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Urban planning in Singapore has formulated and guided its physical development from the day Singapore was founded in 1819 as a British colony to the developed, independent country it is today. Urban planning is especially important due to land constraints and its high density.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) is Singapore's national land-use planning authority. URA prepares long term strategic plans, as well as detailed local area plans, for physical development, and then co-ordinates and guides efforts to bring these plans to reality. Prudent land use planning has enabled Singapore to enjoy strong economic growth and social cohesion, and ensures that sufficient land is safeguarded to support continued economic progress and future development.[1]



Stamford Bridge, Singapore.

Initial planningEdit

The founding of modern Singapore in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles was arguably a planning event in itself, as it involved the search for a deep, sheltered harbour suitable to establish a pivotal maritime base for British interests in the Far East. The location also needed to keep Britain's maritime trading routes on the East-West axis protected. The British allowed Chinese labourers to migrate in large numbers into the island to make it an immigrant majority country to safeguard their trade in the Far East. The settlers found the waters of Keppel Harbour suitable, and an entourage of eight ships anchored off the mouth of a small river on 28 January 1819. Raffles made landing on the north bank of the river and discovered favourable conditions for the setting up of a colony. The area on the side of the river's north bank was level and firm, but the southern bank was swampy. The settlers found abundant fresh water, and the river itself was a sheltered body of water protected by the curved river mouth. The river was to become the nexus from which the new colony would thrive, and the immediate surrounding areas would form the core of the island's business and civic areas.[2]

Upon its formal establishment with the signing of a treaty on 6 February the same year, Raffles left the settlement, leaving Colonel William Farquhar as the first Resident of Singapore. By the end of May, Raffles returned, and while noting the rapid development of the city, realised the need for a formal urban plan to guide its otherwise disorganised physical expansion. He left the colony again, instructing Farquhar to designate residential, commercial, and governmental land uses for the colony.[2]

When he returned more than two years later in October 1822, however, Raffles was dismayed by the way the colony had grown. He therefore formed a Town Committee headed by Lieutenant Philip Jackson to draw up a formal plan for the colony, which came to be known as the Jackson Plan. The plan was the first detailed city plan for Singapore. It laid the groundwork of the city's street and zonal layout, the essence of which continues today. For example, the allocation of civic institutions on the north bank of the Singapore River and the creation of the main commercial area in what was then known as "Commercial Square" on the south bank have today evolved into the Civic district and the CBD on either side of the river. The grid-like street patterns continue to exist. While the ethnically segregated residential zones are largely depopulated by now, they continue as the ethnic enclaves Chinatown, Little India, and Kampong Glam, attracting the attention of tourists.[2]


Raffles's foresight and well-intended efforts to maintain orderliness in the city's growth started to spiral out of control just eight years after the Jackson Plan was drawn up. With no updates and no new plans drawn up by the British, the city soon outgrew itself, and the plan soon proved completely inadequate. When Raffles arrived in 1819, the population numbered about 150. By 1911, this figure had mushroomed to 185,000, resulting in severe overcrowding, particularly in the Chinatown area. The road system, planned for travel by foot and horse carts, also could not handle the exploding traffic, particularly when motorised vehicles came to Singapore en masse in the 1910s. The 842 private cars in 1915 had multiplied to 3,506 by 1920.[2]

With the severe overcrowding in the city centre, the population, particularly the better-off, started to move into the suburbs. The better-off families moved especially to the East Coast, where they often operated plantations and maintained large sea-side homes near the beach at Katong. Several wealthy Muslim families were to leave a legacy in the area through their family names, including those of Aljunied and Eunos. Less well-off families tended to move into the southern parts of the island as a natural extension of the Chinatown area. Subsequently, however, they also moved into other areas, including the East Coast, spreading the problems of overpopulation to the suburbs with the creation of squatters. This growth also resulted in suburban roads becoming congested by traffic, particularly along Geylang Road which leads to the East Coast.[2]

Public HousingEdit

In 1927, the colonial government attempted to arrest the situation by setting up the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT), with the main aims of alleviating urban congestion and the provision and upgrading of public infrastructure, particularly in the widening of roads to accommodate rising and modernising traffic. Their efforts were evident only in localised areas, as the body did not have the legislative power to produce comprehensive plans or to control urban development. The Second World War also disrupted their efforts during the Japanese occupation from 1941 to 1945.

