Master Plan 2019: Rationality Revisited

Enhanced infrastructure, including an extended rail network, is prominent in the plan. But also attention will be given to local neighbourhoods

| By Dr Lai Choo Malone-Lee |

According to planning theorists, urban planning is fundamentally a process of rational choice, supported by foresight and design. But, in reality, rationality is always circumscribed by the complexities and uncertainties in the real-world environment, and as such, very few cities are willing, and indeed able, to embrace this dictum in its totality. Singapore is perhaps an exception, and the recently released draft Master Plan 2019 (MP2019) is demonstrative of the city-state’s single-minded pursuit of “rational planning” — where planners, through thoughtful and directed processes, develop a comprehensive set of action proposals toward the attainment of defined social and economic goals.

The MP2019 is launched at a time of uncertainty in the global political and economic arena. In the midst of rising threats of terrorism, trade wars, growing protectionism, climate change and other global imponderables, the Plan conveys a sense of purpose and optimism, as it confidently commits land and other resources to ambitious and wide-ranging urban development programs. Working on what is known today and the capacities available, the plan has presented an enticing smorgasbord of ideas for the future city. In the process, it has sought to engender some measure of stability and assuredness in the development environment, with promises of new homes, good transport systems and social amenities for residents and expanded investment opportunities for businesses.

A significant new feature of the current draft is the inclusion of detailed plans for the city’s underground space. Three nodal districts, namely, Marina Bay, Jurong and Punggol, are the first sites to have their respective underground plans revealed — clearly depicting vertical layers of land use functions as a guide to the resource potential that could be harnessed beneath the crowded surface areas. That only three districts are identified provides a hint of the enormous challenges of systematically mapping the hitherto uncharted sub-surface terrain where transit lines, pipes and drains, telco cables and all forms of intrusions traverse, almost without rule or law. Without doubt, more needs to be studied — subterranean land rights, access and safety, psychological barriers, economic viability, design and functionality, among others — all of which proffer rich grounds for directed research that straddle many disciplinary domains. But once this “last” resource frontier is unlocked, the paybacks for this land-scarce city-state would be enormous. The prospects cannot be over-emphasised — consider Helsinki with its underground ice-skating rinks and concert halls, and, Hong Kong, where underground caverns are used for un-liked infrastructure such as waste treatment plants.

While enhanced infrastructure, which includes an extended rail network, remains a foremost preoccupation of the Plan, a heartening note is the prominent attention given to local neighbourhoods. MP2019 seeks to plan for “inclusive, sustainable, and green neighbourhoods with spaces for community and amenities for all to enjoy”, a perceptibly direct response to the concerns of over-crowdedness and amenity loss that arose following the announcement of Population White Paper in 2013. The assurances in the present Plan pertain not just to housing provision in terms of quantity, but also of quality and choice, including new waterfront living in the southern corridor. In addition, the Plan is quite forthcoming with its attention to familiar places and lovable landscapes that would lend a sense of stability and belongingness amidst urban changes. As it stands, however, the Plan perhaps might not have gone far enough to specifically suggest new and leading-edge housing typologies for dense environments, and this would certainly be another potential research area of which researchers in Singapore would be eminently well-placed to undertake.

Concurrently, the promise of mixed uses in the city conjures up exciting images of attractive lived-in communities in the heart of the city, with proximity to work places and accessibility to amenities as prime attributes. Although the overt intention of injecting mixed uses is to better support the continued growth of the CBD as a “dynamic global hub”, these developments might yet serve a secondary purpose — that of opening opportunities for the growth of the creative class — usually the young talents who would gravitate to intense and vibrant city living — a prospect that would add another interesting dimension to Singapore’s social-cultural life.

On the economic front, MP2019 takes the cue from the Committee on the Future Economy’s recommendations to provide a range of enabling spatial strategies that would support innovation and growth in the Singapore economy. The gateways in Woodlands, Changi and Jurong are depicted together with an assemblage of industrial and business nodes across the Island, painting, for the first time, a vastly diverse economic landscape that supports both international businesses and local enterprises. New employment centres in outer areas such as Bishan, Serangoon and Sengkang West would without doubt provide more opportunities for SMEs and bring work closer to home for many Singapore residents. The overall effect would be a city that is less dependent on a dominant CBD as the key employment generator, and thus one with a more balanced urban structure. As the process of decentralisation continues, better work-live integration will emerge. This could, as a co-benefit, contribute to reduced automobile-dependency and help bring Singapore closer to attaining its “car-lite” vision, and perhaps eventually reclaim unwarranted road spaces for the benefit of the local community. 

Of significance also is the introduction of Enterprise Districts which are intended to support the continually evolving business and manufacturing sectors, as digitisation, automation, artificial intelligence and other technological enablers foster their growth in tandem with the fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0. The first of these is the Punggol Digital District, which would pave the way for the emergence of many more such master developer-led districts in future. The flexibility for space planning and design that is accorded to these districts would enable them to attain the desired combination of functional uses in order to adapt quickly to demand changes and new market environments. 

In essence, MP2019 is very much an exercise in the tradition of the rational-comprehensive mode of planning. Against the backdrop of global uncertainties and rapid technological changes, the Plan is focused and well-placed to address immediate and near-term problem zones and local concerns. But, as change is a certainty, and the real world is at once complex, dynamic, non-linear and constantly evolving, planning has to remain flexible, adaptive, robust and progressive. While government-led spatial plans of the master planning genre continue to be relevant, we should be seeing more people-centric processes involving active stakeholders’ dialogue, continuous learning and co-evolution, leading to more self-organising systems, as will happen in many other spheres of life in Singapore. But this is unlikely to hold back the well-known Singaporean trait of being constantly future-focussed and continually thinking ahead with panache and imagination. Without doubt, for this small island city-state, Abraham Lincoln’s oft-cited advice that "…the best way to predict your future is to create it" will continue to hold true. 


About the author

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Dr Lai Choo Malone-Lee is Director of the Centre for Sustainable Asian Cities (CSAC) at the NUS School of Design and Environment. She is a specialist on urban issues, with research interests in urban sustainability, particularly its nexus with development, economic growth and city culture. She believes that regenerative processes and ecological resource management are fundamental to the future of cities.