Primer

Time to rethink city planning as S'pore prepares to live with Covid -19

This is the 10th of 12 primers on current affairs issues under the news outreach programme by The Straits Times and the Ministry of Education.

Singapore is in the midst of reviewing its approach to land use and city planning, in response to the pandemic’s impact on how people live, work and play.PHOTO: ST FILE

The Marina Bay area in Singapore is known for many things.

Depending on whom you ask, it is a leading financial centre where jobs are at, it has a mall with many high-end luxury brands, it is a tourist attraction, or even the place where the National Day Parade will be held this year.

But above all, it represents the iconic Singapore skyline - one that is easily recognisable in tourism campaigns and Hollywood movies.

Marina Bay's reputation as a vibrant destination is due to years of placemaking efforts by the Government, to attract footfall to the precinct beyond the nine-to-five.

Similar efforts have been made to turn the Singapore River into an iconic destination for both locals and foreigners, just like the Seine in Paris and the River Thames in London.

Today, promoting a lively street scene while co-locating multiple functions under one roof - think retail, food and beverage, gyms, recreation and offices - is de rigueur for many urban planners, including those in Singapore.

After all, Singapore supports a population density of more than 8,000 people per square km, and high urban density, when done well, is a laudable goal.

But when Covid-19 hit early last year, densely populated cities seemed like the worst places to be in. Mixed developments with high footfall, such as those in the heartland where hawker centres and markets are linked to shops and community centres, suddenly became potential hot spots for the virus to spread.

It became evident that interminging, even in public spaces, presented a risk.

Then Singapore entered a two-month-long circuit breaker in April last year, when roads and pavements were virtually deserted while weeds and wildflowers ran rampant.

Many Singaporeans took the opportunity to visit public parks to beat cabin fever and gradually, environmental awareness began to build in the public sphere.

There were calls online and in Parliament for less manicured green spaces. Many city folk, it seemed, wanted to make more room for nature to flourish.

More than a year later, as Singapore ramps up its vaccination drive as it prepares for a new normal of living with Covid-19, it is timely for the city's urban planners and policymakers to rethink how to space activities out as much as possible, without losing the benefits that come from being interconnected.

Rethink city planning

Singapore is in the midst of reviewing its approach to land use and city planning, in response to the pandemic's impact on how people live, work and play.

On the micro level, this includes looking into how much office space is needed, as Singapore moves towards more remote working arrangements, and the design of workplaces and homes, said National Development Minister Desmond Lee last month.

Its long-term plan - formerly called the Concept Plan - is a blueprint that guides Singapore's development over the next 50 years and beyond. Every 10 years, there is a review with the last taking place in 2011.

Dr Sing Tien Foo, director of the Institute of Real Estate and Urban Studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS), said the crisis is a reason to rethink the relationship between urban design and public health.

This year, in particular, is a critical juncture for policymakers to assess whether there is a need to make paradigm shifts in land use plans.

They need to "plan for a city that is resilient to climate change, environmentally sustainable and also adaptable to a Covid-19 endemic normal where people have to learn to live alongside the virus", he added.

Broad themes such as improving the quality of living, creating inclusive communities, and preserving heritage and local identity are mainstays in almost every Concept Plan review and can be expected to feature prominently this time round.

The review will also have to take into account the Singapore Green Plan 2030, which sets out some bold targets that focus on climate change, and Singapore's vision to become a City in Nature, which can be achieved by softening urban infrastructure and re-establishing ecological connections within the city.

However, flexibility and adaptability will become particularly important in the light of the pandemic, said Dr Sing.

This could come in the form of "white spaces" that act as buffers and can be adapted quickly for emergencies.

These multi-functional spaces should be able to be converted quickly into healthcare facilities, or even quarantine facilities if large numbers of people are affected in another crisis.

That might require a review of current zoning regulations to allow more flexible land use.

Adaptability is key

It is evident that cities that adapted quickly to changes performed better during the pandemic, a point that was emphasised by various speakers during the World Cities Summit, hosted by Singapore in a hybrid format last month.

