From grid to green: the plans that shape our city state

By Cheong Koon Hean

Dr Cheong Koon Hean, the CEO of Singapore's Housing and Development Board, shares the country's urban planning journey thus far, and how it will continue to evolve as a global city.

I find maps and plans fascinating. Old plans capture intents of a time in history, revealing the ideals of the past to the present. New plans present aspirations and hopes for the future, to shape better ways of living.

In this bicentennial year, I would like to trace Singapore’s dramatic transformation from a squalid trading port to a global city and endearing home through our urban plans, and postulate how our city state might further evolve.

Colony and pre-independence: building a trading post

Raffles’ arrival in 1819 started Singapore’s journey to becoming a British trading post and free port. The British gave us our first urban plan in 1822 when Lieutenant Philip Jackson drew up the Jackson Plan. It focused on the central area and featured a grid road layout and clear segregated areas for the ethnic communities. These became China Town, Little India and Kampong Glam – giving us the eclectic fabric of our cityscape. However, by the 1900s, the city grew severely overcrowded with many slums.

Post independence: developing a global city and an endearing home

Following self-rule in 1959, the newly elected government sought the United Nations’ help to plan our fast-growing city state. Planning efforts in 1962, 1963 and 1971 resulted in the Concept Plan 1971, which proposed a `Ring Concept’ where new high-density towns were to surround the central catchment area. Industry would be in Jurong with a new airport proposed at Changi. This plan was a discernible shift towards a more forward-looking, island-wide solution to address the housing and infrastructure challenges of a growing Singapore.

By 1989, most of the proposals in Concept Plan 1971 had been achieved. Concept Plan 1991 therefore charted the next lap of aspirations to become a `Tropical City of Excellence’. More emphasis was placed on quality of life aspirations. Planners envisioned an island city that balanced work and play, culture and commerce; where nature, waterbodies and urban development were woven seamlessly together.

Alleviation of traffic congestion remained important. The Ring Concept soon evolved into a constellation of commercial centres in four regions (Woodlands, Tampines, Jurong East and Seletar) to bring jobs closer to homes and to ease city congestion.

The Concept Plan 2001 aimed to elevate Singapore further, to become a `thriving world class city in the 21st century’, with rich heritage, character, diversity and identity. With nationhood, building identity and social memories became important. The charm and endearing ambience of some familiar nodes, in terms of the scale and well-loved activities there - like Balestier, Holland Village, Joo Chiat, Serangoon Gardens and Jalan Kayu - would be safeguarded and enhanced.

The Ministry of National Development Land Use Plan 2030 outlined strategies to provide a high quality living environment to sustain population growth. New public housing areas at Punggol, Bidadari, Tampines North and the future Tengah Town, complemented by new residential areas at Bukit Turf Club, Kallang Riverside, Keppel and Bukit Brown would be built. To maintain Singapore as a garden city, about 900 ha of reservoirs and 100 km of waterways would be opened for recreational activities.

Exploring the future

These plans form much more than a mere list or chronology. Looking at Singapore today, it is remarkable that what was planned has been mostly realised. From the first grid layout to plans that map out a new nexus of growth, we have transformed our island into a green, global city in a garden.

Singapore’s future success will similarly require forward-looking plans, daring enough to create an even better urban future. We need to anticipate and address looming trends, and ride on new opportunities that open us to exciting possibilities.

Singapore will continue to face land constraints, but in ways that are different from the past. With decades of urbanisation, we have become more dense. Our physical environment has to cater to an ageing population. Climate change will challenge us to mitigate sea level rise and extreme weather events. Digital and other technological revolutions will dramatically transform the way we live, work, move and play.

Creating more space

Overcoming land constraints requires us to creatively harness space where none exists. Building upwards, horizontally and downwards - over our air and sea space as well as underground - will yield more space in bold, new ways.

We are already building higher where possible and appropriate. More mixed uses could be stacked vertically to save space and improve integration and convenience – for example, we could combine housing, leisure, lush roof gardens, offices, health and other uses.

We can create space horizontally through reclaiming sea space. Since this can only be done within our territorial boundaries, we could also explore spanning across large expanses of infrastructure such as highways and rail depots to create space.

Building more extensively downwards is another option. Underground space could accommodate research labs, storage, large water tanks and even infrastructure like power and water reclamation plants. Admittedly, these are expensive solutions and would require the right economic justifications.

