Desmond Lee, Singapore’s minister for national development, speaking at a ULI conference. (ULI)

Rooftops designed to facilitate drone deliveries, whole floors in residential blocks dedicated to coworking or community spaces, apartments with no internal walls whatsoever, mobile supermarkets, and a high-speed “hyperloop” transport system comprising tubes and travel pods all over Singapore were among the futuristic concepts discussed at the 2022 ULI Singapore Annual Conference.

In the coming decades, whether any, or all, of these ideas come to pass is something that the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) is considering as it conducts a once-in-a-decade Long-Term Plan Review with the theme of “Space for Our Dreams.”

Desmond Lee, Singapore’s minister for national development, reflected on this planning, the ongoing review of which is in the midst of a yearlong public engagement campaign concluding this June, at the conference. The conference was a hybrid event with virtual and in-person participants, the latter of whom congregated at the Equarius Hotel in February 2022.

The review revolves around long-term urban planning that would guide the development of the city-state, mapping out land uses and infrastructure needs while taking into account feedback from citizens and private-sector partners over the next half-century and beyond.

Minister Lee spoke while delivering the keynote address at the event, in which he highlighted the forward-looking urban plans along themes of the Future of Living, the Future of Work, the Future of the Environment, and the Future of Mobility.

“We are a small and densely populated city-state, so we have to be very disciplined and very creative and very innovative in our land use. It’s not just about finding space for different needs. It’s also about putting different uses together in a sensible way, in a complementary way, so that they complement one another and help our city to flourish,” said Lee.

In making plans well in advance, to use land judiciously and retain flexibility for the “uncertain needs of our future generations,”urban planners have to make difficult trade-offs between competing needs today, said Lee, and also between present needs and future needs.

“We’ve distilled what people have shared with us into four key aspirations: first, for us to be an inclusive city that meets the needs of people from all walks of life; second, to be an adaptable city resilient to future shocks, including the pandemics we’re living with today; third, to be a sustainable city in light of existential threats like climate change; and finally, to be a distinctive and endearing city that is ultimately home,” said Lee.

“We’ve gathered bold ideas that challenge the status quo and push us to unshackle our thinking as we dream up [the future],” he said, referring to some of the seemingly fanciful ideas that the URA have received from the public. “We’ll consider all of them as we weigh the implications and review our long-term plans.”

The Minister also fielded questions after his speech in a fireside chat moderated by Chintan Raveshia, who is cities business leader, Southeast Asia, for Arup.

Whether future plans include central business districts (CBDs) was a question the Minister addressed, as the Covid-19 pandemic and work-from-home practices have accelerated the push for decentralisation, and perhaps sounded the death knell for the CBD.

“Just as cities will not go away, I think the idea of having ‘nerve centers’ or core areas within cities will not go away,” he said, adding that decentralization has more to do with establishing poly-centric urban regions as a more sustainable way forward for urban development and growth.

“The challenge is how to actually grow such poly centers around certain themes [across Singapore],” Lee added.

After stating that decarbonization was part of Singapore’s present and future, with electric vehicles a part of the equation, he also stressed the importance of rethinking redevelopment as “demolish-and-rebuild” propositions, when the retrofitting and repurposing of older buildings could be more culturally significant and environmentally friendly.

“We are a young city, but we have a lot of old buildings that need to be retrofitted, to meet the rising expectation of building performance,” the Minister said, calling it a “real challenge.”

“It’s one thing to raise standards and require new developments to meet urban sustainability standards of energy and water efficiency, but another to marshal the whole existing building stock, of different ages, designs and standards and rules [of another time] to then be able to meet more modern standards.”

He highlighted efforts to conserve post-independence heritage buildings, such as Golden Mile Complex, as an early step forward in Singapore becoming a regenerative city.

“Consultants, conservation experts and builders tell us that we don’t quite yet have that depth of expertise nor the experience in repurposing, rejuvenating and making sustainable a really old building, to refresh and make it come alive again,” Minister Lee said, “but you have to start somewhere.”

Some of the other questions that were asked during the fireside chat queried upcoming public housing options, plans for climate-change resilience and whether a car-lite future – alongside plans for Singapore to switch to cleaner-energy vehicles entirely by 2040 – is on track, with ride-hailing and ride-sharing options now commonplace, and a public transport network that is expanding and serving more commuters.

Since last year, URA has reached out to more than 5,800 Singaporeans to understand their values, their concerns, and their hopes for the future. The organization has also held in-depth discussions with more than 1,000 participants and engaged over 7,000 more people via webinars and other platforms.

“In the past a lot of things may have been done top-down, with the government taking the lead in the early days of Singapore’s independence, and up to a few decades ago,” said Lee. “But increasingly we see tremendous value in engaging people, not just at the tail end of planning, but further and further upstream.”

“Partnering Singaporeans to plan for what Singapore might potentially look like half a century from now, when we talk about engaging upstream, half a century is really upstream!”

“The fact that ULI has played a very important part in helping us facilitate outreach and engagement is evidence of the value with which we view [private-sector] partners like ULI, and other societies and associations,” he added. “Engagements both by my colleagues at URA but also by partners are vital because we want to give everyone a voice in planning for Singapore’s future together. I think young people also want to have a sense that when they grow old, they want to be able to tell their grandchildren that they had a hand in shaping [the Singapore they see].”

Learn more about innovative developments in Singapore on ULI’s Knowledge Finder.

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