How ‘social sustainability’ will help cities emerge stronger from Covid-19

By Shirley Tay

Interview with Pang Yee Ean, CEO of Surbana Jurong Capital.

Paris is undergoing a transformation to become a ‘city of proximities’. Urban planners are reimagining the French capital into a place where nearly all of residents’ needs can be met within 15 minutes of their homes, reported Bloomberg. London, Barcelona, and Madrid are embarking on similar efforts.

Concepts like these have emerged to rethink urban planning in a post-Covid world. Pang Yee Ean, CEO of Surbana Jurong Capital, the investment arm of Singapore’s infrastructure consultancy, believes “social sustainability” - ensuring housing and healthcare are accessible to all - will be key.

“We have focused a lot on economic sustainability in the past. That is good, nothing wrong with it. But I think social sustainability should come forward now.” He shares how affordable housing and quality public health infrastructure play a role in a city’s future.

Affordable housing and public health infrastructure

Asian cities that rely on migrant workers for cheap labour will have to address the fundamental problem of housing, says Pang. India’s Covid-19 lockdown, for instance, shuttered dormitories. Migrant workers were left unemployed, stranded, and forced to walk hundreds of miles back to their hometowns. Many lost their lives on the way home, reported BBC News.

“We need solutions that look at the difficult facets of providing affordable housing, and how to make that possible,” he adds. A city’s sustainability depends on housing, Pang says, and “if we can do that well, the city is more resilient.”

Cities must also upgrade their public health systems, he adds. “The medical staff to population ratios need to improve, and medical facilities need to be upgraded.” Municipal governments play a big role in determining the fate of public health, says Pang, as improvements to public health infrastructure have to be spent within their resources.

Fortunately, central governments are intervening to help them - the Philippines’ central government commissioned a study of waste generated by 140 municipalities, in order to figure out how to better manage waste, he adds.

Building on a city’s strengths

Every city is unique, says Pang, and good master planning involves tapping on the strengths of a city and managing its weaknesses. While planning its flagship project, the Suzhou Industrial Park, Surbana Jurong tapped on the city’s proximity to Shanghai to build a township that attracts high-tech industries.

The company’s masterplan for Kigali also took into account “the ability of the Kigali government in mobilising its people”, Pang says. Surbana Jurong created a team to explore and understand Africa through community engagement and research, he adds.

The masterplan will guide the development of Kigali to accommodate 3.8 million residents and provide 1.8 million jobs by 2050.

Close public-private sector collaborations

Despite the economic turbulence of the past year, companies are open to investing, Pang believes. The private sector is “never short of money” - but “short of good projects to fund”, he adds.

Besides public officials, good consultants will play a key role in creating quality infrastructure projects, he says. Finance consultants, for instance, can assist in tax and cross-border currency matters to help municipal governments make projects ready for funding. “Good technology players also need to come in to make that happen.”

Cities play a fundamental role in public health and social cohesion. Rethinking urban planning to create equitable and inclusive communities will create resilient and stronger cities better prepared to weather future storms.