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Building Tomorrow: Singapore's Long-Term Plan (Part 2)


Image: Credits to Unsplash (Unsplash: Aamir) https://unsplash.com/photos/birds-eye-view-of-trees-6IhEMwaNrcY

In this Explainer, find out...

  • How does Singapore plan its land use for allocation?

  • How is Singapore optimising land use for recreation, sustainability and heritage?

  • What lessons can we draw from cities abroad to improve our urban planning?


Introduction


Singapore meticulously plans its limited 728 km2 of land space to improve Singaporeans’ future. However, focus has traditionally been placed on land use allocation for areas like business and industry, to meet Singapore’s economic goals. This has made areas like recreational and cultural heritage planning less prominent in land use discussions. This Policy Explainer hence aims to highlight these often neglected areas by shedding light on the URA’s planned developments in the areas of recreation, sustainability and cultural heritage. These are areas that affect Singaporean’s quality of living beyond monetary concerns. 


In this second part of our two-part land-use series, we aim to shed light on Singapore’s current land-use plans and unearth the rationale behind them, thereafter comparing our plans to other cities to assess the strengths and weaknesses of these plans. You may read the first part of the series, delving into long-term plans for Singapore’s residential, business and transport sectors¹.


WORK, BUT ALSO, LIVE AND PLAY


The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) takes a holistic approach to land use development. Their mission is to “make Singapore a great city to live, work and play”.² Core to the URA, then, is its purpose in enhancing every aspect of Singaporean’s lives from the material (like employment) to the nonmaterial (like recreation and fun). 


This has led to a variety of focus areas such as the planned introduction of Singapore’s first “Recreation Master Plan” in 2025³. This will be part of the 2025 Master Plan, a short-term, detailed plan outlining practical steps that Singapore will take over the next ten to fifteen years to realise its land use vision. The added focus on recreation shows the priority placed on improving even the nonmaterial facets of Singaporeans’ lives. This builds on other aspects of leisure-focused land allocation outlined in the 2019 and 2008 Master Plans, as well as Singapore’s historied emphasis on preserving its cultural heritage and green spaces.


These Master Plans follow up from the Long Term Plans, which are broader as they outline the general vision and direction of Singapore’s land use over the next fifty years and beyond. Altogether, these make up a rich and complex land use plan that our article aims to explain and evaluate. 


Recreation


“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. As the proverb goes, a healthy balance must be struck between work and play, and the URA plans to use Singapore’s land to facilitate this balance. 


To make the most of Singapore’s land space, the URA concentrates its efforts on increasing access to facilities Singaporeans are most interested in using. A 2021 URA-commissioned survey found that Singaporeans’ top five leisure activities before COVID-19 included eating out, jogging/walking/running, retail shopping, entertainment (e.g. watching movies, visiting the arcade) and gym exercise⁴. This is reaffirmed by the popularity of recent developments in recreation facilities such as the Rail Corridor.⁵ 


On top of that, the URA is attempting to integrate fun into the urban cityscape, making use of underutilised spaces in areas with high foot traffic for more spontaneous moments of fun. For example, more roads like Keong Saik Street have been given permission to be closed off for festivals, which has enlivened the place as somewhere to both work and have fun.⁶ This is on top of other installations like the “Park Yourself” installation in Paya Lebar Central, and a new eco-playground located at the Discover Tanjong Pagar Community Green.⁷


Interestingly, the URA is also looking into activating its island spaces in Pulau Brani and the Southern Islands for more recreational activities, whether for greater tourism or nature and heritage exploration.⁸ These, along with the development of new attractions like NS Square and a new tourism development next to Jurong Lake provide exciting opportunities for the future of fun in the city-state.


Sustainability


Not only that, but Singapore is also committed to green goals that aim to combat climate change and preserve our natural spaces. For example, the National Parks  Board (NParks) has developed and employed advanced ecological profiling tools that track the dispersal of various species in Singapore. This has improved our understanding of habitats key to Singapore’s ecosystem. It has also aided in the development of pathway models that find the path of least resistance for animals traversing between green spaces.⁹ All this strengthens NParks’ ability to make land use decisions for the benefit of all, including our local biodiversity.


Developments in ecological profiling will also produce new information about key ecological corridors (see Figure 1) and Singapore’s core habitats. This will enable both URA and NParks to make more eco-conscious land use decisions in the future.


