The discourse with regard to social cohesion in Singapore has rarely strayed from discussions about its multiculturalism and social integration. Only recently, class divides or others forms of divisions in society started to feature in the discourse (Hassan, 2013). Coupled with the increasing globalised economy, increasing dissatisfaction with the government and rapid urbanisation, there is fear that social cohesion would be substantially weakened (Hassan, 2013) (Hulse & Stone, 2006).
It is generally established that a socially cohesive community is needed to achieve social sustainability (Magis & Shinn, 2009). Many social issues are discussed under the concept of social sustainability and often defined in relation to social cohesion, social capital and social inclusion, all of which indicate closer and longer term relationships among people of a community in order to achieve common goals and social harmony (Brameley & Morgan, 2009).
Social capital is regarded as an integral element of social cohesion as it is generally regarded as the social resources inherent in the social structure and networks, enabling people to achieve common and individual goals (Putnam, 1995). He argues that social capital is the most effective policy target that the government can implement towards a socially cohesive country.
Studies have shown that places with higher levels of social capital benefit from stronger communities, better child welfare, better education in schools, higher levels of safety in the neighbourhood, economic prosperity, as well as enhanced public health and individual well-being (Baron, Field, J., & Schuller, 2001). It is also believed that social capital can be used as preventive or curative measures to tackle community problems, such as social exclusion and neighbourhood deterioration (Putnam, 1995). These benefits are often identified with the positive effects of social cohesion.
Low income communities are often described as lacking in social cohesion. Disadvantaged neighbourhoods are likely to involve higher rates of deviant norms and behaviours, which reinforces a community's sense of powerlessness; residents seem to lack both strong and weak social ties in their community and have relatively smaller social networks (Friedrichs & Blasius, 2003); the quality of life of the whole community is also likely to be exacerbated (Baliey, Haworth, Manzi, Paranagamage, & Roberts, 2006). Additionally, unfavourable physical environment of disadvantaged neighbourhoods seems to weaken residents' community attachment (Forrest & Kearns, 1999). Similarly, public rental housing residents generally feel ashamed of their disadvantaged economic conditions; have generally negative attitudes toward the neighbours in the same housing estates and have little interest in the community issues. These traits are generally indicative of lack of social capital within the public housing (Han, 2010).
Research on housing and urban planning has emphasised the importance of policy frameworks in building socially cohesive communities and neighbourhoods (Forrest & Kearns, 2001) (Hulse & Stone, 2006). Historically, there have been many attempts to achieve certain social goals as part of the outcomes of planning and design of neighbourhoods. Lawhon (2009) believed that physical layout of the neighbourhood unit would enhance the opportunities for face-to-face interaction and to build up relations. Eventually, social capital can be built.
A study done by Seo (2013) on 'Social Cohesiveness and the physical environment of Korean public housing communities in Seoul' highlighted that social cohesion between residents in disadvantaged communities is affected by the physical environment of their neighbourhoods. Furthermore, the study uncovered how the planning, design and management of the neighbourhood promoted social cohesiveness.
Singapore currently has 50,000 rental flats, with 7,000 more to be built by 2015 (Housing Development Board, 2013) (Tan, 2012). The purpose of the Public Rental Scheme is to meet the housing needs of households with very low income, so that a final safety net is provided for them. As at March 2012, 3% of the Singapore's total population were living in public rental housing (Legislatively Council Secretariat, 2013).
Singapore avoided having ghettos by mixing low-income rental housing with owner-occupied housing of different sizes, and siting HDB towns near or adjacent to private apartments and landed housing areas (Wu, 2014). However, the proportion of residents living in rental flats exist along a continuum with higher proportions in regions such as Bukit Merah, Geylang and Kallang and lower proportions in regions such as Pasir Ris, Punggol and Sengkang (Department of Statistics, 2013) (Housing Development Board, 2013). Rental flats are built in clusters or as a single standalone building in the neighbourhood, depending on when and where they were built.
The Sample Household Survey conducted in 2008 showed high levels of social capital, community bonding and satisfaction with personal well-being among residents of public housing and affirmed the presence of active and cohesive communities in Singapore (Housing Development Board, 2010).
After scrutinising international and local discourse on social cohesiveness in disadvantaged communities and Singapore's public rental housing situation, research gaps have been found. Firstly, there is a lack of local literature on the social cohesiveness of residents living in rental flats. It is critical to understand how social cohesion affects residents as it is strongly associated with positive individual and social outcomes. Secondly, there is a lack of understanding on how physical and surrounding environment of rental housing impacts the social cohesiveness of its residents. Lastly, there is a lack of research on the planning, design and management of neighbourhoods of rental housing communities. These are underlying factors that would influence the relationship between the physical environment and social cohesiveness of public rental housing communities in Singapore.
As such, our proposed study hopes to address the abovementioned research gaps in order to provide recommendations that would enhance development of communities, especially among economically disadvantaged communities residing in rental housing.
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