Hwang Yu-Ning, Chief Planner & Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore
Hwang Yu-Ning is trained as an architect at the National University of Singapore and also holds a Master in Public Policy & Urban Planning from Harvard University. She has over 20 years experience working in Singapore as an urban planner and policy maker. She was previously Director of Land & Liveability in the Strategy Group of Singapore’s Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), and is a global governing trustee with the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and co-chairs ULI Singapore’s Women’s Leadership Initiative.
As Chief Planner of Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), please can you explain what is unique about Singapore’s planning model, how it has worked to created liveable density? What has been the impact of focusing on liveable density on the quality of life of Singaporeans and the sustainability of its neighbourhoods?
Singapore is a small city-state with a total land area of only 725.7 square kilometres. Land use planning in Singapore presents unique challenges. In addition to catering to the needs of a typical city such as housing, business, community and recreation, we have to set aside land to accommodate the needs of a country, such as international ports and airports, reservoirs, utilities and defence.
Given Singapore’s unique circumstances, planning for sustainability is of particular importance. This means balancing social, economic and environmental considerations, while optimising the use of our limited land and sea space for the long term. We aim to create a good quality living environment that meets the needs of our population, supports economic growth, and safeguards a clean and green environment that will also be resilient to climate change. In order to try to balance all these different requirements, we plan ahead for Singapore’s land use in a systematic way.
We map out our broad planning and development strategies for the long term, and safeguard land for different needs. These strategies are then translated into detailed plans for implementation in the Master Plan, which is a statutory land use plan that sets out the permissible land use and density for developments in Singapore for a 10 to 15 year development horizon. This comprehensive and systematic planning process provides a structured framework for us to bring different stakeholders to the table to review long term land use needs and the possible implications of changing trends so as to help identify Singapore’s future opportunities and challenges. It translates vision to plans and strategies, and subsequently to development on ground to achieve our planning objectives and desired outcomes, including a sustainable and liveable environment.
Sustainable and liveable neighbourhoods
This emphasis on liveability and sustainability can be illustrated in our planning approach for housing. Providing good quality residential environments is a core component of creating a liveable city. We have planned for a variety of housing types to provide options that cater to different needs and aspirations, for example, a mix of housing densities, public and private housing, and various housing locations, such as waterfront housing and high-rise city living. In Singapore, given our limited land, the majority of our population live in a high-rise, high-density environment. For instance, high-density public housing is a distinctive feature of the cityscape, with more than 80 per cent of the resident population living in flats developed by the Housing & Development Board. Despite the density of the environment, we ensure these neighbourhoods remain liveable and sustainable through good urban design, including healthy spacing between blocks and convenient access to public transport. There is also easy access to amenities – shops, childcare centres, places of worship, healthcare facilities and community clubs are distributed throughout each town. In addition, towns have a wide variety of community spaces where residents from all walks of life can gather and interact.
Integrating greenery has been another important feature of our approach in ensuring a liveable environment, especially in a high-density context like Singapore’s. Together with the National Parks Board, URA has planned a wide range of parks, from large regional parks to smaller town and neighbourhood parks. We also have extensive tree planting and greenery along roads. Greenery provides visual relief and space for recreation, while mitigating Urban Heat Island effects. Indeed, we aspire for Singapore to become a City in Nature, one that is greener and with more plant life and nature integrated into urbanised areas.
With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting every country in the world, including Singapore, with the country managing to generally contain the spread and keep mortality rates low; how do you see COVID-19 impacting the urban planning of Singapore now and for the future?
Land use planning in Singapore is premised on building sustainability and resilience for our city. Our planning process is flexible and allows for adjustments to ensure that plans stay relevant, and cater to the changing needs of our residents. In the Master Plan 2019, URA laid out broad strategies to build our future city, including plans to rejuvenate our city centre, as well as develop key gateways and growth centres across the island.
With COVID-19, Singapore is studying the changes in activity patterns and trying to discern what their long term urban planning related implications are. For example, many companies have adopted flexible work arrangements such as telecommuting. With more people working from home during this period, it sharpens the need for the CBD to have more mixed uses with more live-in population. The CBD Incentive Scheme which was part of the Master Plan 2019, aims to transform the CBD into vibrant mixed-use neighbourhoods instead of being a mono-use office centric district. The scheme is well-placed to accommodate such changing trends.
At the same time, more people are relying on shops close to their homes for groceries and daily amenities, as well as exploring online e-commerce platforms and delivery services. There is potentially a need to strengthen the convenience and accessibility of amenities within our neighbourhoods. The planned development of our distributed polycentres islandwide – economic centres located strategically near infrastructure – will help companies with alternative office space near to workers and bring jobs even closer to our homes.
