Urban development through and beyond COVID-19

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Challenges in most of the cities are, among others, centralised development, long commutes and ineffective use of buildings. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about changes that add on to the list of considerations. So, what’s shifting? What do we do to make our urban development robust and resilient? Construction+ attended the Building and Construction Authority’s (BCA) seminar and made notes of the key messages from Yvonne Lim, Group Director (Physical Planning) of Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).

In the retail category, there has been accelerated adoption of e-commerce. Share of online retail sales has increased with the temporary closure of physical stores during the circuit breaker, reinforcing the trend of rising online retailing. This includes parcel orders and interest in cloud kitchens (a commercial kitchen space that provides the required facilities and services to food businesses to prepare menu items for delivery and takeout). There has also been growth of new e-commerce business models, including grocery deliveries called ‘quick commerce’.

Preference towards brick-and-mortar retail prevails given its important role in people’s lifestyle. However, there has been an increasing vary of retail concepts and formats emerging to cater to the changing consumer preferences and habits. Business owners seem to have rethought about the purpose of the physical store—one that is beyond transaction—and so there are more regular refresh of concepts/spaces.

In the office category, the COVID-19 experience has shifted preferences towards spatial design and building features that have a greater focus on health and well-being. The overall impact on office space demand and distribution remains uncertain, but people now expect more flexible work, which may lead to:

  • Demand for provision of conducive work environments in or near homes;
  • Preference for larger housing units, as people spend more time at home with other household members; and
  • Emergence of new office models and design to cater to occupiers’ new preferences.

Considering the changes that have been happening, what we can—and should—do is to optimise last-mile business-to-customer (B2C) urban logistics to support the rise of e-commerce by:

  • Engaging industry stakeholders to understand the changing business models and demands—such as the last-mile logistics facilities, cloud kitchens and ‘quick commerce’ grocery stores—as well as the characteristics of such facilities e.g., locations, size and design;
  • Reviewing policies and developing strategies to support the industry and facilitate new business models;
  • Partnering the industry in developing pilots to repurpose spaces in support of B2C deliveries. This includes implementing designated collection points for food delivery platforms; or using carparks as designated space for logistics companies.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also stressed the importance of the need for varied work spaces in different locations. Therefore, we need to reaffirm plans to develop the central business districts (CBDs) and key growth districts. This is to cater the increasingly diverse mix of users with a variety of options to live, work and play.

In Singapore, one of the economic gateways is Jurong Lake District—the largest (410 hectares) mixed-use business district outside the city centre. What developers, investors and businesses may like about Jurong Lake District includes:

  • The improved rail connectivity and accessibility;
  • The lakeside setting, lush greenery and car-lite environment;
  • The sustainable district infrastructure and Green buildings.

However, there are still some ideas to make Jurong Lake District more attractive, such as:

  • Selling larger sites with attractive option schemes to give developers the flexibility to experiment with new development concepts that are difficult to realise in city centres;
  • Bringing in signature events and creating landmark developments/attractions; and
  • Activating public realms through placemaking and providing exciting F&B, retail and lifestyle options that are different from those downtown.

We could then make our CBDs into dynamic urban mixed-use neighbourhoods. To facilitate redevelopment of older, mono-use office developments into new, mixed-use developments, incentive schemes could be introduced. For example, buildings aged 20 years and above that are predominantly used for office developments (with minimum site area of 1,000 to 2,000 square metres) can be converted into other uses.

The government has given out incentives for such developments to be converted into hotel or commercial areas. The value is at 30 per cent if these buildings are converted into residential with commercial spaces at the first storey; 25 per cent if they are converted into hospitality, commercial and residential; and commercial with 40 per cent non-commercial uses.

Aside from that, the government has also launched the Reinventing Spaces into Vibrant Places (RSVP) programme. This is to inject vibrancy and enhance the character of precincts through the interim activation of selected state properties and vacant land parcels. The sites are intended as platforms for business owners, architects and designers to test creative business concepts and programming. To date, two sites at 45 Sultan Gate and 30 Maxwell Road have been tendered. Other sites will be launched for tender progressively.

In order to build more resilient precincts post-COVID, we need close collaboration with stakeholders. The partnership may include Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) so that we can develop medium-term business plans. This is because urban planning must go hand-in-hand with creating economic opportunities.

For example, the pilot BID precinct in Singapore River, Tanjong Pagar, Raffles Place, Marina Central and Marina Bay have launched new precinct vouchers and tie-ups with F&B reservation and delivery service providers to boost spending, dine-ins and takeaways; and the pilot BID in Paya Lebar Central have introduced new events, programming and installations to draw people to the retail malls.

In brief, to create resilient and robust urban development, we need to continue to monitor possible shifts, consult stakeholders and plan flexible initiatives. With the rise of e-commerce as well as new business models and customers’ behaviours, we have to adapt to new environments and change the way we develop urban areas. Anisa Pinatih – Construction+ Online


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