When it comes to urban planning and development, most, if not all, cities strive to achieve two things – sustainability and liveability.

Singapore is no exception, says Dr Belinda Yuen, research director of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, a research institute at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

Yuen was one of the keynote speakers at the recent 10th International Conference On World Class Sustainable Cities 2018 (WCSC 2018).

The conference, themed “Kuala Lumpur: Today & Beyond”, was co-organised by the Real Estate & Housing Developers’ Association Malaysia Wilayah Persekutuan Kuala Lumpur (REHDA KL), the Malaysian Institute of Planners (MIP) and the Malaysian Institute of Architects (PAM), supported by Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL).

Singapore was ranked the most liveable city in Asia by human resources consulting firm Mercer in the 20th Annual Quality of Living survey 2018, a position it has retained since 2016. Globally, the same survey ranked the city-state as the 25th most liveable city in the world.

“When we talk about sustainable development, we talk not only about economic prosperity but also a sustainable environment and high quality of life. These are desired outcomes much sought after by cities across the world and Singapore is no exception,” said Yuen in her presentaton.

From the very early days, she added, Singapore has put in place a system of integrated planning and development to help sustain the conditions needed for a sustainable and liveable city.

One of the manifestations of that is the notion of eco-cities.

Yuen says building an eco-city is about designing neighbourhoods and towns that have the smallest possible ecological footprint for residents. Photo: The Star/Norafifi Ehsan

The concept of an eco-city is often traced back to Richard Register, renowned American theorist and author in ecological city design and planning, shared Yuen.

“Building an eco-city is about building cities and towns sustainably, about designing neighbourhoods and towns that have the smallest possible ecological footprint for residents.

“Eco-city is an umbrella term that covers various notions and approaches to sustainable urbanism, and is not a uniform phenomenon. Over the last few decades, we have seen growing international interest in eco-city initiatives of various kinds,” she said.

Europe, Asia and Australia have the largest number of eco-city initiatives. According to a recent Forbes magazine report, China alone is building 285 eco-cities!

“There is no one-size-fits-all eco-city model. General, overall goals are about promoting environment-friendly redevelopment that improves quality of life and makes cities more sustainable,” explained Yuen.

Specific goals include minimising demand for land, primary material and energy consumption, reducing transport demand, minimising impact on the natural environment and people’s health, and maximising mental health and wellbeing.

In March 2007, Singapore started building an eco precinct called Treelodge in Punggol town, a pilot project to demonstrate that innovation and sustainable development can be both practical and cost effective, with the emphasis on green living and increasing green awareness among the community.

The project was completed in December 2010 and the precinct, measuring 2.9ha in size, features seven apartment blocks with a total of 712 units.

“The precinct was designed with triple aims – to lower maintenance cost, meet environmental targets in energy and water resources capability and, most importantly, enable the community to experience and live an eco lifestyle,” said Yuen.

Some of the green features include solar panels, LED lighting in common corridors, rainwater harvesting, motion sensors in multi-storey carparks, and connection to LRT and MRT stations.

Such eco elements increased the cost of construction by 5% to 8% but it has been estimated that the energy savings can be converted into power that can support 400 four-room households for a year.

“And that energy saving is for the long term,” reminded Yuen.

Following the success of the Treelodge, in 2012, Singapore’s Housing and Development Board (HDB) launched the HDB Greenprint programme as part of its road map to better living in HDB towns.

A view of Punggol Waterway. Singapore’s URA Draft Masterplan 2013 emphasises a need for more recreational spaces in the city-state.

“Greenprint is a comprehensive and integrated framework of goals and strategies to guide greener public housing town development and to create sustainable homes.

“For Singapore, this is very important because HDB supplies the bulk of the housing needs of the people. More than 80% of the population live in public housing and under the Greenprint framework, the concept of green and sustainable lifestyle is extended beyond the Treelodge precinct.”

