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‘We will continue to find innovative ways to overcome our land constraints’

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) is Singapore’s national land use planning and conservation authority. URA’s mission is “to make Singapore a great city to live, work and play in.” We strive to create a…

Peter Quek Ser Hwee
Director, Information Systems
Urban Redevelopment Authority, Singapore

Peter Quek shares with Geospatial World how URA is using geospatial technology to enable informed decision making on land use in the island nation

What are the activities and mission of Singapore Urban Redevelopment Authority?

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) is Singapore’s national land use planning and conservation authority. URA’s mission is “to make Singapore a great city to live, work and play in.” We strive to create a vibrant and sustainable city of distinction by planning and facilitating Singapore’s physical development in partnership with the community.

We adopt a long term and comprehensive planning approach in formulating strategic plans such as the Concept Plan and the Master Plan, to guide the physical development of Singapore in a sustainable manner. Our plans and policies focus on achieving a balance between economic growth and a quality living environment.

To turn its plans and visions into reality, URA takes on a multi-faceted role. In addition to its planning function, URA is also the main government land sales agent. Through the sale of state land, we attract and channel private capital investment to develop sites to support economic and social development. URA also actively promotes architecture and urban design excellence. Drawing on our experience in integrated planning and urban management, URA provides consultancy for overseas bilateral projects and shares our urban planning experience through professional training programmes.

Singapore has been a popular destination for both work and living across Asia and globally too. Give its scarce land resources, how is technology being used in urban planning in Singapore to manage the demand on its land resources?

It is true that given Singapore’s land constraints, there will always be competing demands for land to support housing, businesses, commerce, recreation, utilities, and transportation. To make informed decisions on land use and the trade-offs involved, our planners require current and accurate information on land and buildings to be readily available. One important tool we leverage on to tackle the challenges of land use planning is InfoComm Technologies (ICT) and specifically the use of our enterprise GIS system. The ICT and our enterprise GIS system provide critical tools to enable us to carry out integrated long-term land use planning for Singapore, achieve greater efficiency in delivering our services, and engage the public better in our land use planning work.

When did URA start using geospatial technology?

URA has been using GIS for land use planning since 1995 when we implemented the first GIS in URA called the Integrated Land Use System (ILUS), which was the first integrated GIS implemented in Singapore then. ILUS was an enterprise GIS that managed land use planning and developments in Singapore. ILUS comprised data conversion of hard copy records of project files, planning approvals and paper maps from as early as 1960s. ILUS had resulted in increased productivity, including reduced time taken to prepare land use plans, evaluate planning proposals and process development applications.

In 2006, URA migrated ILUS to Integrated Planning and Land Use System (iPLAN) which runs on a GIS software platform from Esri.

Tell us more about iPLAN. How does iPLAN help you achieve your objectives in efficient urban planning?

iPLAN is among the world’s first nationwide enterprise GIS for urban planning and it contains comprehensive land, building, planning and approval information to enable our planners to access information necessary for their planning work efficiently. It is used to help carry out a whole spectrum of planning work from strategic planning and safeguarding, processing of development applications, to land use consultations.

iPLAN comprised the development/ customisation of both desktop and web-based GIS, various business modules and a comprehensive training program to prepare staff on the use of the system. The design of iPLAN resulted in a quicker information retrieval which is significantly faster by more than 80 percent as compared to ILUS.

Featuring more than 100 map layers on aspects such as planning constraints, buildings and roads, and land use information, iPLAN acts as a common repository that facilitates knowledge retention, search and retrieval. The system also facilitates decision-making on land use planning and collaboration with other government agencies. iPLAN has allowed our planners to leverage the latest technology in enterprise GIS, 3D modelling and simulation, aerial photograph imaging, map services and enterprise content management system in their daily work.

With the iPLAN infrastructure, we were able to publish our Master Plan and other planning-related information for free public access through the Internet. With an increasing adoption of smart phones, URA has implemented a number of mobile geospatial applications such as the mobile version of Master Plan 2008 and the Property Market Information app to reach out to mobile users. The Master Plan 2008 app was the first iPhone/iPad application made available to public by Singapore Government.

In 2008, we implemented 3D Digital Urban Model System to facilitate the innovative use of rich information from our GIS for advanced analysis, simulation and visualisation to support more effective decision making. The URA 3D Digital Urban Model System is a nation-wide integrated 3D planning and visualisation system which complements the use of iPLAN.

