Nov 21, 2013

    URA plan caters to the new S'porean

    News Editor

    The Straits Times

    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 plan's specifications 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 the rich and the 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 that the political battle is potentially lost or won.

    The 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.

    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.

    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 has become an unaffordable luxury for a majority of Singaporeans.

    There will be fewer parking spaces than usual and they will all be tucked out of sight in underground basements.

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

    Elsewhere in the master plan, 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.

    One key initiative in the master plan is the introduction of what the URA calls "nature ways".

    Some 60km of such "nature ways" are to be put in place by 2015 - a more sensitive treatment of green spaces, and not just for the sake of their 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 master plan is also big on protecting places that are, in its own words, "meaningful to Singaporeans".

    It is worth noting that the URA is moving resolutely towards conserving places with almost-zero architectural merit.

    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.