How Singapore's urban planning agency uses data in design

By Chia Jie Lin

Interview with Hwang Yu Ning, Chief Planner of the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Singapore.

Image: Urban Redevelopment Authority

In Singapore, which has an extensive public transport system, rush hour isn’t just on the streets: bustling metro stations and bus interchanges are a common sight in the mornings.

But why commute an hour into the city if your office could be just around the corner? The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) is looking at data from public transport fare cards to gain insights into the populace’s travel patterns, which inform plans to develop more spaces for employment near residential districts, according to Chief Planner Hwang Yu Ning.

In an exclusive interview, she shares how the agency is tracking commuters, engaging citizens, and relaxing regulations to enable more holistic planning of neighbourhoods.

Public transport insights

 Transport data from fare cards - called EZ link cards - reveals how long it takes for people to travel to their workplaces, Hwang shares. The agency analyses these travel data to gather insights into travel patterns. Such insights can allow the agency to determine, for example, if people would want to work in the same region if there are good job offerings, as part of a strategy to “bring jobs closer to homes".

This is part of the decentralisation strategy that the agency is undertaking to create more business hubs around Singapore. For instance, the Woodlands Regional Centre in the north will soon see greater connectivity to the rest of Singapore through a new MRT line, and to Malaysia through a cross-border link. When fully developed, this regional centre will offer approximately 100,000 new jobs, according to the URA. Parts of Woodlands will also be set aside for small and medium enterprises that may not need to be located in the city, but need to be well-connected to it.

Burrowing underground

And as ground-level space becomes scarcer, Singapore is looking for ways to make better use of space, including venturing underground. This is an increasingly common challenge in Southeast Asia, as developing cities are struggling with rapid urbanisation and the problems that come along with it.

URA is using 3D modelling to visualise extensive and complex underground building projects, before even breaking ground. “It can help to ensure that the proposed design complies with underground planning controls and requirements,” Hwang points out.

The authority is exploring a variety of underground infrastructure, from electrical substations and ammunition stores to bus interchanges, the Straits Times reported. In 2019, it will release an underground master plan for pilot areas.

Meanwhile, URA has also launched URA SPACE v2, a one-stop online geospatial mapping e-service. It collects information across various government websites for the public to easily access anytime, says Hwang.

For starters, URA SPACE v2 allows business operators who want to open a new restaurant in a shophouse to instantly check if they are allowed to do so.

Previously, they had to write in to URA for such queries, and were charged a search fee, she continues. Drivers can find real-time parking availability in URA and Housing and Development Board-managed car parks as well.

Inclusive environment design

Local communities should be able to have a say in the shaping of their own neighbourhoods, Hwang notes. “Such experimentations are a good way of beta-testing the future, and being more inclusive in designing our environments.”

URA does this through community workshops, where agency officials gather Singaporean citizens to deliberate on how public infrastructure should be used.

For instance, the authority invited residents and local stakeholders living in the neighbourhoods near the Rail Corridor to share their views on how the 24km-long stretch can be used and adapted. Following public consultations, the Rail Corridor is now being developed into a multi-use recreational corridor where people can stroll, maintain urban farms, and other activities.
Image: Gramicidin on Flickr - CC by 2.0

And in 2015, URA launched its Streets for People programme, which allows local citizens to organise their own street closures to temporarily transform roads into public social spaces, hosting urban art festivals, open-air workouts and the like.

Planning flexibly

URA wants to make urban planning more flexible so that the country can nimbly adapt to different future urban scenarios - by relaxing its regulations. For one, URA has implemented “white sites”, which are parcels of land that allow for a range of different uses. In the past, URA had stricter stipulations on how land parcels could only have specific uses.

URA has also relaxed its zoning regulations for developers, where “land uses are controlled at the district level, rather than for individual land parcels”, shares Hwang. This move allows developers to develop entire districts holistically, rather than be constrained by traditionally-imposed zoning rules on land use and density.

For instance, the relaxing of URA’s regulations has allowed a local developer to develop the Punggol Enterprise District more comprehensively and integrate public facilities more closely. Currently, the Singapore Institute of Technology is located right next to Punggol’s business parks, allowing them to share public amenities, the Straits Times reported.

As Singapore continues to develop and redevelop to make use of the land it has got, planning for the next fifty years will require a “sustainable, pragmatic, and disciplined approach”, as Hwang put it. It also means a little less frustration in the mornings.