Singapore emerged from the war in physical ruins and with a large number of homeless residents. A housing committee was thus formed quickly in 1947, and reported an acute housing shortage facing the city, where the population had already reached a million by 1950. With 25% of the population living in 1% of its land area, and with some shophouses housing over 100 people, the SIT's efforts were clearly inadequate in its attempts to rehouse the population into new multi-story apartment blocks.[2]

The formation of Housing Department Board (HDB)

The SIT was replaced by the Housing Department Board (HDB) in 1960.[3] It has been monitoring the whole public housing system, from land acquisition, resettlement, town planning, building design, to allocation and management of the completed units.[3] To meet the housing demand in post independence era, HDB had completed 324000 units in 20 years and provided housing for 68.54% of the whole population . 50 years after the formation of HDB, HDB flats accommodate more than 80% of Singaporeans.[4]

The significance of public housing in Singapore

a) To realise the national agenda of Singapore as a home country

Home ownership was introduced as a national agenda in the 1960s by former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. He encouraged people to buy public housing from HDB by setting the price lower than the market value to increase home ownership.[3] Home ownership was not only a social agenda to him, but a political strategy at the same time. In his memoirs, he wrote "…If the soldier's family did not own their home, he would soon conclude he would be fighting to protect the properties of the wealthy. I believed this sense of ownership was vital for our new society which had no deep roots in a common historical experience."[5][3]. He believed home ownership would help to develop people's sense of belonging to the country, which in turn achieve political and social stability. In 2016, Singapore remains a top destination for foreign investment in 2016, following United States and China[6] and hence stability can enhance Singapore's attractiveness to overseas investors.[3]

b) Set up the housing ladder

Around 88% of housings in Singapore are public housing built by HDB and 90% of the population own in their home.[4] As HDB is the major housing provider in Singapore, they sell dwelling units to first time home buyer at a concessionary rate to encourage home ownership. People can accrue wealth through capital growth of the dwelling units when the property market grows and this would allow them to upgrade their residence through resale of their units.[3] However, HDB owners cannot resale their units in 5 years to ensure the needs of different groups are met and minimise the interference to the second hand market[4]. Since the property market is tightly controlled by the government by imposing restrictions on the eligibilities of buyers and heavy stamp duties, the price gap between the public housing and private units are not greatly significant and hence it is possible for people to upgrade the residence and thus the living environment.[3][4] Hence public housing not only realises the national agenda of Singapore as a home country, it also sets up the housing ladder which allows people to improve the living environment.

There are other housing options are condominium, private flats and landed housing.[4] It is worth mentioning condominiums as some HDB regulations have to be followed, since the land is sold to the developer by the government at prices lower than the market. For example the eligibility of the owner and minimum of occupancy period before resale in the second hand market.[4] (Han, 2005). On the other hand, landed housing value more than other types of housing in the same area due to its scarcity, better design and location.[4] Unlike detached houses in Australia, land in Singapore are leased out rather than sold by the government. Hence when the lease is over, the ownership of the land could be returned to the government if the government decided not to extend the lease. For example, some leased land in Geylang will be expired in 10 years and the government has decided not to renew the lease and that area will be redeveloped into other uses.[7]

c) The core of planning strategy of Singapore

The planning strategy of Singapore centres on public housing as a considerable number of population live in HDB units. HDB has flexibility and autonomy in planning amenities around public housing, such as public transportation, office, retail and recreational facilities.[3] As Singapore has limited supply of land, it is important that spaces are being utilised efficiently while the living quality of people will not be compromised. A HDB hub provides retail, public transportation and recreational services in a compact area. It serves people living in HDB flats and also serves people living in other types of housing nearby. Thus people can access to the necessities at their door step. It is similar to activity centre in Victoria, but it is planned by HDB rather than the local council. And it shows the significance of public housing and the role of HDB in planning.

Current policyEdit

A view of a model of the land use in the Singapore city centre.

The current policy of Singapore's urban planners who come under the Urban Redevelopment Authority is to create partially self-sufficient towns and districts which are then further served by four regional centres, each of which serves one of the four different regions of Singapore besides the Central Area. These regional centres reduce traffic strain on Singapore's central business district, the Central Area, by replacing some of the commercial functions the Central Area serves.