Well-connected cities, both in terms of physical transport links and digital connectivity, are also increasingly important as the pandemic has kept people within the city but away from crowded urban areas.

The solid digital infrastructure that enabled many to work from home had contributed to Singapore's resilience to the virus, as transmission could be controlled despite the high population density.

Other highly dense cities like Hong Kong, Taipei and New York have also contained Covid-19 reasonably well, due to accessible healthcare facilities and the ability to work from home.

However, the challenge is to find innovative ways to distribute population density while accommodating large numbers of people and lifestyle changes.

NUS associate professor of geography Pow Choon Piew said: "Urban density is now seen as a potential threat and problem to be managed, rather than something that was celebrated in the good old days prior to the pandemic... so planners now have to revise and adapt their playbook."

He said "long-cherished ideas" like public spaces and mixed developments will likely need to be re-examined during the review.

Instead of large public spaces, it is perhaps time to plan for "micro public spaces", where small groups of people can connect, and which are designed to scale up or down depending on the scenarios, added Dr Pow.

Placemaking efforts in the city centre could also be reviewed, he said.

For instance, Singapore could take a leaf out of Melbourne's book and expand more alfresco outdoor dining facilities.

The Australian city has created design guidelines to help restaurants convert to outdoor dining as more people sought to spend less time indoors.

Preparing for the future

Globalisation and rapid urbanisation have led to "unprecedented patterns of demographic growth and interconnectedness", said Professor Stephen Cairns.

These, in turn, have become essential mechanisms of disease transmission, and so the emergence of Covid-19 now is no coincidence, the director of the Singapore hub for the Future Cities Lab Global noted in an article published in last month's issue of Urban Solutions, a magazine published by the Centre for Liveable Cities.

"Quite simply, cities are pressed up against natural ecosystems and their biodiversity as never before, and an increased threat of zoonotic diseases is but one profound consequence. This can only mean that further pandemics are likely," he wrote.

The spectre of Disease X, a hypothetical concept of a more infectious, deadlier disease, was raised by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last September in Parliament.

He had warned that Covid-19 is by far not the worst new disease that can befall mankind and that Singapore should build up its resilience, instincts and preparedness to counter Disease X when it arrives.

Responses to the Covid-19 pandemic so far have suggested that cities will need to find ways for people to be together separately, said Prof Cairns.

Much creativity is needed to imagine such a future.

In Singapore, one such possibility is by enhancing the existing township model to produce self-sufficient "bubbles" that can be temporarily contained in the event of a future pandemic, an idea proposed by Dr Cheong Koon Hean, chairman of the Centre for Liveable Cities.

Today, each neighbourhood is, in effect, a self-sufficient "bubble" as residents do not have to travel far for amenities.

But on the broader level, more can be done, by further decentralising residential and commercial districts through sub-centres such as the Jurong Innovation District and Punggol Digital District.

Extended to the scale of the city, this approach suggests interconnected neighbourhood bubbles with the capacity to form resilient urban "foam", said Prof Cairns.

NUS' Dr Pow said new types of hybrid public spaces that fuse virtual spaces with real physical spaces could also be looked at.

Take, for example, a university open house. Instead of having throngs of people visit a school campus in a day, a virtual campus could be developed via 3D computer simulation for the masses to "visit".

Small groups of people can then follow up with real-life visits.

This comes with its own set of issues, such as the lack of in-person contact and the digital divide in cities, which means not everyone can access these technologies, acknowledged Dr Pow.

Notwithstanding the problems highlighted, such virtual urbanism could be one way forward, he said.

Another radical idea that has been floated is to embrace "pop-up urbanism" such as public spaces and parks - similar to today's concept of a pop-up retail shop, said Dr Pow.

These public spaces and parks could be set up temporarily in different parts of the city, and can be dismantled and reassembled in different scenarios, although the idea needs to be explored further to see if it is relevant in Singapore's context, he added.

To prepare Singapore for the challenges ahead, our city's urban designers and planners have their work cut out for them.