings. Good examples of rather poorly designed sporting infrastructure for public use are some of the indoor facilities at the recently built National Stadium complex. The multi-purpose indoor sports halls can certainly serve as suitable warm-up zones for teams prior to the actual competition, but less so as an inspiring playing area for recreational use; their colourless and sterile-looking halls resemble very much the interior designs of hospitals or clinical institutions.
Although expansion and diversification of public sporting infrastructure are critical to elevating Singapore’s present sporting culture to the next levels, it only sets the direction, not the destination; that is, socio-economic aspects of city living, too, need to play a more significant role in creating a cohesive, long-term strategy.
In this regard, it is certainly reasonable to argue that the city-state’s notorious working culture could considerably slow down its sporting lifestyle evolution. For instance, the city’s excruciatingly long working hours could start having corrosive effects on Singapore’s sporting culture. With an average of 47 working hours per week (for a full-time employed person), Singapore residents work longer than employees in any other rich country, bar in Qatar – according to the latest figures gathered by the International Labour Organisation and Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower. And as revealed in the latest sports participation survey, many physically inactive Singapore residents struggle to incorporate exercising into their daily life – 54% of them cite lack of time due to work commitment as the number one deterrent to participating in sports activities.
Regrettably, this important topic of the city’s work-life-imbalance fails to be satisfactorily addressed in the latest official report, “Vision 2030 – live better through sports”, which is long on over-used and misleading buzzwords, such as ‘disruptive innovation’, ‘holistic’ or ‘sustainable’ – to name a few, but rather light on inspiration and short on detail. With no current figures and no numerical predictions being offered in these proposed strategies regarding future sports development in Singapore, this report seems rather unconvincing and vague. Overall, the 20 recommendations outlined in this Vision 2030 plan for Singapore appear to have missed the opportunity to offer an aspiring, coherent and forward-looking vision for a potentially high-class sporting lifestyle hub.
Also, this Vision 2030 gives little indication as to whether, and to what extent, the existing sports facilities and recreation areas will be revitalized or diversified. If the scarcity of innovation and vision fails to be addressed, it could ultimately lead to a couple of lost decades, restricting local residents in their sporting lifestyle choices and diminishing Singapore’s potential to create a globally recognisable urban sporting culture (for more information and recommendations, please read ‘Towards creating a distinctive sporting lifestyle city identity’).
This report was first published in July 2016; updated in February 2017.
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