Special Interview: Yap Lay Bee

The theme of this year’s Seoul Design International Forum is ‘Re-connect: Design as a value creator’. What do you think the city government should do to improve the value in the cities and in the lives of their citizen through design? And for that, how should the city’s design organization be structured? I believe that organizational structure is one of the most important parts of maximizing the value creation of any organization. When organizing the city government’s workforce, how can the design organization be structured to maximize the value of design? Also, what factors should be considered?

Many successful cities around the word share one key attribute - a high-quality urban environment, brought about by a strong emphasis on excellent architecture and urban design. In Singapore, we are proud to be recognised globally as one of the world’s most liveable cities. A key contribution in achieving this accolade has been our long-term and integrated approach to planning which ensures that sufficient land is safeguarded to meet our future economic, housing, social and recreational needs, and our integrated approach to land use and transportation planning which ensures that developments are easily accessible by road and public transport, and that the city is walkable and pedestrian-friendly. The long term planning approach and timely investments in supporting infrastructure networks have given us the reputation as a “city that works” – one where high quality buildings are designed in the context of their surrounding urban landscape, and where buildings have mixed uses or shared public spaces that are able to enhance social and community life. This has not been achieved by Government initiatives alone, but through setting out clear and strong visions and plans and through close partnerships with the design and creative community, professionals, developers and other industry stakeholders.

Marina Bay, Singapore’s most ambitious urban transformation project to date, provides a good illustration. Land reclamation works for the area began in the 1970s as part of plans to construct a new expressway to bypass the city. Subsequently, the city planners saw an opportunity to undertake additional reclamation to allow for future expansion of the existing city centre to support Singapore’s growth as a major business and financial hub in Asia. To ensure the development of the area into a distinctive, dynamic, and delightful public space, much emphasis has been placed on the planning and urban design of Marina Bay. For example, the defining skyline that has become synonymous with Marina Bay was carefully considered and is a harmonious composition of low-rise buildings along the waterfront with higher buildings rising up behind. This helps to create a more intimate environment along the waterfront promenade and safeguard views to the Bay from buildings that are set further back. Providing spaces for public enjoyment is one of the key strategies.  The waterfront promenade as well as key streets were planned to be lined with activity-generating uses, such as shops and food and beverage establishments, to help activate the public realm throughout the day. In addition, public art was introduced to create points of interest and delight and enliven the public spaces. Beyond the physical transformation of the area, our place management efforts have helped to guide and shape the character of the area through the programming of events and activities to inject buzz and vibrancy. A variety of large-scale events, such as the National Day Parade, Marina Bay Singapore Countdown, and the annual Marina Bay light art festival – i Light –,  are all held at the Bay, helping to make it a space for the nation to gather to celebrate. 

Within the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), we also recognize the importance of driving public awareness of good design. Our Architecture and Urban Design Group has an arm set up specifically to promote architecture and urban design excellence within Singapore and to showcase the country’s strengths in planning, architecture and urban design to the world. For instance, we work with the  public and designers yearly through the URA-REDAS SPARK Challenge to develop design prototypes and interventions that could enliven public spaces. On the international stage, Singapore Pavilions at exhibition events, such as the Venice Biennale and the World Expo, bring local architecture and design achievements to the global audience. 

If there is an important case as an example of efforts made by city governments or public institutions to create social value, please introduce it. It may be difficult to answer because there are so many examples, but I would appreciate it if you could introduce an example of efforts to improve social value carried out in other cities or institutions that you would like to introduce to Seoul. 

Making our city walkable with vibrant streets and public spaces is a key consideration in our plans to make Singapore more liveable and people-centric. This is one of the drivers behind the establishment of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA)’s various programmes to encourage and enable the community to play a greater role in activating and shaping the use of our public spaces and streets. Through these programmes, we help the community get their projects off the ground. This allows them to start small – with one or two activities or projects to assess the feasibility – and seek buy-in from other stakeholders, before applying for financial support for longer-term or more regular initiatives. Recently, the Lively Places Programme was jointly launched with the Housing Development Board (HDB) to better support community-led efforts in enlivening public spaces and streets in the heartlands. Anyone with good ideas can apply to implement their installations and ideas through this programme. Getting the community directly involved in shaping our streets and public spaces strengthens their sense of ownership, identity, and emotional connection to the areas where they work and live. Since its introduction, the Lively Places Programme has provided funding and training support towards the implementation of over 200 ‘ground-up’ projects that have enlivened public spaces throughout Singapore. The community also contributed over 60,000 volunteering hours under the programme.  

With the COVID-19 pandemic, we are living through challenging time. How can design strive for social innovation or improvement of public life in the post-COVID era? Or, we would be grateful if you could tell us how the role of design in the past and the role of design in the future will be different in response to climate change and various social and technological changes

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a focus on health and wellness. This has highlighted the importance of prioritising the provision of green and open spaces in our land use planning. Today, with more than 40 per cent of our city covered in greenery, Singapore’s vision to be a ‘City in Nature’ is becoming a reality. 

Part of the vision of a ‘City in Nature’ includes introducing nature into the urban landscape and integrating it into residents’ everyday lives. Our extensive network of parks and park connectors provide spaces for exercise and respite, and we will continue to prioritise the provision of greenery and plan for more parks and open spaces near where people live, work and play. This is complemented by our LUSH (Landscaping for Urban Spaces and High-Rises) programme which aims to capitalise on developments as a means to inject greenery as buildings get developed. We want to create an urban environment that is cradled by nature, designed with naturalised landscapes and verdant parks and gardens, shaped by nature-based designs and planting. Even within our dense city centre, our urban landscape is interlaced with nature in the form of skyrise greenery.

Beyond providing visual relief and space for respite and recreation, greenery has also proven to have a cooling effect on both buildings and the micro-climate. Not only does it provide shade and cool our outdoor environment, greenery also reduces the solar heat gain of buildings, thereby lowering the demand for energy in buildings to cool the indoor environment. With increasing concerns regarding the effects of climate change, Singapore will continue to work with research institutions and industry partners to study the use of smart technologies and simulation tools in the design process to develop greener and more resilient buildings with ample green spaces, shade, and enhanced wind circulation to mitigate and combat the impact of urban heat island effect.

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