Singapore , Singapore

Heritage and Modernity in Singapore’s Urban Renewal

Urban Redevelopment Authority

May 28, 2013

An urban renewal project revitalizes city neighbourhoods while reclaiming its multicultural past

Beautifully restored shophouses are everywhere in Singapore. They are two or three-story row buildings, usually with a business on the ground floor and residences above. Photo credit: JT Singh

Modern Singapore is a vertical metropolis, where tall blocks of residential flats, condo towers, skyscrapers and elevated highways dominate a planned and orderly urban landscape.  Inside the vertical city, Singapore’s historic neighbourhoods tell a story closer to the ground, of a time when city streets rather than air traffic and shipping lanes were the vital arteries of the city’s growth, moving goods, people and setting the stage for the city’s economic and social development.

A unique architectural feature of these neighbourhoods is the street-based ‘shophouse’ which has long served as both storefront, marketplace and home to the traders and immigrants of multi-ethnic backgrounds that flocked to the strategically-placed South Asian port.

Modern Singapore’s Chinatown district, like many of these older districts, was once considered an immigrant ghetto, troubled by poor living conditions and poverty. Today, the historic quarter has been transformed by the city’s vision for a vibrant and revitalized neighbourhood where locals work, live and play.

From ghetto to multicultural heritage

In the 1980s, the Singaporean government recognized the need to address the neglected buildings across neighbourhoods in Chinatown, Little India, and the old Malay quarter of Kampong Glam. These neighbourhoods were filled with dilapidated and abandoned ‘shophouses’, typically two or three-story row buildings with a business on the ground floor and residences above. With their European neo-classical columns and Chinese and Malay floral and geometric motifs, Singapore’s shophouses are both architecturally distinct and reflective of the region’s multicultural heritage.  Traditional shophouses contributed to street culture in a variety of ways, serving as multi-unit residences, speciality shops, wholesaling and cottage industries, offices, eating houses and market stalls. This diversity of activity brought Singaporeans together in a busy, bazaar-like atmosphere while helping maintain the unique cultural traditions of multi-ethnic groups living in close proximity in congested city spaces.

While the city had considered demolition as part of the urban renewal plan, they moved forward on a conservation plan instead. They recognized that the preservation of these communities would help define Singapore’s unique heritage and modern multicultural identity, while having the potential to drive renewed economic and cultural activity back into the heart of the city.

Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) established the Conservation Master Plan (1989) which included new restoration guidelines, laws, and policies, as well as an educational component to promote heritage conservation and its cultural and economic benefits to local residents and businesses. The URA consulted with the private sector and invited new business opportunities to revive commercial activity and tourism in the historic areas.

The URA was a partner with the Singapore Tourism Board, along with local stakeholders like the Chinatown Business Association (CBA) to encourage further development. Now, to draw both tourists and local Singaporeans, Chinatown not only hosts its annual flagship Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn Festivals which draw huge crowds, but it also has year-around commercial activities including the Chinatown Night Market, Chinatown Food Street, and the new Chinatown Heritage Centre, a museum housed in a former shophouse. Some restored shophouses have been converted into boutique hotels, gallery spaces, and clubs. “We want to bring people back to Chinatown, but not just during the major festivals,” says James Ong, executive director of CBA. “We want Chinatown to become a place where people would want to come and have a good time throughout the year.”


In 2006, Singapore’s Conservation Programme received the Urban Land Institute (ULI) Global Awards for Excellence, which recognizes projects that provide the best cross-regional lessons in land use practices. The ULI recognized Singapore’s Conservation Programme as good practice because it “clearly demonstrates that heritage conservation and modernity are not necessarily in opposition. Its balanced, market-oriented approach encourages owners and developers to restore their properties to accommodate new functions. It thus ensures that old buildings remain economically viable and are well maintained to prolong their life spans.” By December 2012, in between Singapore’s modern towers, over 7091 heritage buildings and their evolving urban neighbourhoods have been revitalized across the city.

Making it Work for You:

  • Work with local business associations to plan for regular commercial and cultural activities, like street festivals and markets, to keep the energy of the newly revitalized neighborhoods alive and active throughout the year
  • Start an educational awareness campaign to showcase the local history and heritage of old neighbourhoods to encourage residents and owners to take pride in their shared community
  • Develop heritage preservation guidelines that are flexible enough to accommodate the modern needs of how residents live, use, and work in the physical space

For this Good Idea contact:

Urban Redevelopment Authority
45 Maxwell Road
+65 6329 6355

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