Figure 1: A Map of Singapore’s Ecological Corridors¹⁰




Singapore’s commitment to preserving its natural spaces can also be seen in its 2022 decision to relocate new stations along the Cross-Island Line, which were initially slated to be within the boundaries of Clementi forest.¹¹ After prolonged dialogue with nature groups and environmentalists, the government took into consideration such concerns and kept the forested area free from development.


Cultural Heritage


More than a CBD, Singapore’s distinct culture is what makes the city-state unique. In line with this, URA is building on its historied focus on cultural heritage preservation. This history ranges from URA’s Conservation Master Plan in 1986 to its current collaboration with the National Heritage Board, where the agencies seek to safeguard distinct spaces that form key parts of the Singaporean identity. 


The URA has begun exploring new modes of cultural preservation. Besides preserving iconic landmarks, efforts have been made to preserve heartland and identity corridors, thus creating a sense of identity islandwide.¹² This includes categorising key places as “identity nodes” based on the attachment communities have to them and their distinctive character. This enables the URA to preserve familiar spaces that citizens love. Since 2002, 18 such identity nodes have been identified, including places like Serangoon Garden and Holland Village.¹³ 


More of such unique spaces are also being sought out for development as well. Places like Bedok Town Center will retain their distinctive pedestrian malls and gateways while simultaneously being enhanced with more facilities and barrier-free accessibility.¹⁴ Such developments bode well for residents across the country as the increased recognition of the need to preserve heritage islandwide creates and preserves more distinctive neighbourhoods where residents can feel they belong.


LOOKING ABROAD


While Singapore’s urban planning takes into consideration the importance of recreation, sustainability, and heritage, its shift toward these concerns has only been made in recent years, with early iterations of the Master and Long-Term Plans focusing largely on practical infrastructural improvements. Thus, it would be beneficial to examine cities that are pioneers in these fields, from which Singapore can draw inspiration.


Copenhagen: Sustainable and Liveable

  

The false dichotomy between environmental- consciousness and national development has long been disproven by Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark. Copenhagen’s urban planning favours sustainable development, and at the same time, caters infrastructure to the needs and wants of the locals. 


To exemplify this, the Sankt Kjelds neighbourhood in Østerbro has been termed a “Climate Resilient Neighbourhood” by urban planners and government officials, standing as a torchbearer for sustainable urban development.¹⁵ The neighbourhood’s “urban nature” much resembles Singapore’s “garden city” mantra, where the grown environment co-exists with the built environment. Neighbourhood architects explain that urban nature serves aesthetic and practical infrastructural purposes.¹⁶


On the climate front, the neighbourhood focuses on mitigating cloudbursts, defined as a sudden but brief period of extreme rainfall.¹⁷ The strategic placement of ecosystem services has been key in the neighbourhood’s climate resilience. For instance, rainwater in this neighbourhood is absorbed by lush greenery on the surface and becomes a resource giving life to plants and trees, rather than being channelled directly to the sewers.¹⁸ 


At the same time, studies have shown that green development can also have a positive impact on the economic and social well-being of urban citizens.¹⁹ Among other things, short travel distances with a focus on pedestrians and cyclists increase the possibilities for personal mobility, reducing traffic congestion.²⁰ Well-maintained green spaces are also a worthy investment that generates long-term revenue for the economy by adding value to the property surrounding it.²¹


Figure 2: A Picture of the Sankt Kjelds Neighbourhood²²




What sets this project apart is its emphasis on creating synergies between climate action and real local prosperity. Rather than viewing environmental concerns and practical infrastructural interests as competing priorities, the project demonstrates how they can be mutually reinforcing. Embracing similar principles of integration and innovation will be essential for addressing the complex sustainability challenges Singapore faces in the 21st century.


