In an exclusive interview with Channel NewsAsia, the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) Chief Planner and Deputy Executive Officer Lim Eng Hwee said URA intends to intensify efforts to decentralise business activities and commercial centres outside the city.
Decentralisation is a way to achieve a more sustainable growth by distributing commercial activities to various parts of the island, such as Tampines, Jurong and Paya Lebar – as well as an upcoming one stretching from Woodlands to Punggol, called the North Coast Innovation Corridor.
Q: What is URA’s key strategy for the next decade?
A: Broadly and conceptually, we have always talked about decentralising activities, but we think there is opportunity for us to really intensify, to work across all the agencies to make it happen – and in the process create something that is quite unique.
Take Jurong as an example. Before we launched the development, the masterplan in 2008, people’s impression of Jurong is: It is near an industrial area; it is not attractive; there is only one shopping mall. With Jurong East today, once you have coordinated effort across agencies, partnerships with the private sector to try to integrate things together, it can take a very refreshing look.
Tampines Regional Centre has achieved a certain critical mass, it right now has a couple of hundred square metres of office space; it has three significant malls. So in terms of serving the residents’ needs it is adequate for now, but Tampines is still being developed. We see the Tampines regional centre and Changi Business Park – which is right next to the new SUTD University – as a twin hub that anchors major business and commercial activities.
The location of these two twin centres, in particular the Business Park, is right next to Changi Airport. In time, the next 10 years or so, Changi Airport will be expanded and there will be a lot more activities happening in Changi. The whole of Singapore’s East will be a very significant hub.
Q: Long-term and forward-looking planning has been entrenched in the land use development process in Singapore. How has this enabled Singapore to be more nimble in seizing opportunities?
A: I would say it is a very strategic advantage to Singapore. We were talking to some of the financial institutions and even sharing, doing exchanges with other cities. You realise that for other cities, when it is time for them to seize opportunities and obtain investments to expand, they were hindered by the availability of land. It is not just land – many cities are much bigger than Singapore, so it is not difficult to find land – but having land in a right location, at a right time that allows you to expand your business investment. To us that gives us an opportunity.
Planning is neverending so these are the type of questions we ask ourselves. Among the agencies we sit down together and brainstorm – whether there are new ideas, whether we can leverage on some of these opportunities.
We know in the longer term, the port will be consolidated in Tuas for example, so there must be a lot of opportunities for us not only to take away the freight traffic now in Keppel, Pasir Panjang, where there’s haulage in that area. When you consolidate, you take away that traffic and when you have so many trucks moving around serving the port, surely the logistics industry can find some way to extract maximum efficiency. It can create a logistics hub; it can create things which companies can share the services.
Likewise, the same concept can apply to Changi, when we start to grow aviation not just for passengers, but also the cargo, the aviation industry. Whether it is maintenance, repair and operations or logistics companies, when they start to congregate around the airport, again there will be opportunities for us to do something.
In planning what we can do is discuss with agencies, including economic agencies, to look at what some of these opportunities are, and make sure there is land safeguarded for these new ideas to take place.
Q: Were there any “planning mistakes” and what has been done to rectify them?
A: I am not sure if this is a mistake. Often you make certain decisions in the context of the situation at that point in time. One particular area is perhaps in the area of conservation. For obvious reasons, in the 60s and 70s, we were faced with huge challenges – unemployment, the acute housing shortage, and the city centre was so crowded.
The focus was not on whether heritage buildings should be conserved. So you see a lot of massive, comprehensive redevelopment, where so many old buildings were removed. Looking back in hindsight of course, we say some of these unique buildings ought to be kept.
Starting from the 80s, the planners and the decision makers at that point in time started to think about whether we should start to retain these heritage buildings which are important anchors for future generations. The buildings will provide a link for them to identify with their past. So the conservation journey really started in the 80s.
Having kept these buildings is not enough. Having retained them, I think we should now think about how can we help people to understand more of the history behind these buildings. We have to encourage people to start talking about the buildings, and share their personal stories so that the younger generation, when they look at the building, they understand the history behind them. I would not think that the decision made then to demolish the buildings as mistakes – it is really contextual.