Stephen Cairns

Regional chapter beckons for local urban planners

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

The mega-merger of Singapore's urban planning firms will give them an edge in leading urbanisation efforts in Asia. But size is not the only factor that matters in this potentially game-changing deal involving Ascendas, Jurong International, Surbana and Singbridge.

The recently proposed merger of four of Singapore's architecture, urban design and planning firms - Ascendas, Jurong International, Surbana and Singbridge - would dwarf the world's largest existing comparable firms.

Currently, the biggest firms of this kind are the United States' Gensler and Aecom and Japan's Nikken Sekkei, each with about 1,400 employees, and around US$400 million (S$510 million) in income. The merged Singapore firm, which by comparison could boast over 3,000 employees and more than US$1 billion in revenue, would be a pretty big beast in the global market.

Size has its advantages. A large firm can convene diverse specialist skills - such as architectural design, urban planning, engineering, project management, environmental engineering and economic planning - to tackle the complex, multi-disciplinary projects that contemporary cities require.

Large firms can also be good at putting new city planning and urban design research into action. The risks in building with a new sustainable material or energy system, for example, are often best borne by firms with sufficient scale and robustness.

But size isn't everything. To consider this merger as merely a matter of economic muscle would be to miss the more significant point about Singapore's growing role in the urbanisation of Asia.

The merger represents a significant culmination of Singapore's own history. It could catapult the Republic's planning agencies into a much larger regional role, with an opportunity to shape Asia's future cities.

Ascendas, Jurong International and Surbana each emerged from a government agency - the first two from JTC Corporation and the latter from the Housing Board - while Singbridge is wholly owned by Temasek Holdings.

Each found its raison d'être in promoting and supporting Singapore's development and urbanisation. As the city reached First World standards in housing, urban planning and industrial planning, these firms began to export their expertise to neighbouring countries in Asean and beyond from the early 2000s.

Their merger would be a clear sign that knowledge and skills developed in Singapore can be confidently exported in more integrated and comprehensive ways.

It would combine the expertise of the four firms: Ascendas' know-how in developing business parks and industrial land; Jurong International's specialisation in the high-tech, bioscience, marine and infrastructure industries; Singbridge's skill in economic zones and integrated and sustainable cities; and Surbana's track record in residential and mixed- use precincts, towns and cities.

When packaged together, this remarkable collection of skills could make for a very powerful, perhaps unique, vehicle for responsible urbanisation. The capacity to consider a city's hardware - buildings, infrastructure, resources and land - in a more integrated way is one pathway to more sustainable forms of urbanisation.

Singapore sits smack in the middle of one of the world's most rapidly urbanising areas. Half the world's population is contained in a territory within a six-hour flight from Singapore. The majority of that population, currently rural, will reside in cities by 2050.

Cities are needed to house these future urbanites. How will they be planned? How will electricity, water and waste be managed? How best to integrate and manage everyday technologies - air conditioners, refrigerators, computers, motorcycles and cars? Who will plan the rail, road, pedestrian and cycling networks that connect them?

Singaporean firms and government agencies have very good answers to many of these questions, as evidenced in their track record of producing integrated townships and industrial centres that are served by efficient utilities and public transport systems.

But what kind of urbanisation would result from the export of Singaporean planning and design knowledge? Would future Asian cities look like mini-Singapores, with their neighbourhoods resembling Ang Mo Kio or Toa Payoh?

The challenge would be to understand how to use Singapore's experience and adapt it for each new city. The likely ideal would be a mix, resulting in a series of unique hybrids in each new city where local forms, practices and traditions of city-making combine with modern principles tried and tested in Singapore.

Emerging examples of this kind include the Mahindra World City project in Chennai, India; an 11,800-unit public housing township in Bandar Cassia in Penang, Malaysia; the Singapore-Sichuan Hi-Tech Innovation Park in China; and the Ascendas-Protrade Singapore Tech Park in Binh Duong, Vietnam.

These developments, each planned with expertise from Jurong International, Surbana, Singbridge and Ascendas respectively, variously incorporate mixed-use, work-live arrangements that aim to catalyse local economies, cultures and environments. They work to integrate transportation infrastructure, local natural landscapes, recreational spaces and cultural facilities, some of which take their architectural cues from regional precedents.

The importance of adapting to local cultures and contexts should not be underestimated. Any successful urban planning firm must be able to connect with the future residents and communities of their developments.

This involves consulting and collaborating with community groups too, which requires expertise not always associated with architecture and planning: such as anthropology, psychology, sociology and history.

Responding effectively to the unprecedented challenges of urbanisation depends heavily on how large planning and design firms are organised, how the available expertise is marshalled, what culture of design they promote, and how they integrate the latest research.

In this sense, the merged entity could be one of the lead authors in a second chapter in Singapore's story of national development. But, this time, the characters are not only Singaporeans, but also the millions of people who aspire to improve their lives by moving to cities in India, China and Asean.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is scientific director of the Future Cities Laboratory, Singapore-ETH Centre, a collaboration between the National Research Foundation and ETH Zurich, a Zurich-based university specialising in technology, engineering and mathematics.