A River that Binds

It’s heart-warming when a community comes together to enjoy a public space – and even more so when they care for it to make it better. Such is the story of the Kallang River @ Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park Project, a nominee for the Most Innovative Project/Policy category at the PS21 ExCEL Awards 2013.
A River that Binds

If you’re ever in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park at the weekend, don’t be surprised if someone comes up to you to talk about the importance of keeping the river clean and tells you to watch out for warnings on rising water levels.

He or she is likely to be an enthusiastic volunteer from Friends of Bishan Park (FOBP), a group started by citizens that carries out weekly foot or bicycle patrols to educate and encourage the public on the safe and enjoyable use of the river and its lush surrounds.

FOBP founder Mr Francis Ooi, a 50-year-old business consultant, was roped into the Kallang River @ Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park Project two years ago when he met National Water Agency PUB’s Chief Executive Chew Men Leong at a function. Asked by Mr Chew if he would consider doing his bit to promote the park, Mr Ooi made a trip there and was enthralled by its beauty. The rest, as they say, is history.

Over 300 residents and individuals have signed up with FOBP to find out more about their weekend patrols. The group now consists of some 18 members, who come from both the neighbouring areas as well as farther away, such as Woodlands and Bedok. Mr Ooi himself lives in Kembangan.

“This river is, after all, a Singapore river, [not] just one that ‘belongs’ to the residents of Ang Mo Kio and Bishan. It’s a national treasure, it’s ours,” he said. FOBP members have been trained in various areas of safety and park education by PUB, the National Environment Agency and the Neighbourhood Police Centre. The group shares public feedback on the park with PUB who supports their efforts by providing foldable bicycles and storage space for their equipment.

An “ecosystem” of engagement

FOBP is part of an extensive “ecosystem” made up of public officers from different agencies, consultants, contractors and members of the community (residents, schools and park users). For two years, they have worked together to transform the once concrete utilitarian canal of the well-loved Bishan Park into a gently sloping lush river bank that doubles up as a place of recreation.

This “ecosystem” was born out of a deliberate effort. Under the Active, Beautiful and Clean Waters programme, the canal was to undergo drainage improvement. At the same time, the National Parks Board (NParks) planned to upgrade the park to better meet the needs of users. Thus the park and canal were jointly refurbished in the hope that the community would be attracted to use and care for the space, said Engineer Yau Wing Ken from the Catchment & Waterways Department at PUB.

Making sure that the team of officers was “on the right page” with a consistent message to the public was a crucial first step in this process, said Ms Aw Lay Kheng, Senior Assistant Director of the 3P Network Department at PUB. Officers often encounter resistance when a plan is taken to the public only towards the end of the project. The likelihood of that happening could be reduced had citizens been engaged in the early stages of planning, said Ms Aw.

The team’s “persistent sincerity” played a big part in building the community’s sense of ownership of the project.

Persistent sincerity

Hence the team began their engagement efforts before construction started. Officers rolled out a sustainable programme that included pre-construction briefings, consulting citizens on the design of the park and post-construction feedback sessions.

The team’s “persistent sincerity” played a big part in building the community’s sense of ownership of the project. For instance, PUB received online feedback from the public that the extensive maintenance of plants along the river to drain storm water towards Marina Reservoir would affect biodiversity. To find a compromise, PUB worked closely with NParks to identify important habitats and minimise trimming in those areas.

To reach out to schools, PUB shared with primary schools the importance of using the park safely and promoted the park as a classroom space to secondary school students. The agency also took teachers on a familiarisation tour. As a result, schools such as Raffles Institution have created a learning trail in the park for their students and the community.

Private stakeholders like Standard Chartered Bank are also stepping in to conduct regular weeding activities and removal of invasive fauna species.

For the public officers behind the transformation of the river, the enthusiasm of the public in owning and enjoying the park holds more charm than the scenic beauty of the space, which has garnered design accolades such as the prestigious President’s Design Award last year.

Thus for Mr Michael Lee, a Community Relations Executive from the 3P Network Department at PUB, his recompense was simple: seeing children decked out in yellow “Phua Chu Kang” boots and armed with little fishing nets, wading into the river and giggling with excitement. Anyone else too would agree.

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    Nov 28, 2013
    Sheralyn Tay
    courtesy of PUB, The National Water Agency
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