In the same vein, Copenhagen’s iconic “CopenHill” stands as a stellar example of how cities can support sustainable development without compromising on locals’ space for recreation. CopenHill is first a waste-to-energy plant, then a ski slope, hiking trail, and climbing wall. The power plant plays a part in Copenhagen’s goal of becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral city by 2025, combining an architectural landmark with an urban recreation centre.²³


Figure 3: A Skier Utilising the CopenHill Ski Slope²⁴



Beneath the slope, the plant converts 440,000 tonnes of waste annually into enough clean energy to deliver electricity and district heating for 150,000 homes.²⁵ The plant uses new sustainable technology to convert waste into energy, significantly reducing the environmental impact of municipal waste disposal. The cherry on top is the 10,000 m2 green roof. It addresses the challenging micro-climate of an 85m high park, absorbing heat, removing air particulates and minimising stormwater runoff.²⁶


CopenHill is a testament to how urban infrastructure can be both functional and recreational, demonstrating that sustainability and livability can go hand in hand. This project not only supports Copenhagen's environmental objectives but also enriches the urban experience for its residents, setting a new standard for sustainable urban development worldwide. By integrating a waste-to-energy plant into a dynamic urban park, CopenHill offers a unique recreational space that enhances the quality of life for its residents.


Battambang: Heritage as the Future


In Singapore, awareness of the importance of heritage conservation has been a hot topic of debate in recent years, as Singaporeans begin reflecting on what has been lost amid Singapore’s rapid growth and development. To take a page out of Cambodia’s book, the city of Battambang serves as a prime example of the way both heritage conservation and practical development can co-exist, and even flourish to contribute to a country’s overall prosperity.


Preserving Cambodia’s urban heritage poses unique hurdles, as the colonial origins of many heritage structures evoke memories of a repressive period in Cambodian history for many locals. Nonetheless, safeguarding urban heritage remains imperative for Cambodia's cultural identity. This necessitates thoughtful urban planning that balances the preservation of historic buildings with the values of the post-colonial era and the needs of local communities. By doing so, the country can uphold its cultural heritage while fostering sustainable development for future generations.²⁷


Battambang, Cambodia’s largest secondary city in the North, initiated a pilot project for provincial spatial planning, its version of the Singaporean Master and Long-Term Plans.²⁸ Early efforts focused on raising public awareness of heritage conservation through campaigns and educational initiatives in the city centre. Approximately 800 heritage buildings were incorporated into the land-use plan and designated ‘Heritage Protection Areas’ since 2010, ensuring a strict no-demolition policy.²⁹

On the infrastructural front, the usage of buildings within this area has evolved, with a shift from residential and traditional commercial purposes to more tourist-oriented businesses. While preserving the exterior structures, interior modifications have been made to accommodate present-day needs. This approach has led to a notable uptick in the profits for the city’s tourism sector.³⁰ An increased awareness of the value of heritage is invoked through the integration of urban heritage conservation within urban planning. This has positively influenced Battambang’s overall development, especially on an economic level.


The creative use of existing heritage buildings to suit modern-day needs, coupled with intentional efforts to raise awareness about the importance of heritage conservation amongst locals, help Battambang overcome its unique challenges in conservation. Battambang's creative adaptation of heritage buildings for modern uses showcases the potential of adaptive reuse. Singapore can likewise explore diverse and innovative ways to repurpose its historic structures while preserving their architectural and cultural significance. This approach will not only revitalise Singapore’s “identity nodes”, but will also contribute to urban vitality and economic growth.


CONCLUSION


As Singapore continues to evolve as a global city, its urban planning efforts in environmental and heritage conservation stand as pillars of its sustainable development vision. Singapore has demonstrated a steadfast commitment to preserving its natural landscapes and cultural heritage while embracing the opportunities of urbanisation.


Looking ahead, Singapore's future lies in further integrating environmental and heritage conservation into its urban planning framework. As climate change poses increasingly urgent threats,³¹ Singapore must continue to prioritise green initiatives, such as expanding green spaces and promoting sustainable transportation. As the world grows increasingly globalised and divided, strengthening the Singaporean identity through its infrastructure is a key tenet in the unity of its people. Only through consistent and concentrated efforts in urban planning can Singapore emerge from these challenges better and stronger.


MAJU PE 2024_20_Building Tomorrow_ Singapore's Long-Term Plan (Part 2)
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This Policy Explainer was written by members of MAJU. MAJU is an independent, youth-led organisation that focuses on engaging Singaporean youths in a long-term research process to guide them in jointly formulating policy ideas of their own. 


By sharing our unique youth perspectives, MAJU hopes to contribute to the policymaking discourse and future of  Singapore.

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