Big city life

I came across this news headline "MRT lines to see weekend closures for upgrading works: Lui" today (via @STcom on Twitter) and I couldn't help but think, ah, just like London, where I used to subscribe to Transport for London's email updates on weekend Tube line closures for maintenance/ engineering works, so that I knew which lines to avoid when I went out. I guess Singapore has made it to global citydom after all, when commuters are getting used to regular MRT breakdowns (psst, Mana Rapid Transit is a pretty cool iPhone app for getting breakdown/congestion alerts) and subway lines have to be closed during official operating hours so that the work crews can keep up with the infrastructural wear and tear.

I'm not complaining (not too much, anyway). I'm saying we're there, kinda. Big city life means congestion and crowds and things breaking down here and there. (Although most big cities don't pay their municipal elected officials quite as much, nor give public service operators quite so generous a budget as Singapore does, to keep things running smoothly.)

Or does it? Yesterday I was reading "The Science of Quieter Cities" in the Atlantic, about research that various scientists and engineers are doing to see how architectural and urban design can make crowded, noisy cities less unpleasant, less grating on the ears (and the soul). We can all live together in close quarters, but we don't have to live miserably or in conditions that breed misanthropy. The individuals planning, building and living in cities just have to insist on healthier, more humane living environments --- and I don't mean just air-conditioning all our interiors.

Singapore the city-state is a phenomenally noisy place. A couple of months ago, I was walking one evening along Holland Road towards the Dempsey area, and it struck me that despite the passing traffic, I could hear crickets, a dense chorus of crickets, emanating from the thick jungly surroundings. Earlier this week, I was back at Dempsey, this time outside RedDot Brewhouse, and I pointed out the cricket sounds to my friend's husband, who lives in Adelaide. He's been visiting Singapore regularly since the late 1990s and, nodding in acknowledgement of the cricket noises, he remarked that on this trip he's been struck by how inescapable the urban noise now is. I wonder to myself if it's getting impossible to think. (See also Marcus Ng's piece "The Nature of Noise" on POSKOD.SG.)

I'm lucky. I'm typing this in my living room, in a flat on a very high floor, relatively immured from most street noise. I'm surrounded by several thousand residents within a five-minute walking radius, but from this vantage point I don't hear many of them. Just once in a while the neighbour's dog, people in the lift landing, the television or piano from someone's flat downstairs (or upstairs?), and the bus accelerating up the hill below. Mostly I hear the whirring of my fan.

The public housing flats where I live were built in 1970. We don't need sophisticated technology or newfangled ideas to make our neighbourhoods more liveable, or to make our trains run on time. We just need common sense and a little human sympathy applied to prevailing systems.



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