By Magalí Murià
11 March, 2013
Sometimes my son and I like to walk our dog around Dawson Place, a public housing area across the street from our condo. Dawson’s buildings are lined up right next to the Alexandra Canal, the upstream end of the Singapore River that was recently turned into a green corridor in the heart of the city. It has open gyms for outdoor exercise, trails for biking and jogging, and covered areas where groups gather for tai chi in the early hours. People are cordial and usually stop and talk with each other. In fact, after 8 months of living here, it is nice to see how some familiar faces have gradually turned into friendly constants during my morning walks.
Healthy and Free Attraction
Every building has a playground right between the living areas and a pathway with lush plants and gigantic trees. For children, it is nice to walk from one playground to the other, and stop for a while in each one. If you take your time in all of them, you spend a bit more than an hour from one end of the trail to the other. For grownups, it feels like visiting an outdoor museum because, along the way, there are posted facts about the neighborhood’s history, and old pictures of how it looked before. They also show, with maps and diagrams, Dawson’s role in a larger system of catchments that charges the city’s water reservoirs. And they explain why the common areas are built over porous materials that collect rainfall, with plants that filter pollutants and absorb nutrients, to help clean the water.
Every visit to Dawson reminds me that we are all part of something bigger. In Singapore, we are writing a history of travel and settlement, of growing communities that blend different origins and backgrounds. We also belong to a huge ecosystem where everything is connected: Air, plants and water. In a city where almost every outing costs a small fortune, this is a healthy and free attraction from which families go home without having spent a dime, while enriching from the experience of playing with Malay, Chinese and Indian neighbors. And let’s think about it: How many chances do our kids have to interact with local children? Unless we make an effort, not many.
A Big Melting Pot
In fact, Dawson, like the rest of public housing developments, was designed so that people of different nationalities can interact. It was built in 1964 for residents who previously lived in the old kampongs, or make shift neighborhoods with precarious infrastructure that usually organized along racial lines. It was in fact, the first project under the government’s “house ownership scheme”, devoted to make home ownership affordable for low and middle income citizens. Truly innovative at the time, Dawson was a prototype of Singaporean society, a mosaic of different ethnicities and religions compelled to live in an atmosphere of harmony and tolerance.
Forty five years later, Dawson becomes again an enclave of urban innovation, as it undergoes a sophisticated renewal process, with housing projects where top notch architecture nourishes traditional customs. There are, for instance, sky terraces with mah jong tables, where neighbors will sit together to cultivate this millenary pastime. The fact that they also plan to preserve the old hawker center is another interesting way in which planners are bringing together the past and the future in these living spaces. But the part I like the most is the way they have chosen to market it: “affordable homes!”, “cohesive communities!”, “vibrant towns!”
If it is true, as they say, that Singapore offers us a window to the future, this does not sound bad at all…