Recycling land

As more developments use up land space, it is inevitable that future development would come from recycling what urban planners call brownfield sites. We will soon transit into a redevelopment mode where existing land and properties is`recycled’ for new use and new forms of developments. In fact, our leasehold land system is essential for us to achieve a virtual cycle of land recovery, continually rejuvenating our city and housing estates for future generations.

A more sustainable future

Innovative, integrated solutions in energy, water, greenery and waste management will build us a more sustainable future. We should strive for a `circular’ approach to achieve multiple objectives. Re-use and recycling are hallmarks of a circular system. A good example is how we have closed the `water loop’. Singapore is designed as a `sponge’ where almost every drop of rain is captured by a vast network of drains, or soaked up by parks, before being discharged into our reservoirs. Used water is also recycled using membrane technology.

Tightening the energy-waste-water nexus means we can use the heat from waste incineration to generate energy that powers water recycling. We should aim to be a zero waste nation through reducing and recycling waste. Smarter planning will encourage natural ventilation and reduce the use of air conditioning, thus saving energy. To reduce fossil fuel use, more renewable solar energy can be generated from floating solar panels on reservoirs and in the sea or even mounted on building facades. Public housing is a good starting point for us to invest our research and resources to help realise more sustainable outcomes.

Rethinking mobility

The future of mobility involves fewer cars and people getting around with different modes of transportation. With the doubling of the rail network by 2030, it would be more convenient to use the MRT. Instead of individuals owning cars, we will have `mobility as a service’, with shared cars and more 'on-call’ cabs. Soon, we will be able to hop onto a driverless or autonomous bus or zip around on bicycles and Personal Mobility Devices (PMDs) to the neighbourhood shops, via an extensive cycling network. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) could increasingly be used to transport goods, perhaps even people, in the future. Our city therefore needs to be designed to cater to 3D mobility, including safe pathways in the sky with landing points for UAVs.

Planning For An Ageing Society

We need to meet our residents’ needs as they age. This means more housing choices - such as three-generation homes for families who want to live together for mutual care and support, smaller homes for those who want independent living, and assisted living for those with health needs. Our environment should be barrier free with conveniently accessible facilities such as shops or senior activity centres. Designs should consciously promote interactions in the community, to reduce any sense of isolation and for healthy living. Pleasant community spaces, well-located community gardens, three-generation playgrounds and cross-programming of activities between young and old would encourage meaningful interaction.

Harnessing The Digital Age

Digital technology will improve the way the city functions, and how people live. Data analytics and artificial intelligence will optimise and improve the performance, reliability and seamless delivery of public services. Digital connectivity can also better connect people and their interests, establishing virtual communities transcending physical limitations.

Now is the time to plan the digital infrastructure needed in the design of our city, so that we will be ready for the transformative changes.

Mapping Dreams: New Centres, New Growth

Exciting times are ahead. The Urban Redevelopment Authority’s latest Master Plan 2019 has unveiled several extensive projects planned over the next two decades. To the west is the large western commercial district at Jurong East, complemented by the Jurong Innovation District, the new Tengah Forest town and the Tuas Mega Port. To the north, the Woodlands Regional Centre, the new Singapore Institute of Technology integrated with the Punggol Digital District will synergise into a North Coast Innovation Corridor. To the east, the relocation of Paya Lebar airbase will open up redevelopment opportunities. Changi Airport will expand significantly with the new Terminal 5. To the south, the vacated port land will provide exciting opportunities for new housing, commercial and leisure lifestyles.

These projects will carry Singapore into a new future, underpinned by a visionary master plan. We are a small country, but just as we did in our early years, we can continue to map big and bold dreams.

About the author:
Dr Cheong Koon Hean is the CEO of the Housing and Development Board, overseeing the development and management of some 1 million public housing flats in 26 towns/estates. She was also the CEO of the Urban Redevelopment Authority from 2004 to 2010, in charge of strategic land use planning, conservation of built heritage and the real estate market. She played a key role in the planning and development of major growth areas, such as Marina Bay as well as the Sino Singapore Tianjin Eco City. She is also the Chairman of the nominating committee of the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize.

This essay was first published in The Birthday Book: Narratives Undiscovered and Underway. As Singapore turns 54, the book includes essays from 54 contributors on the narratives of their lives: the stories that define them, their communities, the causes they champion, and Singapore’s collective future. The book can be purchased at The Birthday Collective.