IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

No more just counting economic value of land

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 20, 2013

Every five years, Singapore's city planners unveil an ambitious document that serves as the overarching "grand plan" for the development of the island for the next two decades or so.

There are shiny new residential precincts with park and sea vistas, future-ready office and industrial areas linked physically and electronically to the global economy, and ever more exciting hubs for entertainment and recreation.

In that sense, the just-released 2013 Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Draft Master Plan checks all the boxes.

But look at some of the specifications of the plan up close and you will start to see how it is also very much a response to the emerging "hot-button" issues of its time.

The most obvious of these is the problem of the widening gap between rich and poor.

The Government is tackling this through a variety of measures, including more subsidies for the needy and a generally more progressive tax structure.

But it is often at the urban planner's table where the political battle is potentially lost or won.

For the ordinary man in the street will not be excited at all about plans to redevelop prime downtown land if it will eventually be filled with posh waterfront homes that only the very rich can afford to buy and enjoy.

Or if it will be used to bring in more casinos, global shows or sporting events that seem to appeal to only a select group of well-off international or business tourists.

This is why the URA has taken pains to design new precincts like Marina South, Kampong Bugis and even the upcoming giant Greater Southern Waterfront such that they can remain accessible to the average Singaporean and encourage "community interaction".

Two features stand out, the first being that the residential developments there will not be gated areas that are residents-only.

Instead, these high-end condos will be "fenceless" - meaning that they will be part of a public area of shops, cafes and restaurants that anyone can go to.

It's a model that can already be seen in a place like Robertson Quay, where upstairs the apartments cost millions of dollars but downstairs, people of any income bracket can go for breakfast or an evening drink.

The other notable feature of these precincts is that they seem to have been purposefully designed for the enjoyment of people who do not have a car, which today has become an unaffordable luxury for a majority of Singaporeans.

In fact, cars are being relegated to something of an afterthought - there will be fewer parking spaces than usual and they will all be tucked away out of sight in underground basements.

Instead, pedestrians and cyclists will rule the roost with wide, open walkways, some elevated with spectacular views, and all seamlessly and generously connected to various train lines and stations.

Elsewhere in the masterplan, the URA has paid attention to issues which have captured the attention of a new generation of younger Singaporeans.

Many have become increasingly vocal in recent years about the need to better weigh the benefits of urban redevelopment against its impact on the natural environment, as well as the heritage value of the built environment.

Therefore, one key initiative in the masterplan is the introduction of what the URA calls "nature ways".

In the past, urban planners have been careful to preserve patches of green even as land is culled for homes, offices and roads. But nature enthusiasts have argued that birds and animals do not thrive in these unnaturally isolated patches.

The challenge now for urban planners is to think of innovative ways to link these patches up - such as replanting over expressways.

Already 60km of such "nature ways" are being put in place by 2015 - a more sensitive treatment of green spaces, and not just for the sake of its human users, that just a decade ago was unheard of.

In line with the increasing resonance that heritage issues are having with the young, the masterplan is also big on protecting places that are, in its own words, "meaningful to Singaporeans".

This may not seem like a fresh idea, but it is worth noting that the URA is now resolutely moving towards conserving places with almost zero architectural merit.

Indeed, some places it has identified as new "identity nodes" to be spruced up and rejuvenated, like Jalan Kayu, are little more than a collection of old shophouses and eating joints.

There are more interesting little nuggets in the masterplan - from super-efficient pneumatic refuse collection systems and heritage trails in humble heartland housing estates to a target of placing 90 per cent of all residents here within 400m of a park.

It all adds up to an altogether more responsive and thoughtful approach to urban planning that's no longer driven by something as simplistic as the economic value of land, and may sit better with the increasingly intangible aspirations of the new Singaporean.

ignatius@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 20, 2013

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