Uncovering the possible existence of ‘positive’ gentrification in Singapore

Tiong Bahru Estate by Benjamin Hu

The Tiong Bahru Estate which was the first planned housing estate in Singapore, was conserved in 2003 by the URA. Source: Author’s own.


Singapore is a city-state that has progressed from a small port to be a highly developed and competitive city that is widely recognised in the global economy. To stand in this position today within a short amount of time meant that rapid transformation needed to occur at a monumental scale. A notable example of this transformation is the revitalisation the historic waterfront into the bustling business and economic centre of the city. The business district attracts big companies and creative professionals that bolster Singapore’s competitiveness in the global economy (Wong, 2006). Such as a transformation has gentrified the urban space and consequently displaced traditional trades and local residents in the process. Although the term ‘gentrification’ is seldom used in formal urban planning discourse in Singapore, this has been incorporated within the urban planning strategy of the city, and has contributed to Singapore’s successful transformation today (Chang et al., 2004). This can be seen in examples like the redevelopment of the historic districts of the Little India Arts Belt through adaptive reuse (Chang, 2014) and the improvement of ageing neighbourhoods to achieve economic revitalisation and social inclusion of existing residents. This report will look at the Tiong Bahru Estate as a case study on the concept of ‘positive’ gentrification. Tiong Bahru is the first planned housing estate in the country, which was conserved in 2003 (URA, n.d.) and is experiencing an influx of new residents and businesses. It will also explore possible avenues towards a more socially equitable form of gentrification, promoting social mixing and cohesion among residents through inclusive community events.



Gentrification was first coined by the British sociologist Ruth Glass (1964) to describe the displacement of working class people from their houses in areas of inner London (Glass, 2010). However, with extensive debates on understanding gentrification, a contemporary definition of gentrification has been defined by Lees saying that it is “the transformation of a working-class or vacant area of the central city into middle-class residential and/or commercial use” (Lees et al., 2008: xv). This also implicitly underscored Eric Clark’s (2005) conclusion that a broader, yet precise definition of gentrification is needed to adequately aid in understanding this phenomenon. Progressing from the initial economic and cultural debates of the property market and class as sources of gentrification (Smith, 1979; Ley, 1980), a policy perspective was applied to understand its effect to urban districts (van Weesep, 1994). Cities were also encouraged to employ gentrification as an urban planning tool to achieve state agendas, through the revitalisation of derelict neighbourhoods and cities. Underlying and reinforcing such move is the rhetoric that the creative class is the main driver of economic growth and development of a city (Florida, 2002). The goal of many cities is to achieve global city status and become key centres of economic accumulation and global control (Sassen, 2005). The right milieu is required to achieve this purpose, materialized in urban planning policies that rationalize the gentrification of neighbourhoods and attracting the creative class in the guise of progress, development and urban renewal (Peck 2005; Lees, 2008). The continued use of gentrification in urban policy has led to the exploration as a benign and possibly beneficial phenomenon. The positive outcomes of gentrification cited by some scholars include the social inclusion of lower-income residents granting them access to diverse social networks and improved services through social mixing, and the economic revitalization of a neighbourhood with increased employment opportunities. (Duany, 2001; Byrne, 2003; Freeman, 2006; 2008). A socially mixed and inclusive neighbourhood has also been acknowledged to enhance the city’s competitiveness in the global economy (Rose, 2004). However, gentrification is largely perceived as a negative process due to the devastating effects of displacement on the gentrified (Marcuse, 1986; Davidson 2008). Displacement affects the gentrified beyond the direct physical eviction from a place; they also suffer from emotional and psychological aspects of displacement in the form of “stress and strain of class differences and neighbourhood change” (Hammel, 2009: 366). The influx of higher-income residents and new developments inevitably change the fabric and place identity of a neighbourhood, consequently polarizing the community (Marcuse, 1986) and increasing the likelihood of conflicts between residents of different classes (Uitermark et al., 2007). Furthermore, existing low-income residents experience a loss of social networks and a disparity of services, encumbering their ability to ‘remain’ in the neighbourhood (Hartman, 1984).



