Housing a Nation
For 60 years, HDB has focused its attention on building quality homes for Singaporeans. A willingness to experiment and embrace change has created a distinctive brand of public housing that has pride of place in the lives of its residents.
Generations of Singaporean families call HDB flats home
The HDB story began on 1 February 1960 with a modest yet critical goal—to tackle severe housing shortage and provide better homes for a young nation. Against a backdrop of rapid population growth and high unemployment levels of a developing country, unhygienic and overcrowded living arrangements were prevalent, making the mandate anything but simple. Nevertheless, within 5 years, HDB had built close to 55,000 flats and by the end of the 1960s, Singapore’s housing crisis was largely resolved.
To address the critical housing shortage and provide basic and functional low-cost housing, the first blocks were built as simple long slabs with flats lined along a common corridor, enabling construction to proceed quickly and easily. Within each flat, the kitchen, dining area, and service yard were placed in a single combined space. While these early homes might have been basic, residents wholly enjoyed modern conveniences such as piped water, electricity, gas, and proper sanitation.
Toa Payoh town being developed in the 1960s
Ching Gok Wah remembers the moment he first stepped into his family’s 3-room flat in Toa Payoh, after moving from a small shophouse in Dawson estate. “I was in awe. The bedroom, living room, and kitchen were all separated by concrete walls—unlike the wooden self-made partitions in our old shophouse,” he recalls.
“Back then, most of the buildings were low-rise. So these tall HDB flats, which looked as though they were almost touching the sky, were like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” he adds.
Once HDB resolved the housing crisis, its focus shifted to developing towns to support a quality lifestyle. Satellite towns were planned and built to be self-sufficient, with amenities such as transport nodes and malls at the town centre, while neighbourhoods had their own food outlets, provision shops, and facilities to meet residents’ daily needs within a stone’s throw. Toa Payoh, whose development started in the 1960s, was the first showcase of HDB’s comprehensive town planning.
Fast-forward to today, Singapore’s public housing landscape is strikingly different from its early iterations. HDB has kept in step with the evolving aspirations and lifestyle needs of Singaporeans over the years to continually create homes that remain relevant for its residents.
Reflecting on his town’s growth over the years, Gok Wah says, “The new flats in Toa Payoh are very modern-looking. They definitely breathe new life into our town.”
Toa Payoh town today, where old and new developments stand side by side
There is no bigger driver of this evolution than HDB’s ‘Roadmap to Better Living’, a blueprint introduced in 2011 to guide the development of homes that are well-designed, sustainable and smart, and community-centric.
“In shaping the new generation of public housing, good design is the key to creating functional, efficient, and quality developments in sustainable and comfortable living environments,” says HDB Chief Executive Officer, Dr Cheong Koon Hean.
Well aware of Singaporeans’ rising aspirations for quality homes, HDB builds well-designed homes within distinctive towns that capitalise on the area’s heritage and character. Town Design Guides are being progressively developed for each of HDB’s 24 towns to guide developments—from street furniture to urban and landscape design—based on a unified vision.
As the largest developer of housing in Singapore, HDB plays a significant role in advancing sustainable development and green living. Its Sustainable Development Framework seeks to address challenges such as climate change, while creating a cleaner and more comfortable living environment for residents.
Greening efforts have intensified over the years with a myriad of landscaped spaces incorporated throughout every housing development in increasingly holistic and innovative ways. New greenery indicators and approaches have also been introduced to guide greenery provisions in our housing estates.
From 2016, all new HDB developments have to meet a minimum Green Plot Ratio of 4.5, which means the total leaf area will have to be at least 4.5 times the site area. HDB has also adopted a 45-60% estimated green cover provision in our housing projects, which measures green cover as seen from the sky. As a result, residents get to enjoy abundant greenery right at their doorsteps.
Masturah Khalid, a resident of Dawson estate that first piloted the enhanced greenery provisions in 2016, observes: “I really love the lush greenery and nature in my estate. I am spoiled for choice as I can head to the roof garden, community living rooms, or nearby park for a breath of fresh air and to calm my mind.”
The integration of Singapore’s public housing with nature was further enhanced with HDB’s Biophilic Town Framework. Punggol Northshore, hailed as HDB’s first smart and sustainable district in Punggol Eco-Town, will also be HDB’s first biophilic district when the flats there are progressively completed from end of 2020. Among the biophilic features adopted is the placement of Green Corridors, which feature dragonfly ponds, bird sanctuaries, and butterfly gardens, to attract biodiversity and connect residents with nature.
