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HDB chief most at home with planning

Dr Cheong has won a brace of international awards in urban planning, including the Urban Land Institute's J. C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. She intends to use the prize money to "start a modest scholarship or bursary encouragi
Dr Cheong has won a brace of international awards in urban planning, including the Urban Land Institute's J. C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. She intends to use the prize money to "start a modest scholarship or bursary encouraging people to do either urban planning or urban design".ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Despite 'reluctant' start, Cheong Koon Hean grew to like urban planning and its impact

Dr Cheong Koon Hean, who has won a brace of international accolades in urban planning, did not even want to be in this field in the first place.

Returning home in 1981 with a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Newcastle University, the then young graduate "was very enthusiastic", recalled Dr Cheong, 59.

"I liked to design, I was an architect, I wanted to build," the Housing Board chief executive officer told The Straits Times on the 32nd floor of the HDB headquarters.

But the Government had other plans for the Colombo Plan scholarship holder. After a few years in the Public Works Department, she went on to do a Master in Urban Development Planning in London, and was dispatched to do planning work when she returned.

"In a way, I started quite reluctantly," the former CEO of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) said. She became the URA's first female CEO in 2004. "But I grew to really like it because I realised that planning gives you far more influence over a city than a singular building.

"The only trade-off is it takes a much longer time for you to realise your plan and vision. It takes so many years... How many young people really want to do this?"

However, a recent prize she received has opened a way for her to support those who have the aptitude and interest to join the profession.

Dr Cheong became the first Asian recipient of the Urban Land Institute's J. C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development, which has a US$100,000 (S$143,000) award.

She said: "I thought that with the prize money, we could start a modest scholarship or bursary encouraging people to do either urban design or urban planning."

She is now working with the National University of Singapore on the idea. "It would be great if Singaporeans take up the course and help to plan the country that (they) want for the future," she added.

Questions of patience aside, she is optimistic. Young people today care about finding meaning in what they do, she noted. "You think about what you want to do with your life, what you want to leave behind.

"These are the types of jobs where you can find that meaning," said Dr Cheong, who meets young people when she gives talks in universities and schools. Her two grown sons, though, are not in the field.

Perhaps her most stunning legacy is the updated Marina Bay waterfront area, though she stresses that its development was very much a group effort. Seeing the vibrant waterside today, spread out before the towering Marina Bay Sands, is "very fulfilling", she said.

In 2010, Dr Cheong left the URA to head the HDB, bringing her planner's eye to public housing.

In recent years, iconic projects such as the Pinnacle @ Duxton have shown that public housing does not need to pale in comparison to private developments.

But for Dr Cheong, it is more than about building comparable homes.

"I can bring public spaces and parks right to your doorstep. I can put in schools, figure out how you walk to school, I can generate a community... No private project can do that. That, to me, is the exciting thing about doing an HDB town.

"How is the private sector going to do a Punggol Waterway?" she asked, referring to the man-made river lining a park that runs through the HDB estates there. "They can't. But we can."

And planning takes place on multiple scales, including the very local.

Last May marked the opening of the new Bedok town square, which was spruced up under the HDB's Remaking Our Heartland scheme.

Previously, groups holding events there used an empty space where they would set up tentage and electrical generators. Now, the new town square is a sheltered area with fans and power outlets. "It's a lot easier for the community to organise events," Dr Cheong said.

She hopes that residents will do so, in Bedok and other places too. The Government can build the structures - the "hardware" - but "you make the home that you want".

Ultimately, it is a city's people who make it vibrant, who soften its edges and make it a home, she said. She added that this applies even to a massive project such as Marina Bay.

Putting the soul into it can be as simple as making sure there are places to sit and enjoy the view. Along the Marina Bay waterfront, broad steps lead down towards the water.

And one of the happiest aspects of the job, said Dr Cheong, is seeing such planned spots come alive.

"I still go to Marina Bay - I cycle there - and I do see people actually taking their picnic baskets and sitting on the steps. Just being there, just enjoying the view of the city.

"I think that is when we feel the public space has succeeded."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2017, with the headline 'HDB chief most at home with planning '. Print Edition | Subscribe