With the aforementioned academic developments on gentrification, there is now a strong inclination to employ gentrification within public policy (Smith, 2002; Atkinson & Bridge, 2005; Wyly & Hammel, 2005; Lees & Ley, 2008). This manifests globally, through the gentrification of not just Anglo-American neighbourhoods and cities but also of Asian cities. For a city-state like Singapore, which heavily relies on the developmentalist approach (Chang, 2014), likewise gentrification seemingly becomes utilized as an urban policy tool to ensure the city’s survival and subsequently achieve state agendas in the guise of development and positioning towards attaining global city status (Chang et al., 2004). To attain a global city status, many cities have turned to the development of cultural capital to enhance its competitiveness at the global scale (Zukin, 1996). In Singapore, this vision was created through the ‘Renaissance City Plan’ (Chang, 2000; MITA, 2000), which was aimed at promoting arts and culture in the country and provide a conducive environment for creative, knowledge-based industries and talent while strengthening national identity and belonging among Singaporeans (MITA, 2000). Together with the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA)’s Master Plan for Conservation, which conserves the façade and architecture of key historic areas, heritage areas are providing a conducive environment to stimulate creativity and produce knowledge (NAC, 2013). This attracts creative professionals and forms creative clusters in the city. In other words, urban spaces within conserved historic areas are the product of state-led urban planning policies, which employ conservation and gentrification to achieve an ideological goal of establishing Singapore as a global arts and entertainment hub (Chang, 2014).

The Tiong Bahru Bakery, a popular café outlet in the Tiong Bahru Estate filled with customers on a weekend. Source: Author’s own.

The Tiong Bahru Bakery, a popular café outlet in the Tiong Bahru Estate filled with customers on a weekend. Source: Author’s own.

While Tiong Bahru is considered a significant residential estate for its history and heritage, the neighbourhood has undeniably experienced gentrification in the last decade, rationalised through the state apparatus albeit the state assuming a less explicit role. The unique pre-war art deco flats were recognized and granted conservation status in 2003. This subsequently led to its rapid transformation into a vibrant neighbourhood by attracting new residents and modern businesses. Ting (2015) believes that this is due to a sense of stability and permanence that was given to the estate, amidst the rapid changes happening in the city. There was a growing number of expatriates and returning Singaporeans who had a different view of quality of life, going beyond the comforts of nondescript high-rise apartments to neighborhoods with more character, identity and history (ibid). The extensive local and international media coverage which captured the successful revitalisation of Tiong Bahru as a hip and rustic neighbourhood (Pineda, 2011; Tan, 2011; Wee, 2012; Buckley, 2015) is maintaining the neighborhood’s popularity, consistently attracting a stream of Singaporeans, expatriates and tourists. Tiong Bahru is also seeing a growing number of local artists who are taking inspiration from Tiong Bahru in their art, music and individual creations. These artists are celebrating the art deco architecture, the trendy character of the neighborhood and the nostalgia of simple community life. These are believed to be acts of self-identification to the place, forming a sense of rootedness, while trying to define what “living” heritage really means in a rapidly changing society (Caballero, 2016).

The neighbourhood’s economy is revitalised through consumption revenues from local and international visitors. Capitalising on the neighbourhood’s strategic location and rustic charm, newly operating boutique hotels such as Wangz Hotel and Nostalgia Hotel have reported to have exceeded a 50% occupation rate, boasting high demand from tourists (Phoon, 2010). The arrival of tourists and visitors also creates spill-over benefits by increasing the consumption of goods and services and the value of businesses in the neighbourhood (Ting, 2009). In the same vein, these new developments have driven up property values and rental prices within the vicinity of the Tiong Bahru Estate, benefitting investors and residents of Tiong Bahru. Utilizing property transactional data from the Real Estate Information System (REALIS), the general property value of nearby public housing estates and private non-landed residential units in Tiong Bahru have also gained tremendously. There is an increased demand for pre-war homes in the neighbourhood, where average property prices have risen about 46% and 76% respectively from 2008 to 2014 (Hu, 2016).

Average unit price of HDB flats in Tiong Bahru, Bukit Merah and Central Planning Areas from 2008 to 2014. Source: Hu (2016), calculated with data from REALIS.

Average unit price of HDB flats in Tiong Bahru, Bukit Merah and Central Planning Areas from 2008 to 2014. Source: Hu (2016), calculated with data from REALIS.