Beyond green living, HDB leverages smart technologies to create a more liveable, sustainable, and safe environment, such as using advanced modelling tools to plan the placement and orientation of buildings for optimal thermal comfort. This ‘smart vision’ will also be realised through the development of Tengah, HDB’s newest town, which is being planned with town-wide smart technologies from the onset, so as to facilitate novel ideas like Centralised Cooling Systems for greater energy efficiency. Flats that can support the adoption of smart technologies are also being built.
HDB has also made bold strides in harnessing solar energy. Since solar photovoltaic (PV) systems were installed in HDB estates more than a decade ago, solar energy has powered common services such as lifts, water pumps and corridor lights, with clean energy. Further ramping up its solar efforts, HDB leverages advances in solar PV technology to develop innovative solutions, such as rooftop solar panels and floating solar systems.
HDB also drives the growth of Singapore’s solar industry under its SolarNova programme, which aggregates demand across public agencies—for a more sustainable and greener Singapore. Under SolarNova, HDB is targeting to install solar panels on about 10,000 HDB blocks, where feasible, to help reduce Singapore’s carbon footprint.
Residents of Punggol Northshore can look forward to living closer to nature
This enhanced version of public housing is not confined to newer towns. Older homes and towns have also enjoyed a new lease of life through a suite of upgrading and redevelopment programmes.
The Home Improvement Programme (HIP) and Enhancement for Active Seniors (EASE) programme focus on improvements within the flat to help residents deal with common maintenance problems and make homes safer for a rapidly greying population, while the Neighbourhood Renewal Programme (NRP) focuses on improvements at the precinct and block levels. Older blocks underwent the Lift Upgrading Programme (LUP), which provided direct lift accessibility to more than half a million flats.
Following the first two series of the Remaking Our Heartland programme, another three towns—Pasir Ris, Toa Payoh, and Woodlands—were also identified to be comprehensively rejuvenated.
Under the Remaking Our Heartland programme, Pasir Ris town centre will be transformed into a vibrant hub
In older estates like Teck Ghee and Yuhua, the HDB Greenprint has brought the vision of sustainable and green living to life by equipping these estates with modern amenities, such as an automated waste collection system, smart lighting, and rooftop solar panels.
Older estates like Yuhua have been rejuvenated with the addition of modern amenities and lush greenery
With majority of Singapore’s resident population living in HDB flats, public housing plays a crucial role in promoting social harmony in our multi-racial, multi-cultural and multi-religious society.
Building strong and active communities has thus been an ongoing mission since the beginning. Within each town are precincts of about 600 to 800 units, clustered around common facilities such as children’s playgrounds, fitness corners, landscaped and community gardens, and precinct pavilions.
“Good design can foster interactions. With residents sharing these spaces, we hope friendships will develop between those who live close by, therefore inculcating a stronger sense of belonging in the neighbourhood,” explains Dr Cheong.
Beyond the hardware, well-considered home allocation policies and community-building programmes also help to build ‘heartware’ in the towns. Guided by the community-centric priority of the Roadmap, HDB has stepped up efforts over the years to engage with residents, such as providing home owners-to-be a platform to get to know their neighbours through the MyNiceHome roadshows, and giving students the opportunity to pick up and share tips on gracious living with residents through the ‘Friends of Our Heartlands’ volunteer programme.
There is also an increasing emphasis on resident participation and empowerment, especially in the last few years. For instance, residents got a chance to create Singapore’s first community-built playground in Canberra. Through the Lively Places Programme, HDB provides funding and plays the role of facilitator to better support community-led efforts to enliven Singapore’s public spaces. Residents now get a larger say in how they envision their community and living environment to be.
Common facilities enable residents to come together, build relationships, and forge connections
It has been 60 years since HDB first started out with a mission to solve the nation’s housing shortage. Today, it has fulfilled the housing aspirations of generations of Singaporeans, and made HDB living a shared experience that has bound together a nation. Another testimony of its success is the one million flats that shape the country’s physical landscape—proof of the longevity and continued relevance of HDB’s work.
In the upcoming chapter of public housing, challenges, such as land and labour constraints, will accompany exciting opportunities, including exploration of unchartered digital territories. To take public housing to the next stage, HDB will continue to experiment and embrace change. Only then can it create the best possible living environment for the next generation of Singaporeans to make memories, raise families, and enjoy a lifestyle that fulfils their needs.
Tengah, HDB's newest town, marks an exciting milestone in Singapore's public housing journey. It is the first of its kind to be planned with town-wide smart technologies from the onset, and will be fully integrated with the environs.
All perspectives used in this article are artists' impressions only; actual developments may differ.