With health and wellness coming to the forefront, we will also look into efforts to enhance the design of public spaces, to ensure that Singapore remains a safe living environment for all residents. COVID-19 has underscored the human need for physical interaction, which can only be partly substitutued by digital means. We recognise the necessity of public spaces to provide open spaces for interaction, recreation and exercise. We will therefore continue planning for more parks and open spaces near where people live and work.
We have also seen the value of being able to make use of temporary and flexible spaces in the city, to meet unexpected needs. We have converted major meeting and convention venues, and disused apartments and school buildings, into temporary care facilities for recovering COVID-19 cases that do not require acute hospital care, or temporary quarters for our foreign workforce supporting essential city functions. This pandemic has shown us the importance of providing for buffers in our urban fabric to enable rapid responses to crises, such as the ability to convert existing buildings and the flexibility to rapidly scale up or down capacity in critical infrastructure such as healthcare.
While the challenge today is COVID-19, the next time round, there may be a different type of pandemic or challenge. At the end of the day, the more important lesson is that our land use plans must be resilient and adaptable.
Singapore is famous for its integration of urban green infrastructure throughout its
urban fabric and planning, with nearly 50% of Singapore covered in greenery. Why do you
think Singapore has been so successful at integrating green infrastructure into the city
and what impacts have you seen as a result?
It is centred on having a strong vision, taking a systems approach and working closely with partners. The provision for greenery and biodiversity has been key in our urban planning and development approach.
The “garden city” vision was introduced by Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 1967 to transform Singapore into a city with abundant lush greenery and a clean environment in order to make life more pleasant. Greenery continues to be very much a part of Singapore’s DNA.
With our land constraints as a small island city-state, we have set aside about 10 per cent of our land for greenery, including four nature reserves and 18 nature areas complemented with natureways and ecological corridors to create a City in Nature. But the pervasive sense of greenery in our city belies the amount of land that is set aside.
As part of the systems approach, we overlay greenery on various networks such as roads in the form of roadside trees and drainage reserves. It also helps Singapore build up a network of greenways, known as park connectors, throughout the island where people can walk, jog and cycle. This web of green connectors together with a hierarchy of greenery, from national parks like the Botanic Gardens to regional parks like Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, to town parks, neighbourhood parks and community parks, make green spaces more accessible and connect people and communities across the island. At the same time, we are integrating greenery with waterways and reservoirs and transforming them into beautifully landscaped riverine and lake parks. We have also converted some roads into “nature ways” with more intensive roadside planting, creating ecological corridors between natural areas for animals, birds and butterflies. Furthermore, we see development as an opportunity to inject greenery into the city, especially in built-up areas like the Central Business District. In this way, we can ensure urban dwellers remain close to greenery and communal spaces no matter where they are and as they live, work and play.
The cornerstone of this strategy is URA’s ‘Landscaping for Urban Spaces and High Rises’ (LUSH) programme, which is a comprehensive urban and skyrise greening approach. It uses a “carrot and stick” strategy, coupling mandated greenery replacement for developments in high density clusters and high-footfall developments islandwide with incentives for developers to provide quality green communal spaces. Working with stakeholders, we have improved the guidelines over time and facilitated the emergence of distinctive tropical vertical greenery. Since its inception in 2009, the programme has enabled more than 176 hectares of new high-rise and urban greenery, and been supported by distinctive tropical architecture like the PARKROYAL on Pickering by WOHA Architects and Khoo Teck Phuat Hospital by CPG Consultants.
The URA released the most recent Masterplan of Singapore in 2019, guiding the country’s development in the medium term (10-15 years). What are the key elements of the masterplan and how is sustainability and resilience built into it?
The Master Plan 2019 set out our vision of an inclusive, sustainable and resilient city for our residents to live, work, and play in over the next 10 to 15 years.
Planning for liveable, inclusive neighbourhoods
We envisage future residential precincts that are sustainable, age-friendly, green, communitycentric and car-lite, where residents will have easy access to a wide range of public spaces and amenities. We use data analytics and geospatial capabilities to better understand changing demographic trends and usage patterns to help make decisions on where to locate new facilities, or convert existing ones to cater for new needs.
We will add another 1,000ha of parks and pack connector networks, so that over 90 per cent of households will be within a 10 minute walk of a park in future. The Rail Corridor, one of our recreational corridors which was a former 24km-long railway track that traversed Singapore from north to south, will be seamlessly connected by 2021 as a public space for all to enjoy.
Developing future-ready employment areas
We are planning for three major gateways in the east, west and north of Singapore to support our economic growth and bring jobs and amenities closer to homes. These gateways will capitalise on the air, sea and rail linkages to external markets to support the growth of synergistic industries and businesses that strengthen Singapore’s hub status and ensure opportunities remain open to our people and businesses.