To increase community awareness and participation in eco living, HDB also launched an e-book and e-games to help residents learn more about green features found in Treelodge, as well as carried out programmes to promote awareness among school children.

In 2010, HDB announced plans to renew and further promote the notion of sustainable township developments, extending the idea of the eco precinct at Treelodge to the entire Punggol town.

Currently into its second phase, Punggol eco town’s urban solutions and targets include reducing carbon emissions, optimising resource usage, encouraging greener forms of transport, enhancing biodiversity, and achieving greater efficiency in water and waste management and resource utilisation.

“Punggol serves as a living map to test new ideas and technologies in sustainable development, integrating urban planning and solutions to create a green living environment,” said Yuen.

Planning for an ageing population

When it comes to urban planning, housing and infrastructure that cater to an ageing population are important factors.

By 2050, nearly two-thirds of the global older population, or about 1.3 billion people, will be living in Asia Pacific.

“As early as 2030, one in four people in Singapore will be aged 65 and above, making Singapore the fastest ageing country in Asia.

Age-friendly installations are being done by Singapore’s Housing Development Board in existing HDB flats. Photos: The Star/Abdul Rahman Embong

“In the area of land and housing, Singapore’s policy is to build an ageing-friendly city that enables older people to live actively and to age in place confidently,” said Yuen.

Ageing in place is defined as “growing old in the home, community and environment that one is familiar with, with minimal changes or disruption to one’s lives and activities” (Singapore’s Inter-Ministerial Committee Report 2006).

A 2013 HDB sample household survey showed that ageing in place is favoured by many older people themselves, with 60% of those aged 55 and above and 80% of those aged 65 and above stating a preference to continue to live in their existing flats.

And when they have to move, they also prefer to live in another flat within the same town.

“So the challenge is to provide age-friendly features and infrastructure that enable older persons to continue to live within their community for as long as they like. These include elder-friendly housing and a barrier-free city,” said Yuen.

HDB has been developing new housing concepts such as multi-generational flats as well as studio apartments to enable residents to age in place.

A majority of the elderly population in Singapore prefer to continue living in their existing flats.

For example, the Kampung Admiralty development, opened late last year, integrates senior housing units with social and healthcare facilities in a one-stop development for active living.

Older, existing flats have not been forgotten, with lift upgrading work, home improvement and neighbourhood renewal programmes carried out.

Within older residents’ homes, age-friendly installations like slip-resistant floor tiles in toilets, ramps, hand rails, wider doors for wheelchair access, and also barrier free facilities in and around the precincts are also carried out.

“Older residents have the flexibility to choose and customise the improvements they want within their flats. And to ensure affordability, each improvement in rented flats is fully funded by the government and for those homes who are owned by the older residents, there is a subsidy of up to 95% for the cost of these installations,” shared Yuen.

At the same time, to accommodate changing housing needs, senior priority schemes allow older residents the choice to downsize their flats or help them move closer to their children for family support.

In a 2015 survey that involved about 3,000 people aged 55 and above, conducted by the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, the majority of respondents were most concerned about access to healthcare, transportation, safety and security when it came to their future housing needs.

“Under Singapore’s Action Plan for Successful Ageing, we can expect more integrated age-friendly developments moving forward at the neighbourhood as well as city levels.

“The strategy is to incorporate more senior-friendly infrastructure in the city, for example toilets, foot paths, lighting, exercise equipment, parks, gardens, as well as neighbourhood facilities to support those living with dementia,” said Yuen.

However, enabling ageing in place is not just about the built environment as action is also needed in building senior-friendly community care, more person-centred social and healthcare. Basically, it is about keeping seniors healthy and active.

“As designers of the built environment, planners, architects and developers, we have the opportunity to make a difference to our cities. Let’s seize that opportunity to rethink, re-evaluate and re-imagine the way we plan, design and build our housing, infrastructure, neighbourhoods and our cities,” said Yuen.