Finding Common Ground in Historic Ethnic Districts through Evidence-based Approaches to Place Management
A study of Singapore’s Little India helps to develop a practical approach to preserving and enhancing the livability of historic ethnic districts.
Globally, historic ethnic districts are often sources of both pride and frustration. Their rich heritage and street life bring a much-needed sense of authenticity and community to modern cities, and their vibrant public spaces boost the cities’ liveability, also making them attractive to tourists. For many, they are proud emblems of a communal as well as cosmopolitan identity. But such districts also tend to be densely built-up, with aging infrastructure and limited space or scope for interventions due to conservation. With their polymorphous narratives, the multitude of stakeholders and competing interests, these districts may also be flashpoints for social tensions, which can dominate the discourse over their planning and governance.
How can cities make sense of these complexities, address their challenges and build on their strengths? Researchers at the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC) tackled these issues by developing a mixed-methods approach in a study focused on Singapore’s Little India district. The study suggests some ways to understand such districts, to inform planning and governance interventions to develop a more inclusive, meaningful and vibrant space for all stakeholders.
Little India developed from the cattle trade that initially drew Indian immigrants to the area in the 1860s. After the abolition of the trade in the 1930s, commercial activities catering to Singapore’s Indian community thrived, from goldsmiths and sari shops to parrot astrologers and Ayurvedic medical shops. The building of public housing from the 1970s introduced a new, multi-ethnic residential population to the district. Later, when Little India was gazetted as a conservation area in 1989, many buildings were restored, but the area also became managed as a tourist space. From the 1990s, as Indian and Bangladeshi guest workers came to Singapore, Little India naturally became their favorite public space for gathering in the city. More recently, hotels, bars and co-working spaces catering to cosmopolitan locals and tourists have also started to sprout, drawn to the area’s unique atmosphere.
Little India has thus served as the enduring center of the country’s minority Indian culture and heritage, and an icon of Singapore as a vibrant, multi-ethnic city. But in December 2013, it became the location of Singapore’s first major riot in over 40 years. Following the incident, public discourse about Little India grew increasingly dominated by a narrative of crowdedness, messiness and even volatility linked to South Asian guest workers who regularly gather there. In response to the riot and such perceptions of “disamenity” in Little India’s public spaces, several measures were implemented, including heightened surveillance and crowd reduction. Much of Little India was also designated a “Liquor Control Zone”, with the sale and consumption of alcohol—deemed a factor in the riot—heavily restricted.
These measures received mixed reactions. For example, some merchants were unhappy about the impact on their business, while others welcomed the initiatives, including some guest workers. As one Bangladeshi worker told CLC researchers, “It’s good that people cannot drink here anymore … Last time we always see people quarreling, fighting and stealing things. Now, with no alcohol and more police, it is much safer. We never had problems with the police because we don’t make any trouble.”
In December 2016, a public debate was sparked again by a letter to the press suggesting that Little India is spruced up further for tourists. Opponents contended that to preserve Little India’s unique charm as Singapore’s most authentic historic district, its “organized chaos” was best left as it was without heavy-handed overhauls.
To formulate appropriate interventions in contested districts, planners and policymakers should eschew preconceived notions and instead try to holistically understand the complex ground realities. To do this in the case of Little India, CLC conducted a mixed-methods study to systematically unpack the interests of different stakeholders.
The research team collected and analyzed a range of datasets from government agencies, and conducted interviews with over 300 respondents in Little India, including residents, local visitors, shopkeepers, business owners, tourists, and migrant workers. In addition, the team interviewed staff from the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association (LISHA) and other non-government organizations operating in Little India, like Transient Workers Count Too.
Ethnographic site observations were conducted over three months to gain an in-depth and grounded qualitative understanding of the spatial experience and environment in Little India. A visual survey of the type and mix of businesses and pedestrian counts at locations known to have high pedestrian flows were also carried out to gain a granular understanding of Little India’s commercial landscape, and to obtain a comprehensive sense of crowd flows over a typical weekday and weekend.
Although the presence of South Asian workers often dominates contemporary discourse about Little India, CLC’s interviews and ethnographic observations found that Little India was a meaningful place for other major stakeholders, specifically residents, merchants, Singaporean visitors, foreign tourists, as well as government agencies and non-government organizations operating there. Mustafa Centre, a 24-hour shopping mall, and Tekka Centre, which houses a market, food stalls and clothing stores, were frequently cited as places where respondents could get anything they needed. Textile houses, thrift stores, religious paraphernalia shops, quirky cafes, bohemian bars and chic co-working spaces that now pepper Little India have further endeared it to Singaporeans and visitors. For example, a Chinese Singaporean respondent said, “This is a place where you can find everything you could possibly need. You can have lunch at Race Course Road, buy vegetables at Tekka Market, exchange money at Mustafa Centre, watch a movie at City Square, then go to a cafe at Jalan Besar.”
Despite Little India’s reputation for human congestion at its public spaces, researchers observed this happening for only about six hours a week, from 4 pm to 10 pm on Sundays. This occurred when guest workers visited the district on their weekly day off. In interviews, many business owners, shopkeepers, tourists, and local visitors actually perceived these crowds of guest workers as injecting life into the area. Of the 220 residents interviewed, 86% were also largely tolerant or even sympathetic towards the workers. As a resident in the Rowell Court, public housing estate said, “Yes, it is inconvenient for a while, but it’s their only day off and they need their space.” Interviewees with negative perceptions of the crowds articulated their grievances mainly in terms of a lack of space, rather than security or safety concerns.