Each town or district possesses a variety of facilities and amenities allocated strategically to serve as much as possible on at least a basic scale, and on the regional scale, an intermediate one. Any function of the Central Area not served then is allowed by the regional centre to be executed efficiently as the transport routes are planned to link up the regional centres and Central Area effectively. The Housing Development Board works with the Urban Redevelopment Board to develop public housing according to the national urban planning policy.

As land is scarce in what is the most densely populated country, the goal of urban planners is to maximise use of land efficiently yet comfortably and to serve as many people as possible for a particular function, such as housing or commercial purposes in high rise and high density buildings. Infrastructure, environmental conservation, enough space for water catchment and land for military use are all considerations for national urban planners.

Land reclamation has continued to be used extensively in urban planning, and Singapore has grown at least 100 square kilometres from its original size before 1819 when it was founded. The urban planning policy demands that most buildings being constructed should be high-rise, with exceptions for conservation efforts for heritage or nature. A pleasant side effect is that many residents have pleasant views. Allocating primary functions in concentrated areas prevents land wastage. This is noticeable in Tampines New Town in comparison to the housing blocks found in Dover. Housing blocks turned into complexes, which occupied a large area with thousands of apartments in each one as opposed to smaller high-rise blocks with hundreds. This allows for efficient land use without compromising the standard of living.

Public transport systemEdit

Singapore is a small nation with limited resources and land area (719.9 km2).[8] There is no other way to meet the economic development without efficient use of land and resources. Since Singapore gained independence in 1965, decentralisation planning strategy has been adopted.[9] Developments were extended all over the nation instead of concentrating in the central area, such as the western area as industrial estates and the north-western area as the recreational space to conserve the nature there.[4] And Singapore's public transport system was designed to link different districts together without heavily relying on roads, to utilise the land efficiently.

Public transport network as a strategy to use land efficiently

Public transport network has been integrated with land use through careful co-ordination in physical planning.[10] It is divided into macro and micro level. Macro level is the co-ordination between new towns and major railway network, while the micro level is the co-ordination around major transport hub.[11] In "World Class Land Transport" issued by the Singapore government in 1995, it emphasised the integration of high density developments around major transport hub.[12] Public housing estates should be integrated with public transport network, hence residents could access to services around the station within walking distances, or travel by public transportation.[12] For example, at the Sengkang Town Centre Station, developments are built on top or around the station, while public transport network is available to link public housing and the station. A well-coordinated public transportation network provides a viable alternative travel choice to people and hence a major portion of trips could be carried by public transport and occupy a small amount of land. It shows how the Singapore government efficiently uses limited land resources to maximise the outcome.

Prioritize railway network over bus network

The Singaporean government has prioritised railway system over bus services as bus services could not be the solution for a compact city like Singapore. The efficiency and quality of bus services will deteriorate quickly once the demand exceeds the certain threshold.[10] For instance, the efficiency of bus service is limited by the capacity of the road and the number of buses available. Since Singapore is a small nation, it is impossible to construct road endlessly to meet up with the demand. Hence there is a hierarchy for public transport network which prioritises the railway network over the bus network.[10] Mass Railway Transit (MRT) is the top tier which serves heavy transit corridors, such as connecting the Central business district to different districts. Light Railway Transit (LRT) is the second tier to support the Mass Railway Transit networks by feeding commuters to the major railway stations. Bus services are to complement the MRT-LRT network and serve the less heavy transit corridor.[13] Thus the railway network can be regarded as the backbone of the public transport network, and supported by the bus services.

Improve the current public transport network

Singaporean government keeps on improving the current public transport network to enhance public transport a viable choice as alternative to the car for a wider population. The railway coverage area has been expanding since it was introduced in the 1980s. In 2020, four new lines and extensions are scheduled to be complete, which are Thomson Line, The Eastern Region Line, The North-South Line extension and the new Tuas extension.[13] More people will be served by the railway network and they will be able to get to more places. Also, there will be more rides available during morning and evening peak hours to carry the commuters.[13] There will be less crowded trains and a reduction of waiting time during peak hours. These measures aim to increase the catchment area of MRT stations and encourage the usage of the railway network.