Average unit price of Private Non-landed Residential Properties in Tiong Bahru compared to nearby private residential properties, Bukit Merah and the Central Region from 2008 to 2014. Source: Hu (2016), calculated with data from REALIS.

Average unit price of Private Non-landed Residential Properties in Tiong Bahru compared to nearby private residential properties, Bukit Merah and the Central Region from 2008 to 2014. Source: Hu (2016), calculated with data from REALIS.

While the economic boom and artistic development of the estate are seen as outcomes of ‘positive’ gentrification, at the individual scale however, there are still notable displacement of existing residents and older trades with new tenants and businesses, directly and/or indirectly. There are also questions of retaining the authenticity of the neighborhood’s heritage, as the Tiong Bahru Estate loses some of its older trades and communities while taking on a more modern, trendy yet generic character (Ting, 2015). The loss of traditional businesses has been lamented by many long-time residents and remaining business owners in Tiong Bahru, removing familiar places and uprooting existing relationships forged in the neighbourhood. This is further reinforced by media celebrating the transformation of Tiong Bahru, accelerating such displacement, and producing a mismatch of social amenities for long-time and elderly resident population. Defined as the “changing orientation of neighbourhood services and the increasing ‘out-of-placeness’ of existing residents” (Davidson, 2008: 2392), new businesses such as cafes, restaurants and boutique hotels which cater to a younger and wealthier clientele spatially discourage existing residents from patronizing them.

Percentage change in number of residents, by age group, in Tiong Bahru Planning Subzone from June 2008 to June 2014. Green bars denote positive change and red bars denote negative change respectively. From: Hu (2016), with census data from the Department of Statistics.

Percentage change in number of residents, by age group, in Tiong Bahru Planning Subzone from June 2008 to June 2014. Green bars denote positive change and red bars denote negative change respectively. From: Hu (2016), with census data from the Department of Statistics.

Similarly, the changes in neighbourhood governance and place identity attributed to incoming gentrifiers such as residents and businesses indirectly displaces existing residents from the community and neighbourhood socially (Davidson, 2008). While Tiong Bahru is an ageing neighbourhood with one of the largest elderly resident population today, there is an increasing number of young residential owners entering and leaving the neighbourhood. The replacement of old trades by new businesses catering to a broader middle class have also created a mismatch of services and a misfit of place and class identities. This indirectly renders existing long-time and elderly residents out-of-place, effectively accelerating their displacement from these establishments and reducing their connection with the neighbourhood. The subsequent constant change of Tiong Bahru into an increasingly ‘foreign’ neighbourhood indirectly displaces existing residents by diminishing their sense of belonging to the community. Overall, ‘positive’ gentrification seems to exist in Tiong Bahru to a certain extent. The estate’s growing popularity induces economic revitalization at the neighbourhood scale, yielding tourist and business revenue from the influx of new residents, businesses and residential developments and it provides artistic inspiration to local artists. However, the positive outcomes of gentrification are undermined by the negative consequences of displacement of existing residents and shop owners at the individual scale.



