As the world’s population continues to grow, there will be a need for increased urbanization to accommodate more people.
In the Asia Pacific region, the number of new city dwellers is expected to number 4 billion over the next 50 years. By 2100, there might be 10 billion people living in 10,000 cities across the globe, with 70 percent of them in the Asia Pacific region.
If more urban centers are needed to house a growing global population, should we regenerate our existing cities, expand our cities, or even create new cities? The answer, discussed by a distinguished panel at the ULI Asia Pacific Summit, is all of the above.
But these solutions should not only benefit people, they should also benefit the planet. Embedding an environmental, social, and governance (ESG) approach is, hence, a vital consideration.
Regenerate, Expand, and Build New
With this in mind, the next question, then, is how and when should urban planners decide to regenerate, when to expand, and when to create new cities, for sustainable growth and development of future cities, since each approach comes with its benefits and its drawbacks.
Moderator Greg Clark, a writer, innovator, global urbanist, and honorary professor at Strathclyde University, posed these questions and more at the panel titled, “Great Places for People and Planet”.
In response, Eng Hwee Lim, the chief executive of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, spoke about the principles that have served land-scarce Singapore well as it continues to grapple with limited land and other scant resources to meet the needs of its people.
“We are guided by a few key principles,” Lim said. “We take a long-term perspective in planning, designing, and building; optimize everything and take a very integrated approach, across the whole of government; and we work in partnership with the private sector.”
He highlighted how Singapore’s central business district (CBD), built in the 1970s and 1980, as a “monolithic, single-function” business district, has been both rejuvenated and expanded—extending from Raffles Place to Marina Bay—after careful, decades-long planning.
Such long-term planning has also allowed urban planners here to create “huge green canvases” by relocating port operations out of the CBD and an air base out of Paya Lebar, to free up large tracts of land, in excess of 1,000 hectares (2,471 ac) each, for new uses.
“This is the only island we have, so we have to think again about the longer term and build in a lot of flexibility and optionality going ahead,” said Lim.
His fellow panelist, Wanshi Zheng, the group chief strategy and planning officer for Frasers Property, said her firm had been involved in a successful project to help decentralize Singapore and develop the Punggol township in the northeast region.
When it comes to regeneration, which she called a great opportunity to “bring back the soul to the city,” Frasers is developing projects in Thailand (One Bangkok) and Sydney (Central Place Sydney) that pay tribute to art, culture, and history, and revitalizes underused precincts with office and hospitality space, as well as community and green spaces.
Whether regenerating cities, expanding them, or building new ones from scratch, which Zheng deemed more complex and high-stakes, “ultimately, cities are about people and being able to attract them and businesses,” she said.
Expanding a city, with the ability to tap existing infrastructure and resources, is probably a lower-risk option, in her view, and Frasers’ Punggol Waterway Point has been part of the growth story of that area, which has seen an 11 percent population growth rate in the last decade.
Embrace Digital and Data
When it comes to finding the best way forward, the third panelist, Nancy Lin of AECOM, called for a joined-up approach among all the relevant stakeholders, and the adoption of digital technology for more data-driven insights.
“Actually, I cannot tell you what is the right answer. It’s us, all together, that can define what is right,” said Lin, who is senior vice president and global business line director of operations, buildings, and places for AECOM.
In order to embed ESG, “we need to rethink how we make decisions—we need earlier, faster, and better decision-making,” she said. “Let’s say we want a zero-carbon approach. There are costs and tradeoffs we need to consider before starting development, rather than after.”
Such consideration is apparent in the planned Jurong Lake District, which URA released the blueprint for in 2008 and is one of the latest efforts to decentralize the largest concentration of jobs in Singapore, in its CBD, to industry/business-park clusters and commercial nodes.
This would be the largest business district outside of the CBD, said Lim of the project that would be completed progressively over the next 10 to 15 years, and which aims to be the first zero-carbon district by 2045 through sustainable solutions such as a district cooling system and district pneumatic waste conveyancing system.
“We hope it would attract like-minded businesses to plug into the district and thus be energy- and resource-efficient,” said Lim. “The next step is to work with partners to understand what more we can do with the private sector to make it happen.”
AECOM’s Lin added that stakeholders also need to rethink collaborations, whether private-public or private-private, and seek better strategies to arrive at better decisions.
“To get a full picture, we need to innovate together. Find out if something can be done, then use a digital approach, not just the traditional way, to do it. There is no perfect solution, so we need to collectively make decisions, test, fail fast, then continue refining to find the right way.”
Two of the issues with trying to cater to the ‘E’ and ‘S’ of ESG, is that the real estate sector has challenges in reducing the impact of embodied carbon and in other indirect carbon emissions that occur in the upstream and downstream activities of an organization, also known as Scope 3 emissions.
“A big part [of solving this challenge] goes back to responsible sourcing, which is not easy because the supply chain has not fully come together,” said Zheng, referring to solutions such as low-carbon concrete or recycled concrete piles.
Calling Scope 3 emissions, which make up 40 percent of carbon emissions, a “very complex” problem to solve due to cross-border supply chains, Lim said that what built-environment stakeholders can do is to minimize waste as much as possible.
“Don’t build unnecessarily, especially for buildings of significant value,” he said. “We are starting to see some developers retain some parts of existing buildings, adding on to meet future needs with full demolition. We should even try to recover from landfills to put [materials] into some use for the cities of the future.”
ESG and Profitability Can Be Aligned
Clark asked if urban redevelopment on brownfield land could be consistently commercially viable and profitable, to which Zheng pondered, “Does being sustainable mean that it’s hard to be commercial?”
“Over the past decade, and now post-COVID, the ‘E’ and ‘S’ of ESG are increasingly in sync with profits,” she shared. “Stakeholders are expecting it, and it also makes sense from an asset owner perspective. We want to own resilient assets. It’s also about what people want and the social license to do what we do is important.”
Lim agreed and highlighted that public consultation about long-term urban planning in Singapore had raised social metrics as being important for building places right for both people and the planet.
“Yes, they want a good transportation network and access to amenities and greenery, but they also said we need to consider climate change, to minimize its impact, and to better anticipate and adapt to potential implications,” he said. “We also need to think about a city that can continue to provide quality living, for people of all ages and different abilities. That inclusive outlook is coming out quite strongly, and I’m quite encouraged by that.”