Apart from improvement on railway network, the quality of bus services is closely monitored by the authority. The two main bus operators: the SBS Transit Ltd and Trans-Island Bus Services (TIBS) will be audited every year to ensure the service and efficiency meet the standard. For example, the commuter load during peak hours should not exceed 100% of the bus designated capacity. If the standards are not met, the contract could be terminated or revised with stricter terms.[10]

In short, public transport in Singapore aims to carry a maximum number of trips to in small area so land could be utilised more efficiently. As the population is increasing, the network has to be improved to meet the increase in demand and enhance public transport as a viable alternative to car.

Post-independence Singapore government, with the exception of public housing in Chinatown§, has largely shied away from allocating too much housing in the Central Area and especially the Downtown Core, but with increasing density and land reclamation in Marina South and Marina East, there are current plans for new public housing close to the Downtown Core.

Singapore's land is increasingly crowded, and hence the placement of a district of one function that obstructs more infrastructure development in that area (such as building an expressway tunnel or a rail line), as opposed to the placement of a district of a different function that would accommodate future infrastructure, has become increasingly likely. A district of one function could be inefficient if it does not have proper access to another district of another function, or on the other hand, if it is too close. Public amenities have to be strategically placed to benefit the largest number of people possible with minimum redundancy and wastage. A major feature of urban planning in Singapore is to avoid such situations of land wastage.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ About Us, Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA)
  2. ^ a b c d e f "Home, work, play" Sumiko Tan, Urban Redevelopment Authority, 1999 ISBN 981-04-1706-3
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Deng, Y; Sing, T; Ren, C (2013). The Future of Public Housing: Ongoing Trends in the East and the West. Berlin. pp. 103–121.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Han, S. S. (2005). "Global city making in Singapore: a real estate perspective". Progress in Planning. 64 (2): 69–175. doi:10.1016/j.progress.2005.01.001.
  5. ^ Lee, K. Y. The Singapore story: memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, vol 2, From third world to first, 1965–2000. Singapore: Time Media Private Limited.
  6. ^ Chuang, P. M. "Singapore remains a top FDI destination globally". Business Times. Retrieved 11 April 2018.
  7. ^ Ng, J. S. (20 June 2017). "Geylang private homes to be returned to the State when leases expire in 2020, no extensions allowed". The Straits Times. Retrieved 11 April 2018.
  8. ^ Department of Statistics Singapore. "Land Area". Retrieved 16 May 2018.
  9. ^ Commonwealth Secretariat. "Singapore: History". Retrieved 17 May 2018.
  10. ^ a b c d Han, S. S. (2010). "Managing motorization in sustainable transport planning: the Singapore experience". Journal of Transport Geography. 18 (2): 314–321. doi:10.1016/j.jtrangeo.2009.06.010.
  11. ^ Richmond, J. E. D. (2008). "Transporting Singapore—The Air‐Conditioned Nation". Transport Reviews. 28 (3): 357–390. doi:10.1080/01441640701722363.
  12. ^ a b "A World Class Land Transport System: White Paper". Land Transport Authority.
  13. ^ a b c Land Transport Authority of Singapore. "Land Transport Master Plan".


  • Tan, Sumiko. "Home, work, play." Urban Redevelopment Authority, 1999 ISBN 981-04-1706-3
  • About Us, Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA)
  • Dale, O.J., Urban Planning in Singapore: The Transformation of a City. 1999, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Lim, W.S.W., Cities for People: Reflections of a Southeast Asian Architect. 1990, Singapore: Select Books Pte Ltd.
  • Bishop, R., J. Phillips, and W.-W. Yeo, eds. Beyond Description: Singapore Space Historicity. 2004, Routledge: New York.

Further readingEdit

  • Yeoh, Brenda S. A. Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore: Power Relations and the Urban Built Environment. 2003. Singapore: Singapore University Press. ISBN 9971692686
  • Yuen, Belinda. Planning Singapore: From Plan to Implementation. 1998. Singapore: Singapore Institute of Planners. ISBN 9810405731
  • City & The State: Singapore's Built Environment Revisited. ed. Kwok, Kenson and Giok Ling Ooi. 1997. Singapore: Institute of Policy Studies. ISBN 9780195882636
  • Wong, Tiah-Chee, Yap, Adriel Lian-Ho, Four Decades of Transformation: Land Use in Singapore, 1960–2000. 2004. Cavendish Square Publishing. ISBN 9789812102706