SINGAPORE – A HIGH-DENSITY CITY WITH SPORTING CHARACTERS
Chapter 2: Sporting the HDB-nation
In the past two decades Singapore’s city planning has gradually shifted from urban anabolism to urban plasticity – that is, whereas the development of additional residential urban districts, the so-called Towns, has largely ceased, the existing high-rise Towns have entered a period of constant transformation, resulting in increasing verticalization and densification of these subsidized public housing estates. At the same time, the number of enclosed higher-quality private condominiums and private houses has increased since the 1990s, leading to the urbanization of the erstwhile green patches of land between the established Towns.
Yet despite the continuing land-use intensification, the traditional Town concept consisting of high-rise, high-density HDB-public housing estates has remained the core pillar of the city’s social fabric (the acronym HDB stands for the Housing Development Board, a statutory board of the Singapore government that manages all public housing estates). These HDB-districts can rightly be considered the city’s heartlands, representing the main residential areas in which 80 percent (!) of the local population still lives – according to the most recent official figures. Providing sports and recreational facilities in these large, densely populated residential zones has therefore been one of the key elements of the government’s urban planning strategy.
Nowadays, a typical HDB-Town (or district) contains a standardized sports complex, which usually includes a track and field stadium, a multi-purpose indoor hall and outdoor Olympic-size swimming pools. Over the years other amenities – such as tennis courts, fitness gyms and dance studios – have been added to the original layout of some of the sports complexes. The HDB-public housing estates have also been beefed up with large numbers of complementary small-sized outdoor sporting amenities: soccer fields, badminton and basketball courts have been randomly incorporated into residential areas in an attempt to increase the overall recreational space and to provide HDB-residents with equal sporting opportunities.
The subsidised HDB-sports complexes are evenly distributed across the city of Singapore.
Great emphasis has, too, been placed on installing easily accessible outdoor gym areas containing a large variety of fitness stations. In a couple of public housing estates young residents also have the option of using multi-purpose Active Parks: a good example of such a compact urban design is the Bishan Active Park, located in the residential district of Bishan, which contains a soccer field, basketball and beach volleyball court, a short-distance running track and several outdoor fitness stations.
Yet despite the provision of these smaller ball game grounds and outdoor fitness areas within the public housing estates, the concept of large-sized HDB-sports complexes remains the cornerstone of the city’s sporting culture. These subsidised sports centres are fairly evenly distributed across Singapore, revealing the government’s aspiration to provide HDB-residents with equal sporting opportunities. Again, they typically consist of outdoor swimming complexes, track and field/soccer stadia, multi-purpose-built indoor sports arenas, indoor fitness gyms, tennis facilities, and a few other facilities; at present, there are 24 outdoor swimming centres with Olympic-size pools, 17 track and field stadia, 16 indoor sports arenas, 15 indoor gyms and 10 tennis facilities.
Furthermore, there are currently 108 mid-sized community clubs, which provide mainly older residents with additional facilities and courses for leisure, recreation and sports. Some of these government-associated, multifunctional clubs comprise of an outdoor basketball court and indoor amenities for table tennis, badminton, dancing and fitness.
Small-sized outdoor game courts are embedded into public housing estates across the city.
In recent years the government has increased the number of basketball courts located within the HDB-public housing estates, reacting to the increasing demand for this ball game among younger residents (such as this HDB-basketball court in the district of Jurong West).
The Petir Park in Bukit Panjang is a good example of an ‘Active Park’ that is incorporated into an HDB-residential estate. It contains a running track of 300m, badminton courts and outdoor gym facilities.
All these public facilities for physical activity, exercise and sports are particularly popular with residents living in the nearby HDB-housing estates. This is not to say, however, that privately operated fitness clubs, squash courts or golf courses, among others, are irrelevant. They do play an important role in offering physically-active city residents comfier (yet pricier) sporting options, and the provision of such commercial facilities has been on the rise for the past couple of decades (for more information on this topic, please read the chapter on ‘The Future of Sportification in Singapore’).
Nonetheless, subsidised public sporting facilities and public space remain the recreational areas of choice for Singapore residents who live in HDB-public housing estates. According to a recent official survey on sports participation, they continue to be the bedrock of Singapore’s sporting lifestyle, with 83 per cent of physically active HDB-residents reporting to utilise publicly-subsidised sporting amenities or public space (the share is 60% for residents living in private condominiums).
Outdoor swimming centre in Toa Payoh. In Singapore public aquatic facilities are regularly integrated into HDB-sports complexes.
A typical track and field stadium encircled by high-rise residential apartments in Clementi.
An HDB-indoor sports hall in the outer northern district of Woodlands. The rather old and increasingly out-dated looking sports halls across the city are mostly utilised for badminton and table-tennis.
Some parts of the local sports infrastructure across in the HDB-districts, however, are in dire need of an urgent face-lift. Too many facilities within the sports complexes, for instance, give the impression that no substantial upgrade works have been carried out since the 1970s or 1980s. (Some facilities, such as the sports complex in Bishan, though, were redeveloped prior to the Youth Summer Olympic Games in 2010).
Another issue appears to be that the provision of public sports facilities has failed to keep pace with the massive urban expansion and the continuously growing interest in active and sporting lifestyle. For instance, while Singapore’s population has risen from 3.5 to 5.5 million since 1995, only two traditional HDB-sports complexes, in Jurong West and Choa Chu Kang, have been built during the same period of time (to the best of the author’s knowledge). This significant increase in population has logically led to considerably higher nominal utilisation of various sports facilities. According to Sport Singapore, the government-linked sporting authority in Singapore, the number of bookings for badminton courts, table-tennis areas and gymnasiums have doubled over the past 10 years alone. And the booking frequencies for indoor basketball courts, one of the booming team sports among young male Singaporeans, have even quadrupled. On weekday evenings the relatively small gym facilities are mostly overcrowded, indicating rising popularity levels of body workout among young residents. In short, the increasing demand for various sporting activities may indicate that the time is ripe for much-needed enlargement and diversification of these facilities; or better, expansion plans for the entire sports complex zones should be taken into consideration.
In Singapore the provision of subsidised public sporting infrastructure has failed to keep pace with the recent urban expansion and population growth.
The infrastructure matter aside, opening hours of some of the sporting facilities may also need to be reassessed. Given that many Singapore residents work long hours, the operating hours of sporting and recreational amenities should reflect the city’s work-centric culture. (With an average of 47 working hours per week for a full-time employed resident, Singapore typically tops the international working time rankings, according to the latest government data) (for more information on this topic, please read the chapter on ‘The Future of Sportification in Singapore’).
For a starter, operating hours would need to be extended. On weekday evenings, for instance, it is nothing unusual to see 100 or more running enthusiasts flocking to their local track and field stadia and carrying out their individual running regimes on the 400-m long oval track. At 8.30pm, however, this vibrant atmosphere comes to an abrupt halt, as stadia typically close their gates at this early point of time. Given that many Singapore residents do not return back home from work before late evening (and given that the air temperatures are more tolerable after dark), the opening hours of stadium tracks should be extended until 10pm – akin to the opening hours of the other HDB-sporting facilities. In this way, late evening joggers could be offered a convenient alternative to city parks and park connectors, which usually provide lighting of trails until late at night (for more information, please read the chapters ‘City Parks’ and ‘Park Connector Network’).
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