What other benefits has iPLAN created for URA?

iPLAN is facilitating strategic business decision-making in the land use planning process through the GIS spatial decision support and expert checker module called the Scheme Checklist. Scheme Checklist replaces the manual overlay of multiple maps for planning analysis and checks. This feature allows planners to make decisions accurately and quickly and facilitate analysis on complex scenarios. The scheme checklist implementation is unique to URA as it integrates multiple information such as planning constraints and site requirements and generates reports for analysis and decision making.

In addition, iPLAN improves operation efficiency through various innovative and customised GIS tools, flexible spatial query, and integration of multiple data sources. It also facilitates collaboration with other government agencies through common GIS data exchange standards, for electronic consultation and electronic submission among agencies.

How do you ensure that your workforce is adequately skilled to apply these technologies?

As Singapore’s land use planning authority, it is important to ensure good GIS competency amongst our staff for efficient business operations. URA invests in continual training and skill set upgrade for staff and adopts the People Developers’ Standard for its training programmes. As part of an induction programme, new staff who are required to use GIS in their daily work, such as planners, architects and technical staff, will be sent for training. At the same time, URA has developed a set of customised GIS training programmes for existing staff and a refresher session is carried out at department level whenever the need arises.

URA’s IT Division has a dedicated GIS team which is capable of designing and developing applications. We review our key IT systems including iPLAN regularly to ensure that the system can cater to current and future business needs. Where necessary, we will implement enhancements and system upgrades to adapt to new business changes.

URA is also taking initiatives to reach out to the public in urban planning process. Can you elaborate on it?

One of the key projects we are currently undertaking is the use of iPLAN in the drawing up of Master Plan 2008 and public consultation. iPLAN was used as a geographic knowledge system to assist in the preparation of the Master Plan 2008 (MP2008), support public engagement and facilitate faster decision making by integrating GIS technology with electronic document management and workflow systems.

The Master Plan is the statutory land use plan which guides Singapore’s development in the medium term over the next 10 to 15 years. It is reviewed every five years and translates the broad strategies of the longer-term Concept Plan into detailed plans to guide development. The Master Plan shows the permissible land use and density for developments in Singapore.

iPLAN was used to digitise and prepare the electronic versions of the draft Master Plan, as well as Special and Detailed Controls Plans. The digitised Master Plan was later published via the iPLAN Internet Map System (IMS) as part of the public consultation exercise and about 200,000 viewers accessed the IMS during the launch of the public consultation on the draft Master Plan.

The iPLAN IMS and MP2008 project have enabled URA to reach out to the whole nation, allowing the public to view and provide feedback on the MP2008. We were able to engage a much bigger audience, including those who may not have visited the Master Plan 2008 exhibition at the URA Centre. In addition, overseas Singaporeans and foreign investors could also access MP2008 through the Internet.

The web-enabled maps, interactive visuals, and 3D videos in the website provided an engaging and effective means of publicising the planning proposals to the general public. URA was a pioneer in the use of interactive maps, visuals and 3D technologies for public consultation on Master Plan to gather input.

Geospatial technology is moving beyond desktops/laptops to platforms like Web and mobile devices. Are there any initiatives from URA to make your information available on these platforms?

Yes, we are implementing a project called Mobile/ Smartphone GIS. With an increasing use of smart phones and tablet devices such as iPhone and iPad, URA has implemented smart phone versions of Master Plan 2008 and Property Market Information in-house. We are now working on making more of our geospatial eServices available on different mobile devices and operating systems.

URA is also adopting 3D GIS. Kindly elaborate on how and in which aspects it is being incorporated? How can it help address challenges in urban planning of the future?

One of our key developments is in the area of 3D GIS. Recognising the potential of 3D GIS, URA entered into a collaboration with Esri Inc. and Esri Singapore in 2010 to explore the integration of GIS and 3D digital urban models to facilitate physical planning and urban design works.

The URA Digital 3D Urban Model System is a nation-wide integrated 3D planning and visualisation system. High quality 3D models are created from computer-aided design (CAD) drawings which ensure architectural accuracy. These detailed 3D models, together with URA’s comprehensive 2D GIS, form an integrated 3D-GIS platform. This integration facilitates the innovative use of rich information for advanced analysis, simulation and visualisation to support more effective decision making in urban planning and design.

