Five-foot ways as public and private domain in Singapore and beyond

Publication Date09 Apr 2018
AuthorAndrew James Harding
SubjectProperty management & built environment,Building & construction,Building & construction law,Real estate & property,Property law
Five-foot ways as public and private
domain in Singapore and beyond
Andrew James Harding
Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore, Singapore
Purpose This paper aims to explore the concept and spread of theve-foot way (5FW) as an aspect of
urban design peculiar to Southeast Asia.It locates the 5FW as an aspect of planning law and property law
that has been adapted culturally to provide a unique space for publicprivate interaction. The paper also
explores,in a related context,conicts over the appropriate use of 5FWsand the issue of regulating such use.
Design/methodology/approach The approach adoptedis to look at the development of the 5FW over
the entire colonial period ofSingapore, starting in 1819 up to the present day. Comparisons are drawnfrom
other urbansettlements over a similar period.
Findings The paper nds that the 5FW, with its related device of the shophouse, provided a uniquely
efcaciousspace for protection of the public from the elements and for publicprivate interaction.It nds that
regulation of 5FWs should be undertaken with due regard both to public right of way and to the cultural
elementof making private use of the space.
Originality/value The originality of the article lies in the fact that the 5FWhas not been considered as
an artefactof legal culture in addition to being an artefact of urban design.
Keywords Singapore, Regulation, Urban design, Planning law, Legal history,
Public and private rights
Paper type Case study
Insufcient attention has been paid to the law in the context of the organisation of urban
spaces in Asia (Lee, 2015). This is especially true in Southeast Asia, which has historic
urban spaces as well as sprawling modern citiessuch as Jakarta (population now exceeding
that of the entire continentof Australia), Bangkok, Manila and so on. Many of these, such as
the three former Straits Settlementsof Singapore, Malacca and Penang, as well as cities laid
out at a similar period under British rule, such as Kuching, Ipoh, Johor Bahru and Kuala
Lumpur, have been deeply affected by colonial urban planning laws, which have also not
been extensively examined[1].
Both historicallyand in the contemporary Southeast Asian city law plays a crucial role in
organising urban space and in preserving historical spaces as social, cultural or aesthetic
artefacts. Some indeed, like Penang and Malacca, are designated as UNESCO World
Heritage sites[2]. Scholarship in social sciences emphasises the fact of and the need for
survival of the vernacularandof communities in spite of the contemporary urban sprawl.
The design of these historic elements of built environment,including spaces, owes much
to colonial urban planning under British rule, inuenced as it was by British or other
colonial urban design cultures, as well as social, economic and political factors[3]. The
models adopted in these cities have survivedthe test of time (at least two hundred years in
some cases such as Singapore[4]) show that they remain not just an aspect of heritage but
have been functionally relevant, as well as socially and culturally adapted to Southeast
Asias post-colonial world. They have also been sites for contestation between subject
Received13 October 2017
Revised26 January 2018
Accepted30 January 2018
Journalof Property, Planning and
Vol.10 No. 1, 2018
pp. 36-55
© Emerald Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/JPPEL-10-2017-0031
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
peoples and colonial governments, as Brenda Yeohs work has shown. They are in short
living-built heritage.And there is no better example of this than the ve-foot way (5FW) that
is the modest subject of this article.
The kaki limaor 5FW is a unique conceptin Southeast Asian urban design, which has
spread to several places across Asia,not just those that were British colonies (e.g. Xiamen in
Fujian province, China, and Manila). The 5FW, introduced by Stamford Rafes under the
Jackson Plan in Singapore in 1822 or 1823[5], is a very simple but effective concept. It is a
pedestrian walkway which runs along the frontage of adjoining buildings in a street,
overhung by the second oorsof those buildings, which are supported by columns along the
highway side of the 5FW, each placed at the limit of the individual tenement and fronting
the street, creatinga colonnade, or, in nineteenth century usage,a verandah[6].
Shophouses are carefully described by Singapores Urban Redevelopment Authority
(URA) as follows:
[...] narrow, small-scale terraced houses that are used for both work and dwelling and oer
heat and rain protection for the passing public [...] [they are] typically two to three storeys
high, are built in contiguous blocks bounded by a grid pattern network of roads and
backlanes [...] and share party walls. [The shophouse] provides facilities for business
premises on the ground oor and residential accommodation on the upper storeys an ideal
unit for small-scale, family-based commercial operations [...] the upper oors of the
shophouse are accessed through the open door-front on the ground oororfromsidestairs
leading from the ve-foot way[7].
The benets of the 5FW are as many as they are obvious. The pedestrian is shelteredfrom
the sun and rain factor of great importance in Southeast Asia with its hot sun and
torrential rainstorms. She may view shops and restaurants under cover while proceeding
along the street. Crucial living space in crowded areas is saved due to the projection of the
buildingsupper oors. The 5FW is both a highway for the pedestrian public to pass and
repass(to use traditional common law terminology[8]), and social space for interaction
between shopkeepers, restaurateurs and the public, or for the benet of local residents.
Moreover, 5FWs can be easily lit at night without resort to lampstands. Some, in the
authors own observation, are even endowed with ceiling fans provided by the adjoining
owner. In practice, as anyone who has been to Southeast Asia will know, the 5FW is also
used for maximising privatespace, usually for prot. It is usual, although not always wholly
acceptable, for the 5FW to be used for almost any activity repairing motorcycles, display
of merchandise, stacking garbage, providing extra restaurant tables, selling motor
insurance or lottery tickets, frying noodles, or executing ones homework to name but a
few examples observed by the authorin recent years. In nineteenth century Georgetown and
even up to 2000 they were used for jagas (guards, invariably Sikhs) to sleep on their
charpoys (string beds).In the Hokkien (Fujian) Chinese dialect, tradesknown as gho kha ki[9]
trades are those carried on in 5FWs. As Limin Hee and Giok Ling Ooi have explored, the
5FW has often been a contested space because of overcrowding and a general lack of city
planning, historicallyspeaking at least, in Singapore:
[...] most of the time, these walkways did not actually serve pedestrians because they were
privatized and often used as additional storage or retail display space. More often than not
pedestrians had to spill over to the already crowded streets and their trac. The verandah thus
became a strongly contested terrain, its municipal denition as planned circulation space
constantly frustrated by business, communal and social activities. While events such as the
verandah riotsof 1887 represented dramatic conicts over the use of these spaces, the daily
contestations tempered the colonial municipal vision of an orderly city[10].
Public and
private domain

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