Stories > Creating Cities of Tomorrow

2020 • Issue 2

Creating Cities of Tomorrow

Architect and urban planner Dr Cheong Koon Hean, CEO of Singapore’s Housing and Development Board, has been credited with introducing new typologies to the city-state’s public housing offerings by conceptualising self-contained townships in tandem with the urban rejuvenation masterplanning.


Dr Cheong Koon Hean, CEO of the Housing and Development Board, discusses how Singapore’s innovative public housing and urban planning present opportunities to connect with cities around the world.



n architect and urban planner by training, Dr Cheong Koon Hean is the CEO of Singapore’s Housing and Development Board (HDB), an agency that builds affordable housing and self-contained townships for Singaporeans.

She was the first woman to head the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) between 2004 and 2010, where she oversaw city planning and the conservation of Singapore’s historical buildings.

Dr Cheong has been credited with major urban transformations on the island, including that of Marina Bay, Singapore’s new downtown precinct built entirely on reclaimed land. In 2014, she was inducted into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame. She has been conferred multiple awards, including the Meritorious Service Medal for outstanding public service, and the International Women’s Forum 2011 “Women Who Make A Difference” Award.

In 2016, she became the world’s first recipient of the Urban Land Institute’s JC Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development, as well as the Lynn S Beedle Lifetime Achievement Award given by the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Real Estate and Urbanisation Global Agenda Council and the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize Nominating Committee, and deputy president of the International Federation for Housing and Planning.

1. How has Singapore established itself as a knowledge hub in areas of urban development and public housing?

Singapore is both a country and a city – an island that is only about half the size of metropolitan London. In a short span of 50 years, we have built a modern metropolis and a vibrant economy with the help of a forward-looking approach in our urban planning.

Today, we can cater to every conceivable need despite our limited land space – from commercial, industrial, social and recreation facilities to ports, airports, spaces for military uses and reservoirs. This has enabled us to balance the competing claims for resources.

Our public housing programme was key in the initial years for resettling many squatters into much improved accommodation. At over 90 per cent, we have one of the highest home ownership rates in the world.

While in most countries, public housing is meant for low-income groups, here it provides good quality options for nearly all socio-economic classes. This has allowed us to avoid the extremes of privation and poverty often seen even in affluent societies.

2. What are the insights most often gleaned by members of the international community who have visited the HDB?

Singapore’s success story has attracted the attention of other cities that have similar aspirations in terms of urban planning. We have received many requests from cities and housing authorities from all over the world – from Asia-Pacific to Europe and the US – to visit Singapore’s agencies such as the HDB as well as the URA.

They are keen to find out how Singapore manages its urban growth and builds a green city in a dense environment, understand the policies that have enabled affordable quality public housing, as well as how we plan and design HDB towns to meet the needs of residents.

In recent years, European policymakers have asked for the HDB’s Ethnic Integration Policy and other initiatives that enhance community bonds. This is due to their surge of migrants and refugees, which has created concerns about social cohesion.

With a global focus on developing our cities in a more sustainable and resilient manner, the international community has also asked to find out more about the HDB’s efforts in creating green and sustainable towns, our adoption of productive construction methods, and the development of smart towns.

3. Why is it important for Singaporeans to develop an understanding and concern for global issues?

In today’s highly globalised world, geopolitical tensions, economic slumps, challenges of food and resource sufficiency, climate change, trans-boundary pollution and even pandemics that affect other countries can and will also affect us. The impact is even more pronounced given that we are a small country with no natural resources, have an open economy, and act as an international hub. As such, we have always taken an outward orientation to plug into the world.

Each City Has Its Unique Challenges And Must Find The Solutions That Work For It. However, There Are Useful Good Practices That We Can Mutually Exchange With Each Other. By Sharing The Learning Points That Were Key To Our Progress, We Can Play A Useful Role.

Where other countries prosper and enjoy stability, it will also allow our citizens to enjoy peace and social and economic growth.

4. How do you envisage Singaporeans’ role as global citizens contributing to sustainable development beyond our borders?

As Singaporeans, we engage in a global exchange of knowledge and ideas in different fields that are mutually beneficial. Take the field of urban planning, for instance. Each city has its unique challenges and must find the solutions that work for it.

However, there are useful good practices that we can mutually exchange with each other. By sharing the learning points that were key to our progress, we can play a useful role, should our solutions be applicable to another city.

Conversely, mature cities and their adopted solutions give us an indication of what to expect as Singapore matures and our population ages. There are also many up-and-coming innovative cities from which we can learn.

