Opinion: Spaces and Scapes — Thoughts on Urban Planning

Whenever I hear the phrase "urban planning", three experiences come to mind.

Date Posted

1 Apr 2007


Issue 2, 14 Apr 2007

Whenever I hear the phrase "urban planning", three experiences come to mind. The first involves staying in Seoul's "The Shilla", which many think of as the Korean equivalent of our Raffles Hotel. Located far enough from downtown Seoul's urban bustle to be beyond the raucous sounds of Insa-dong market, the hotel overlooks the lush greenery of Namsan Park. My reaction may have, in part, been due to seeing with a newcomer's eyes, but I found the park a treasure trove of interesting corners — an archery range in one spot, a pétanque space in another, and a basketball court in yet another.

I also think of my time as an undergraduate in Oxford. The university town is rightly famous for its college architecture — from the imperious edifices of Balliol and Christ Church to the more modest Victorian façades of Lady Margaret Hall and Somerville. Equally memorable, though less awe-inspiring, were the many crannies unearthed by the familiarity of three years, often nestled between larger buildings: a moss-covered cemetery here, a centuries-old pub elsewhere, or a field untouched by human presence for months, dandelions standing like sentinels to potential intruders.

The phrase "urban planning" also evokes memories of visiting friends in Boston. Each time, some gravitational force seemed to pull us towards the string of cafés surrounding Harvard Square, where we would sit and sip hot beverages, savouring each moment of school vacation (or latterly, leave from work) and watching the world go by.

I have often wondered why the phrase prompts such recollections. After all, most traditional understandings of the concept of urban planning paint it as clinical and scientific, bringing order and structure to situations which could, otherwise, lapse into risky randomness or the damaging effects of urban sprawl. My memories seem focused on micro-spaces rather than the larger forces that have shaped cities in the past — the walls and moats of feudal towns, for instance, being a response to security needs; town squares a result of the need for a space dedicated to commerce; industrially-replicated buildings born from a need to house large volumes of manufactured goods; and the lack of crowded buildings in the Pacific "ring of fire" a response to the potential risks of earthquakes and geomorphology.

Upon further reflection however, I think a genuine case can be made for including the study of "small spaces" in urban planning. In one of the poems in my collection Morning at Memory's Border,1 the city-scapes captured in the photographs of Alfred Stieglitz remind me of how:

"... as cities bud, build and bloom Higher, the more need we find for niches, Corner comforts and the solace of small spaces."

Studying this human "need... for niches" in urban settings actually formed a large part of the work of William Whyte, an eclectic intellectual who was, at different times, a planning consultant for major US cities, adviser to Laurence Rockefeller on environmental issues, a Distinguished Professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York and a trustee of the American Conservation Association.

Small spaces humanise our cities, bringing life and dynamism to urban landscapes.

The three memories I described above correspond quite neatly with some of the key ways that small spaces serve to humanise our cities, bringing life and dynamism to urban landscapes.

The Shilla and its contiguous parkland highlight the important aesthetic function that small spaces can play. Some urban planners see this function as being principally "anti-urban sprawl", but there is also a important positive role. Small spaces beautify and provide alternative lines to buildings.

The originators of Singapore's aspiration to be a "garden city" are likely to have had a similar objective in mind. Their experience belies the instinctive assumption that aesthetic considerations will take care of themselves through some spontaneous process of rationalisation. Rather, while the final output should appear creative and spontaneous, the process can be every bit as precise and orchestrated as other branches of urban planning. This applies not just in Singapore, where land scarcity requires the deliberate designation of areas for their aesthetic function. In the example of The Shilla, planning is evident in how the park's spaces dovetail with the hill that forms its core; while famously "aesthetic" cities like Rome and Paris demonstrate a conscious earmarking of certain areas as sacrosanct and separate from the more obvious functionality of others.

Oxford is a prime example of how small spaces allow cities to accommodate a process that I have come to think of as "historical sedimentation" — the gradual layering of different parts of a city's past with aspects of its present and future. I remember similar principles being illustrated (consciously or otherwise) in the Syrian city of Aleppo, where ancient gardens and the city's central citadel are surrounded by modern restaurants and shops. In a nascent way, I think we see this in Singapore as well — even a short walk from Little India to Chinatown unearths such gems as the Jamae Chulia Mosque and the Sri Mariamman Temple. Where viable, recognition of such spaces' historical and cultural significance helps to provide a temporal counterpoint to modern or modernising architectural designs, by providing sanctified areas where the vicissitudes of time and tide are kept at bay.

The Boston cafés highlight a much more widespread phenomenon that two human geographers from Glasgow University, Eric Laurier and Chris Philo, describe as the rise of a "cappuccino culture", where cafés provide the means for increasingly fragmented human societies to "come together again". This may not seem like a particularly groundbreaking observation, until we remember that the advent of efficiency-enhancing technology can often be a cause of reduced social interaction, alienation and isolation. Small spaces in our cities cannot be a panacea to this phenomenon — which Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam described as "bowling alone" — but they can provide a counter to its growing pervasiveness.

Of course, the practical limits and physical constraints involved in urban planning mean that small spaces cannot be an over-riding consideration in landuse. They are an important part of a city's life, however, and should be recognised for the texture, nuance and variegation they bring. It is probably not for nothing that in one of his most seminal books, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces,2 William Whyte said:

"I end then in praise of small spaces. The multiplier effect is tremendous. It is not just the number of people using them, but the larger number who pass by and enjoy them vicariously, or the even larger number who feel better about the city centre for knowledge of them. For a city, such places are priceless, whatever the cost. They are built of a set of basics and they are right in front of our noses. If we will look."


Aaron Maniam is First Secretary (Political) at the Singapore Embassy to the United States in Washington, DC. He previously served on the North America Desk at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was educated at Oxford where he read Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE), and Yale. He is also an award-winning poet and author of Morning at Memory's Border, a volume of poetry published in 2005. The views expressed within this article are his own.


  1. Maniam, A. Morning at Memory's Border: Poems by Aaron Maniam. Singapore: firstfruits publications, 2005.
  2. Whyte, W. H. The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces. Washington, D.C.: The Conservation Foundation, 1980.

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