Despite the lack of official documentation on the ‘positive’ gentrification of Tiong Bahru and the state playing a seemingly less explicit role, the state has continued to lead the gentrification process rationalised and legitimised through state apparatus. This gentrification process is motivated by the goals of attaining a global city status and establishing a hub for entertainment and the arts, to enhance the competitiveness of Singapore economy at the global scale. To facilitate the enhancement of the competitiveness of Singapore (Wong, 2006), gentrification efforts within urban policy were directed at revitalising conserved historic areas; through developing cultural capital as a strategy to attract investments, creative professionals and tourists (Zukin, 1996). Ting (2015) believes that gentrification can also be seen as a process of making a place more relevant – transforming and redefining a neighborhood that makes it more desirable and relatable to the wider community. The influx of new residents, businesses and residential developments in Tiong Bahru (Natasha, 2011; Tan, 2011; Wee, 2012) highlight the neighbourhood’s successful transformation into a popular residential and workplace destination for creative professionals and foreign expatriates (Huang, 2011a; 2011b). Likewise, the conservation of historic buildings creates a conducive environment for ‘artistic creativity (NAC, 2013); this is justified and reinforced by state guidelines and regulations on the renovation and change of use in pre-war flats (URA, 2011; 2013; 2015). While the architecture and façade of the pre-war flats are preserved and maintained in pristine condition to accentuate the neighbourhood’s rustic charm (Huang, 2011a; Natasha, 2011), murals are also being added into the public realm with the rise of state-approved graffiti art in key areas (Caballero, 2016) Such public art are allowing a sense of flexibility, producing a “dynamic, mixed-use environment” that inspires creativity in many more artists (Chang, 2014: 10). Enforcing the steady balance of public art and conservation of architecture of the pre-war flats through urban policy allows Singapore to retain the creative class as quality human capital that bolsters the state’s economic and cultural scene. With this rationale in mind, for ‘positive’ gentrification to be successful requires the social mixing of new and existing residents to forge a cohesive community that effectively retains creative people in a conducive milieu to contribute to Singapore’s economy. Critically, Uitermark (2003) has argued that social mixing also requires institutional actors to effectively aid the social inclusion and economic integration of existing residents into the wider community. Seng Poh Residential Community (RC) and Tiong Bahru Community Centre (CC) are such neighbourhood institutions that can be a platform for establishing meaningful interaction between existing and new residents. Serving as a bridge between the government and the people (Sim et al., 2003), these neighbourhood institutions provide a range of services to meet the residents’ daily needs. More importantly, they also organize various events for the residents, creating opportunities for forging of communal relations and integration into the community (Paul & Tan, 2003). Despite the apparent difficulties in realising the social mixing of new and existing residents in an ageing neighbourhood, there is potential of this to happen in Tiong Bahru. A popular event with the residents is the flea market organised by Seng Poh RC twice yearly, a result of the discussions between the RC and the residents (Caballero & Wong 2016). From a set of 10 stalls selling clothes in 2012, the event has increased in size to 60 stalls in 2016, which provide food and clothing options as well as activities like free caricatures, bicycle protection campaign and other services offered by the CC (ibid). The flea market engages a diverse crowd of foreign expatriates, elderly residents and youths who patronize the stalls and converse in lively conversations with fellow residents and stall vendors at this convivial affair.Flea market 2

Flea market 1

Residents and stall vendors interacting at the Flea Market. Source: Author’s own.

The flea market provides the conditions for a socially inclusive urban space for existing, new residents and business owners to be in close proximity to each other. This increases the opportunity to engage one another, make meaningful connections and understand common concerns in the community (Project for Public Spaces, 2003). Such example strengthens the RC’s role in potentially facilitating social mixing through effective communication, organization and planning with the residents of Tiong Bahru. Further investigation on how such social events affect the lives on long term and ageing residents may improve the ‘positive’ gentrification in Tiong Bahru. Broadly, with the hope of a more inclusive form of gentrification in Singapore, a more bottom up – consultative and participatory – planning process where residents are empowered to participate in the development of a neighbourhood is hence essential.. It is also important to consider the unique characteristics of a spatially and temporally contingent urban space when enacting gentrification, and ensuring the outcomes are beneficial. Through spreading the benefits of change, improving the quality of life for all while mitigating alienation and displacement of less able social groups can gentrification be positive.


About the Authors

Benjamin Hu is a fresh graduate from the National University of Singapore. Majored in Geography with a minor in Geographical Information Systems (GIS), he is interested in exploring how GIS can be harnessed in fields of urban planning, environmental conservation and geopolitics. He has worked on such projects, including developing a coral reef database situated in the South China Sea to provide a base layer for further research on marine ecosystems and biodiversity, and mapping an oil response sensitivity platform for the future conservation and management of the Tun Mustapha Marine Park in Kudat, Sabah. He is reachable at benjaminhkh@gmail.com.

Gabriel Caballero is a landscape architect from the Philippines, who has worked for leading landscape design practices in Asia for the last decade. Gabriel came back to Asia in 2015, following two years of graduate studies in Germany focused on providing strategies for diverse issues of World Heritage Sites. He has worked on a variety of projects, including a design competition for the revitalization of the National Orchid Garden at the SingaporeBotanic Gardens; an architectural and landscape conservation strategy of the historic settlement of Hellerau in Germany and a masterplanning for a sustainable leisure destination in Hamilo Coast in the Philippines. Gabriel also presents in conferences to discuss the complex relationships between heritage, urban development and landscape design in historic environments.

Gabriel Caballero



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