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Singapore’s urban planning in five points

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How does Singapore decide what to build? Where? And when? What kind of thinking drives the development of our limited land space? The Centre for Liveable Cities outlines 10 golden rules for urban planning in this book; here’s our take on our favourite five. Read on, and weigh in on your favourite!

1Consistent planning, smooth upgrading

Most countries are large enough to have separate spaces for city and countryside, urban and suburban areas, but as a city-state, Singapore has to fit everything a country needs into a city-sized space – our Central Business District, HDB heartlands, schools, hospitals, parks, and so on. Our urban planners strive to meet Singapore’s infrastructural needs as a city-state, all the while avoiding the overcrowded, built-up feel of densely populated cities.

To do this, land in Singapore is carefully managed down to the very last hectare, with each piece of land dedicated for a specific purpose. This helps to ensure sufficient space for all needs at any point in time.

However, things get trickier when urban planners have to take into account changes that occur over time, such as redevelopment projects. In Singapore, most land already has an existing use. When a piece of land has to be redeveloped, there has to be another space to serve as its replacement. This often results in a ‘musical chairs’ phenomenon where land is continually reshuffled to enable development in some areas, while ensuring that current needs and demand is met through the rest. An example is the Selective En Bloc Redevelopment Scheme (SERS) to rejuvenate older HDB estates, and the use of temporary holding locations when existing school campuses undergo renovation.

Enabling development and redevelopment: What’s in the urban planner’s toolbox?

Knowing and controlling land lease lengths

While land for residential use tends to have a tenure (land ownership period) of 99 years, land tenure for industrial and commercial use is deliberately kept short, at 30 years. This gives flexibility for the review of commercial land use, and to redevelop and change the type of usage where necessary.

The Road Line Plan

To ensure that future development and redevelopment of infrastructure do not encounter major delays or obstructions, LTA uses a “road reserves/line” plan. It allows LTA to reserve strategic portions of land to construct new infrastructure arises.

All of the coordination and planning are carefully laid out in two key documents: the Concept Plan and the Master Plan. The Concept Plan charts our development over a 40-50 year period, and from this, more concrete plans are made in the Master Plans, which guide Singapore’s infrastructure development over the next 10 to 15 years. Our planners gather feedback from the public and other government agencies, to keep the plans updated and in tune with Singapore’s needs and aspirations for the future.

2Designing for density

Being surrounded by closely-packed buildings can take a toll on one’s spirit. To avoid this, our urban planners use a “checkerboard planning” approach that separates high-rise buildings with low rise buildings and spaces. This gives a feeling of spaciousness and prevents city-dwellers from being literally ‘walled-in’.

Another way to create respite is to intersperse the urban environment with a variety of flora. Basically, where there is space, plant trees! This translates into greenery that can be found on pavements and road dividers, building facades and even rooftops. These green boundaries also help demarcate areas within a district, and give each one a unique look and feel.

3Being in touch with nature

Singapore is touted as a ‘Garden City’, and for good reason. Beyond interspersing our cityscape with greenery, there is a larger focus on making sure that people are close to nature. Wherever you live in Singapore, there is always a park, waterway no more than a stone’s throw away.

Over twenty years from 1986 to 2007, green cover in Singapore increased by almost a third.
Read more.

In the heartlands, we have green lungs such as Bishan Park and MacRitchie Reservoir.

Also not to forget the ubiquitous landscaped pathways around your neighbourhood – all are part of a sprawling Park Connector Network (PCN), ‘green veins’ that link up our housing estates with parks and nature sites across the island. The PCN now spans a total of 300 km. Not too bad, for an island just 42 km across.

4Keep your friends close, your neighbours closer



Hawker centres are natural meeting places in the neighbourhood for a good chit-chat and makan.

Singapore has been home for a diverse group of people from its early years, and has grown into a nation that celebrates a vibrant rojak of cultures, united by a unique national identity. Since the 1964 Racial Riots, Singapore has taken great pains to ensure that diversity doesn’t mean divisiveness.

In particular, our HDB system and policies are set up to encourage mixing among the races.

8 in 10 Singapore residents are HDB dwellers, which means that most of us can meet and interact with people of different races and cultures in daily life, in neighbourhoods and common spaces. Stereotypes and generalisations break down, when you know individuals from other groups personally.

The end result is familiarity, trust and understanding that spans across any differences in race or religion. Chinese neighbours being invited over to Malay households for Hari Raya, and Indian neighbours visiting Chinese households for Chinese New Year is not a rare sight in Singapore, and this is definitely something we should treasure and not take for granted.

5Home is where the heart (and everything else) is!

The HDB heartlands provide affordable homes that generations of Singaporeans can call their own, and are a quintessential part of the Singaporean psyche. But did you know that our humble neighbourhoods are also where great ideas for modern city living come to life?

Good neighbourhood planning and development helps to bring amenities closer to people. Time and money can be saved from traveling if there is already a good enough variety of basic services at the heart of our neighbourhoods.


The void deck mamak stall (and friendly uncle who runs it) – a heartland classic.

If a loaf of bread and some snacks are all you need, why not just pop downstairs to your void deck mamak stall instead of taking a bus into town? And you do not have to travel all the way to a gym in Orchard when you can simply head down to the nearby community centre or sports complex. If you want something more specialised, like a nice dinner and an evening at the cinema, you can simply make your way to the nearest neighbourhood mall, often built at a major transport hub in your estate. Each residential estate is truly designed to be self-sufficient.

Another transformation that has been taking place is the decentralisation of commercial activities to outside of the city, closer to where Singaporeans live. Planners were already thinking about this back in the 1991 Concept Plan Review, when they realised that traffic congestion in and out of the CBD during peak hours would become an issue. Both Novena and Tampines have developed into vibrant office clusters, and the up-and-coming Jurong Lake District will be a welcome addition for many Westies, who can say goodbye to the daily morning wait at the Jurong East MRT platform. With decentralisation, the live-work-play lifestyle is becoming a reality.

Taking a step back, it is clear that Singapore’s approach to urban planning isn’t just about practical solutions to cope with limited space and density – it is also about improving our everyday experiences and lifestyle, drawing people closer, and making city living great!



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