Unlocking the prison mentality of urban design 

opinion October 13, 2017 01:00

By The Straits Times
Asia News Network

The notion of fenceless condominiums is preposterous to those who demand exclusivity and security, and are prepared to pay top dollar to keep outsiders from trespassing on their territory.

In an era of heightened threats, they argue, private buildings ought to have more robust safety features, rather than free access and public areas. Such resistance helps maintain the status quo and old ways of thinking about urban design.

Instead of fenceless development, a better expression perhaps is spatial integration that is appropriate for certain properties at particular locations. Some parts of a condo might well require high walls when these abut a busy expressway or industrial area, as a barrier against noise and dust is needed. Sections that overlook a lake or public park would benefit from low, see-through or vegetation barriers to create a sense of airy spaciousness for condo residents. Properties in the heart of a city might opt for urban buzz and multiple amenities on the ground level, which can be supported by public patronage and earn rental income for the management councils of condos. To each his and her own.

Visually porous designs are not just aesthetically more modern and pleasing, they can also help to create a cohesive urban landscape. Housing designs should cater to safety, of course, but not be so defensive that residents scarcely know who’s living around them and have no opportunity to mix socially. They would also be inconvenienced if there is limited connectivity to amenities outside the condo. By limiting the areas open to the public, securing other common spaces and placing condo facilities on higher floors, residents would still be able to retain peace of mind.

The converse idea of walled communities and gated developments are socially off-putting, especially when it sharpens the rich-poor divide or is associated with an enclave for foreigners out to create a little world of their own.

Progressive urban design might conceive of shared courtyards in condos that provide public access to waterfront areas or key public facilities. The thinking is that some real estate created at great public expense, like the upcoming Marina South district in Singapore, should not be just prime property for the have-a-lots. Payment by first-time buyers would then entitle them and successive owners to enjoy precious views or easy access to public amenities in perpetuity, while others, say, struggle to take the long way around to reach their destination.

Urban design should evolve from box-like developments and hard boundaries to creative architectural interventions – to cope with land scarcity, create open and connected spaces, and contribute to outdoor urban life.