Researchers also found a decline of traditional trades in Little India, while non-traditional businesses such as backpacker hostels and upscale restaurants had emerged. Although traditional trades are an important part of the area’s image, visual surveys found that only 6% of the businesses in Little India were considered “Special Trades and Services” in the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) Use Classes—trades unique to Little India, such as henna artists, Ayurvedic clinics, garland makers and sari stores. Smaller traditional trades such as spice mills were vanishing, as increasing rent and changing consumer preferences rendered them commercially unviable. While the disappearance of these trades can be attributed to market forces, there are concerns that Little India is succumbing to gentrification.
Through the study, CLC researchers have uncovered opportunities for improvements to Little India. Crowdedness on the streets could be addressed as part of a broader multi-pronged strategy to enhance the historic district for the benefit of all its stakeholders while also alleviating the issue of crowdedness on Sunday evenings.
Develop a Long-Term Vision and Blueprint
Since 2006, the URA has led a task force of various public agencies to work with other stakeholders on improvements to the public spaces in Little India for the benefit of pedestrians, motorists and businesses. New interventions can build upon this foundation. Given the complexity of managing Little India, enhanced coordination would be crucial in preserving its safety, vibrancy, and attractiveness. This can be achieved by developing a long-term vision and blueprint for Little India, with support from all key stakeholders. Apart from the physical dimension, this could encompass other elements such as placemaking and programming strategies.
Improve Pedestrian Infrastructure
Chief among the taskforce’s mandates was to make Little India more pedestrian-friendly. This has been achieved through infrastructural upgrades, such as widening walkways, paving over open drains and improving lighting in back lanes. Since 2014, several roads in Little India have been temporarily or permanently pedestrianized. Apart from giving crowds more space to spill into during peak periods on Sunday evenings, researchers found that these road closures created a more convivial and vibrant atmosphere, and a more comfortable walking experience for all groups, at all times. Conversations with stakeholders and site observations revealed that these enhancements made walking more pleasant and safe.
The CLC study highlighted opportunities for similar upgrades in other areas of Little India. Replicating these infrastructure upgrades would markedly enhance the walkability of the district. The expansion of pedestrianization efforts would also mitigate the risk of a traffic accident—the event that triggered the 2013 riot. Such changes could come under a broader “car-lite” vision for the area. For instance, back lanes could be upgraded into alternative capillary thoroughfares to the more congested arterial roads. Additionally, the creation of a central plaza, by amalgamating vacant or underused land, could alleviate crowdedness on Sunday evenings while also providing a civic focal point for the area. Finally, designated loading and unloading points for delivery vehicles, as well as the removal of surface parking lots, especially along roads with high human traffic, could be explored.
A section of Campbell Lane was permanently pedestrianized in November 2014. Photo credit: Idmanjoe/Dreamstime
Promote Community-Led Placemaking
Programming and place management strategies have also complemented the infrastructural enhancements carried out in the area. These include the annual Deepavali and Pongal street light-up and festivities, dance performances organized by the Indian Heritage Centre, and Project Oasis, an initiative managed by LISHA and supported by the Singapore Tourism Board to bring art installations and cultural events to the area. While businesses and local visitors interviewed agreed these efforts contributed vibrancy, these initiatives have to be driven from the ground up for them to be sustainable. An innovative calendar of community-led events could augment existing placemaking efforts. Such events could take place during off-peak periods, from Mondays to Saturdays, to attract a more diverse audience that would also help dispel the perception of Little India as an area of “disamenity”. Examples include street carnivals similar to the wildly popular Urban Ventures and Keong Saik Road Carnival (both organized by business operators along Keong Saik Road), pop-up stores such as Temporium, which enjoyed considerable success at Little India’s Dunlop Street in 2012, and regular flea markets.
The Indian Heritage Centre located within Little India organises regular events catering to different crowds. Photo credit: Indian Heritage Centre
Example of a street carnival organised by Urban Ventures in another part of Singapore, that could potentially be organised at Little India during off-peak periods. Photo credit: Urban Ventures
Support Little India’s Unique Trades
As Little India’s variegated commercial landscape has been instrumental in its attraction and relevance to a wide range of people, the vulnerability of the smaller traditional trades would be worth addressing too, as the loss of these trades could significantly compromise Little India’s authenticity and its appeal to key stakeholders. Measures could include creating designated zones for such endangered trades or awarding grants to sustain or revive them.
CLC’s study suggests that addressing the multiple concerns pertaining to historic ethnic districts like Little India need not be a zero-sum game where conservation, vibrancy, and security are traded off against each other. Instead, infrastructural interventions, place management strategies and heritage conservation efforts can be complementary to make these districts relevant and attractive to a larger diversity of stakeholders. Even though the disamenity of public spaces resulting from the hordes of guest workers is a legitimate concern, attempts to manage this six-hours-a-week issue must be balanced with other stakeholders’ needs. Hence, the study demonstrates the value of a mixed-methods research approach for holistically understanding the ground realities and perspectives of the various stakeholders. A balanced view of the situation reveals the right opportunities for intervention, which allows more comprehensive local planning and governance.
The case of Little India underscores the lesson that the architect’s pen, the engineer’s calculator, the artist’s paintbrush, the policeman’s baton, and the citizen’s initiative—all useful instruments in their own right—by themselves are inadequate for managing complex and contested spaces. But when brought together, they constitute a powerful inventory that yields far-reaching dividends.
Gurubaran Subramaniam. 2017. Evidence-Based Approaches to Place Management: Finding Common Ground in Historic Ethnic Districts. Urban Solutions, Issue 11: Public Spaces. May 2017. The Centre for Liveable Cities, Singapore.
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