Cities are at an inflection point in history. Covid-19 has emptied clogged streets and redistributed citizens into their neighbourhoods. Urban planners are presented with the opportunity to rethink their playbooks and create a new urban model for the future.

“We need to account for the accelerated digitalisation and changes in work and recreation patterns that arose from the pandemic,” says Huang Zhongwen, Director of the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) Digital Planning Lab.

Urban planning will create a healthy city and stronger communities, he adds. Huang discusses how data is helping the agency map out Singapore’s urban future.

Anticipatory urban planning

“Covid-19 required our planners to respond to needs in a highly agile way,” Huang says.

To prevent overcrowding at malls and recreational spaces, URA worked with stakeholders to develop a digital tool that provides regular updates on crowd levels. Space Out helped the public make informed choices on when to head out without compromising on safety, he adds.

The pandemic will likely have “long-term effects on how we live and use our urban spaces”, Lawrence Wong, Singapore’s Co-chair of the Covid-19 Multi-Ministry Taskforce wrote in GovInsider.

With more people working remotely, the city state will have to adjust its plans for neighbourhoods and central business districts. URA has used spatial data analytics to understand how work and non-work activity patterns are changing in Singapore’s downtown and heartland areas, Huang says.

The agency plans to build up its AI capabilities for anticipatory urban planning, he says. Huang’s team is researching and testing feedback analytics and land use optimisation tools to help planners make informed assessments.

“Leveraging such technologies to prepare for a post-Covid world will allow our planners to become more responsive and anticipatory, more precise in our policies and intervention, and better placed to co-create the future with our stakeholders.”

Identifying ageing population ‘hotspots’

“Data is a critical ingredient to inform planning,” Huang says. Over the years, URA has assembled a “repository of useful data” that contains demographic trends across towns and the activity and mobility patterns of communities, for instance.

The agency also works with the Ministry of Health to better plan for Singapore’s ageing population. MOH uses URA’s ePlanner – a geospatial urban planning tool – to visualise local data on the senior population.

That has helped the ministry identify “hotspots of needs”, Huang says. MOH can then work with healthcare providers and community-based organisations to plan targeted health and social programmes for the seniors.

URA is incorporating geographical information system technology, big data analytics and digital modelling tools into its planning processes. Such evidence-based methods will help address urban planning issues such as Singapore’s ageing population.

“Deeper insights on activity and mobility patterns, as well as on gaps and opportunities, help us to be more targeted and precise.”

Turning to underground spaces

The perennial issue of land constraint has led cities to rethink underground spaces. A smart ‘metro farm’ has opened in one of Seoul’s subway stations, and Paris is looking at redeveloping some of its large underground spaces into mushroom farms.

The same goes for Singapore: “urban planners must utilise every bit of space we have in innovative ways,” Huang says.

As subterranean spaces are often not visible to the naked eye, Singapore developed a 3D underground plan to visualise the space. The plan shows planned underground uses, such as MRT stations and pedestrian links.

The development of this plan was supported by a database by URA and its partner agencies, Huang reveals. The organisations are progressively collecting data on the geology, soil information and underground constraints to add to the database.

Training staff and forging collaborations

“People are at the core of our capabilities,” says Huang, and URA is focusing on enhancing its staff’s data capabilities.

The agency is organising internal courses for all planners and architects to equip them with intermediate data competency levels. Nearly 200 planners and architects are proficient in the use of spatial data and analytics, he adds. “We are planning to conduct more of such courses for our staff and management.”

URA is also looking to collaborate with local universities and businesses in the R&D field, Huang says. “These allow us to cultivate local talent and foster the growth of a world-class urban analytics and modelling ecosystem in Singapore.”

“We are just at the start of an exciting journey as we embark on this next chapter to further re-invent how we plan using data and digital technologies,” Huang says.

Indeed, Covid-19 has underscored the need for digital tools in urban planning. URA’s work to use these tools will give Singapore the resilience and adaptability it needs to weather future challenges.