These could range from new design ideas and programmes to promote city vibrancy to the use of smart technologies for better urban management.

5. What are some of the most pressing issues in the built environment context faced by us as well as other countries?

Climate change threats such as desertification, rising temperatures and sea levels cut across all borders. Another strong focus is to become “car-lite” with greener modes of transportation such as rail, cycling and walking to reduce car usage.

The causes and impacts of global climate change can only be addressed effectively by a concerted international effort.

Singapore is an active player in the international climate change negotiations. For instance, we have ratified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1997, and acceded to the Kyoto Protocol in 2006.

We further ratified the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol in 2014. We are also actively engaged in environmental cooperation through bilateral and regional platforms such as the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco- City, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Previously, for the master planning of the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City project with China, we brought in our sustainability ideas to help rejuvenate large tracts of salt farms and polluted areas on the outskirts of Tianjin. The Chinese partners, in turn, brought in their civil engineering expertise to rehabilitate polluted soil and water, transforming the area into an eco city within just a decade.

6. How has your involvement with international organisations shaped the lives and values of the global community at large in the context of urban development?

As an architect-planner, I’m often involved in international organisations such as the Urban Land Institute, International Federation for Housing and Planning, World Economic Forum and organisations driving a sustainability agenda. Members come from different countries and are cross-disciplinary experts from diverse fields. These networks provide a rich ground for discourse and collaboration by allowing each of us to bring to the table our unique circumstances and solutions.

Through the collective experience of its members, such think tanks can offer potential urban solutions to city authorities to consider. Many cities appreciate what Singapore has achieved and look to us to share our urban solutions. In turn, I also learn much from others.

“You Almost Need A Missionary Zeal To Be An Urban Planner. It Takes Many Years To Get Things Done. Just As We Build On The Legacy Of Other Urban Pioneers, We Hope That Future Planners Even Outside Of Singapore Will Be Able To Build On Our Legacy.”

7. How have your friendships and knowledge exchange with international thought leaders helped you in your work?

I have had the privilege of being involved in conceptualising the biennial Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize in 2008 when I was with the URA, and have served in the Nominating Committee of the Prize since its inception.

With each award cycle, we meet with city leaders like mayors and ministers, as well as the key officials and organisations who have driven many of the city’s exemplary projects. Many of these cities focus on the fundamentals of social goals in improving quality of life, ensuring greater inclusiveness, and are able to harness multi-dimensional catalysts for change, including culture, design, heritage, placemaking and programming.

Over the years, we have done a few study visits with a focus on smart cities such as Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Stockholm, Helsinki, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Shenzhen that have adopted smart technologies. All these are rich learnings for Singapore and validated many of our own approaches over the decades.

8. What defines the Singapore brand and makes it credible on a global scale?

First, a “dare to dream” approach that parlays into new ideas to help transform our city for the better. Second, we have formulated strong processes and institutions that attract global investors who trust that our governance, a competent workforce and stable environment will be able to support their businesses. Third, an innovation and technology-driven economy as evident in planning, building, resource management, measures to mitigate climate change, and the adoption of smart technologies towards becoming a smart nation.

9. Which Singaporean, past or present, inspires you and has influenced your work, ethics and perspectives?

The one person whom I most admire as a great urban visionary is Mr Lee Kuan Yew, our founding Prime Minister.

Despite not being a trained urban planner, he has shaped many of our urban policies. His vision to build a nation of homeowners gave birth to the extensive public housing programme. His Garden City vision made high density possible in our hot, tropical climate. And his preoccupation with water adequacy drove many infrastructure initiatives such as the transformation of the Singapore River and the creation of the Marina Bay reservoir.

You almost need a missionary zeal to be an urban planner. It takes many years to get things done, overcome obstacles, convince people to adopt a certain approach, and secure funding. Just as we build on the legacy of other urban pioneers, we hope that future planners even outside of Singapore will be able to build on our legacy.

10. What are some of the key misconceptions that international communities have of Singapore? How can we address that?

As Singapore has adopted an integrated and comprehensive planning approach, it is often mistaken that decisions are taken top down. This is a misunderstanding because the integrated approach leads to broader consultations among many agencies and interest groups, and better coordinated decisions. For highly strategic and complex issues such as planning for the development of large-scale infrastructure, including airports and ports, rail network and highways, power and water resources, professional inputs are critical.

At a more local level, the general public, interest groups and stakeholders are increasingly being encouraged to contribute their views and ideas to their own living environment through a consultation process.

Those who have not visited Singapore often liken public housing with low-quality utilitarian design and limited choices in size, location and layout. I strongly encourage our foreign associates to visit us.

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