URA Digital 3D Urban Model System was built not only to innovatively serve the needs of the jurisdiction and the community, but to embrace a cutting edge technology. The combination of 3D technology with 2D GIS technology has provided URA staff and their community with the tools to visualise the impact of urban development. The visual analysis provides a value added segment to the evaluation processes supporting the most educated decisions when building a greater Singapore. The use of 3D visualisation has become a tool for Singapore’s marketing and communication of their land use plans. Quantitative impacts were given in terms of both “man-days” and monies saved to date, along with estimates of future benefits. Many different groups are now making use of the system and specific examples were given of projects/studies that used the system, along with visual representations for each.

This integrated system is deployed to key business groups in a multi-department environment. Since its pilot implementation in 2009, the system has helped URA achieve an estimated manpower savings of 340 man-days and cost savings of SGD 100,000 over 2 years, by facilitating effective visual presentations, communication of plans and urban simulation studies. URA Digital 3D Urban Model System will achieve savings of 5000 man-days and SGD 750,000 over the next five years through more efficient business decision making, e.g. faster and more accurate 3D analysis without the need for time consuming creation of physical models for visual analysis, and improved productivity for business users in business operations, e.g. ability to quickly create various simulation options for comparisons through integration of business rules, GIS information etc.

There are many key significant outcomes of this URA Digital 3D Urban Model System. For example, it has radically transformed the way the government engages the general public. At the 2009 National Day Rally, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong captivated the audience by taking them on an enthralling simulated 3D flythrough of the centrepiece of our city, the new Marina Bay. This was broadcasted on our national television as well as streamed live over the internet. A worldwide audience was able to visualise the exciting changes planned for Singapore’s waterfront city skyline. This flythrough was made possible by the URA Digital 3D Urban Model System.

The URA Digital 3D Urban Model System will benefit URA by bringing our planning function to a whole new level and transform the manner in which we engage the professional communities as well as public. In addition, it can be extended to other public agencies to facilitate better policy and decision making at the national level. This will contribute to the whole-of-government effort and create synergy among different public agencies.

What are the challenges you face in project implementation?

A key challenge is to cater to requirements from multiple user groups comprising technical staff, architects and planners. Hence, we have to employ the right GIS tools of varying sophistication to meet different users’ work requirements in order to achieve outcomes based on common goals.

Is URA’s data integrated with any government data sharing system?

Urban planning and urban management cannot be done in isolation and by URA alone. It requires a whole-of-government approach where agencies involved in economic, social, environmental and infrastructure come together to plan for the long term land use needs and to ensure that Singapore has sufficient land to support future economic and population growth as well as maintain a high quality of living environment. This calls for agencies to come together to share planning, population, economic, infrastructural data etc in an effective and timely manner. URA’s GIS system is plugged into a central geospatial data system known as GeoSpace operated by the Singapore Land Authority. Through the GeoSpace system, URA is able to share and exchange up-to-date geospatial information with other relevant government agencies in a timely and efficient way to facilitate our planning work.

Efficient urban development requires not just efficient land use but a synergy with other aspects like transportation. How does URA achieve this kind of synergy?

“Infrastructure planning is a key part of our land use planning. As part of our integrated planning approach, URA works with other agencies to ensure that infrastructure are planned and developed in a timely manner to facilitate and support developments in Singapore.

For example, comprehensive road and rail network is planned to ensure good connectivity islandwide, and to serve the developments, taking into consideration the anticipated traffic generated from the planned developments. Convenient pedestrian linkages, public spaces and landscaping are all carefully thought through and implemented in a timely manner. Supporting utility services such as water, electricity and telecommunication plants and lines are also put in place to support developments.

In planning our infrastructure, Singapore is also constantly looking at new and innovative ways to optimise our land use and make best use of our limited land. High density developments are planned near transport nodes so that more people can leverage on the good accessibility and connectivity provided. Our major canals and inland reservoirs are beautifully landscaped into “lakes and streams” that integrate with developments and create recreational spaces.

Through integrated long-range planning of our land use together with infrastructure, we are able to ensure that developments are well-served and our city grows in an orderly manner. As Singapore grows and develops in future, we will need to continue to plan ahead and find innovative ways to create attractive living environment and overcome our land constraints.”