For example, Jurong Lake District (JLD) is part of our western gateway. Together with the development of Tuas Port and Jurong Innovation District and its proximity to two key Institutes of Higher Learning (Nanyang Technological University and National University of Singapore), we may see stronger academia-industry collaborations and port-industry synergies in the future when these growth areas are developed. JLD in particular is a 410ha mixed-use district that is planned as the largest business district outside the city centre. It will provide more than 100,000 new jobs and 20,000 new homes when fully developed. By 2030, four major rail lines will serve the district, improving its connectivity to the rest of the island and bringing jobs closer to homes. JLD is positioned to be a world-class sustainability district that would offer a balanced mix of retail, office, leisure and recreational spaces and amenities. All new developments in JLD will adopt high sustainability targets and initiatives that would benefit the health and wellbeing of residents, visitors and workers. New developments are already underway. The first phase of the Jurong Lake Gardens was opened last year. Residents and workers can expect more developments as the second phase of the Gardens, the new Science Centre, an attraction by the Singapore Tourism Board, and MRT stations of the Jurong Region Line and Cross-Island Line complete in the next few years.
Fostering a dynamic downtown
We aim to transform our Central Area into a well-connected and vibrant mixed-used district offering a dynamic and innovative business environment. More homes are to be injected in the area, adding to the buzz of activites and life after work hours, and vibrancy of the city. Lively urban neighbourhoods will consequently take shape around the Central Business District fringe areas, which already have a good range of amenities. Close to rich culture and lifestyle offerings, these neighbourhoods will also enjoy ample public spaces and connected, pedestrian-friendly streets. This will continue to enhance the attractiveness of our Central Area as a global hub for talent and businesses, while also providing a liveable and delightful downtown for our residents.
Building a resilient city
By placing utilities, transport and storage underground, we can free up precious surface land for move people-friendly uses such as homes, parks and playgrounds. The Master Plan 2019 unveiled the underground space plan, which focused on three areas, namely Marina Bay, Punggol Digital District and Jurong Innovation District. It will help coordinate planning of infrastructure, storage and utilities, so that together with building owners and developments, we can make better use of our underground space and free up the surface for uses that can benefit our residents.
With regard to climate change, we will put in place plans to tackle the Urban Heat Island Effect – rising temperatures around the island due to developments. These include more green spaces, the planning of new towns with good air circulation and shade, and piloting cooler building materials that trap less heat. To mitigate flood risks, we are improving our drainage infrastructure and, where possible, integrating them with other developments to optimise land use. We are also studying ways to protect our coastal areas against rising sea levels.
Re-imagining our future
To make sure we continue to be resilient and have sufficient space for the future, we are looking at new growth areas at the site of the current Paya Lebar Air Base (an existing military air base), and the Greater Southern Waterfront.
The relocation of Paya Lebar Air Base from 2030 will not just free up 800ha land for redevelopment but through the lifting of height restrictions, also enable more high rise developments in the surrounding areas. This will allow the area to be progressively transformed into a highly liveable and sustainable new town with job opportunities, built on its aviation heritage for a community of the future.
The Greater Southern Waterfront spans the southern coastline of Singapore from Marina East to Pasir Panjang. It is more than 2,000ha, and about six times the size of Marina Bay today. It will be transformed into a new major gateway and location for urban living along Singapore’s southern coast. While the redevelopment of this vast tract of land will take place progressively over the next 40 to 50 years, there are nearer term plans in the next five to 10 years. To kick-start the exciting transformation of the southern waterfront, the former Pasir Panjang Power District, which houses two unique former power station heritage buildings, will be put to adaptative reuse and the site developed into a distinctive mixed-use district with innovation and lifestyle activities. Meanwhile a nearby former golf course – Keppel Club – will be redeveloped into an attractive residential precinct with convenient access to the waterfront and nature.
Having worked as an urban planner and policy maker in Singapore for over 20 years and being a member of a wide range of panels and boards focused on urban development, what do you enjoy most about your work?
Every day is different! I am always learning – whether about new unfolding urban patterns, new trends that are impacting land use, new tools to improve planning, new needs that are emerging from the community. I work closely with colleagues, partner agencies and stakeholders to shape and refine plans, and ensure that the planning visions are realised as developments that serve the community. At any point in time, we have plans for various areas at different developmental stages. For example, I could be discussing the conceptual land uses for an area for the next 40 to 50 years with one group of colleagues, and reviewing the more immediate implementation plans for another area with another group within the same day.
I appreciate that the work and the issues are always evolving, so my days in URA are constantly filled with fresh and exciting challenges.
What examples of best practice within Singapore do you think other cities can learn from to create more sustainable, liveable and resilient cities?
Singapore is always trying to learn from other cities as cities face common challenges, although the solution to each of these may differ depending on the local context and scale. Singapore is unique given our land constraints which force us to pay particular attention to planning long term and incorporating sustainability upstream in our planning, and to executing our plans in a coherent integrated manner. But this long term integrated approach to urban planning is helpful in any context.