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Sunday June 4, 2006

Challenge of creating more space


TO squeeze out more land for a proposed population of six or seven million, futuristic-minded Singapore has not only been pushing the sea back, but also digging deep into the bowels of the earth to create space. 

During the past decade, this over-crowded island has speeded up a long-term plan to resolve its two fundamental shortages – land and people.  

It has been carving out large subterranean pieces all over the island to get more land for military, commercial, transportation, industrial and institutional purposes.  

One of its current projects is building South-East Asia’s longest underground tunnel to alleviate traffic jams.  

By next year, when it’s completed, it will have an 18km road that links two other expressways with the tunnel forming half of it, expanding its network of underground transport systems. 

This supplements the 20km North East mass rapid transit (MRT) line, which opened three years ago, most of which runs below ground. 

Singapore, already one of the world’s densest cities with 4.3 million people, plans to have a population of six to seven million by 2030.  

It calls for a long-term creative effort that requires planners to regard land as a non-finite commodity.  

That strategy began just after 1965 by building upward, packing millions of people into high-rise homes and offices.  

Cemeteries were cleared with the citizens, except Muslims, asked to reclaim family members for cremation. 

“In Singapore, even the dead had to make way for the living,” I wrote then. 

This upward mobility will go higher. The government has announced that future Housing Board (HDB) flats will be 40 or even 80 storeys high, compared to the current 20-plus.  

Some of these blocks will be joined by mid-floor walkways for convenience and better land use. 

The second strategy is through reclamation, an on-going process of pushing back the sea. After decades at it, Singapore is now bigger by a whole Hong Kong Island.  

The city’s size of 580 sq km in 1965 has been widened to 650 sq km, a 12% expansion of 70 sq km.  

In comparison, Hong Kong island measures 78 sq km. Singapore could measure 720 sq km by 2010 and 820 sq km by 2030, the timetable depending on the availability of sand.  

The proposed Sands’ S$5bil (RM11.53bil) casino resort – one of two – will be built on reclaimed land in Marina Bay. 

A S$7bil (RM16.14bil) project to join up seven outlying islands was completed several years ago to make up Singapore’s chemical hub.  

But there is a point beyond which reclamation will become exhausted, so burrowing has become more crucial. Some of the soil has been used for reclamation. 

In recent years, underground caverns were created as bomb shelters and storage for ammunition. 

Singapore is also building subterranean ring roads, a science lab, shopping complexes and a S$9bil (RM20.75bil) underground sewage system that will take 20 years to finish. 

Creating a city underground is, of course, slow and very costly but less intrusive, something that goes on almost with interruption through the years.  

Years ago, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew returned from Paris impressed with its central underground ring roads and called for a possible adaptation in Singapore.  

The result is a S$4.8bil (RM11bil) plan to build a network of ring roads below the central business district. The first result came several years ago when Dhoby Ghaut, a five-level subterranean station linking three MRT lines was opened.  

It is linked underground to a shopping complex and the Istana Park and can cater to 20,000 people an hour.  

The need for more space comes as population growth is revised again and again.  

It wasn't long ago that government planners had said that the island republic could comfortably handle a four million population predictably by 2020.  

The figure was reached in the late 1990s, due to a large influx of foreigners. Out of today’s 4.3 million, about a million are from abroad.  

Singapore suffers from a declining birth rate and an ageing population and relies on foreign immigrants for rejuvenation and expansion.  

The projected six to seven million population by 2030 would require possibly naturalised citizens for every one Singaporean born here. 

Some of the planned underground projects include: 

·An underground science complex near the National University of Singapore.  

·The large sewage system that comprises two highway-size tunnels criss-crossing the island, 12 storeys below ground. Stretching for 80km with a series of smaller link sewers running another 170km, the project will take 20 years to finish.  

·The fourth refuse incinerator – a billion dollar project – at Tuas South and an offshore landfill at Pulau Semakau, are on schedule.  

With the acute shortage, land use is strictly apportioned. Just over 50% is used to build homes, schools and hospitals, almost 38% for industrial use and 12% for parks.  

In this new mood, many public buildings, including hospitals, and government and industrial buildings, have been redeveloped to provide larger cover-up area. 

“Underground space is an alternative for the future space development in Singapore,” an official said.  

This could be created in the form of caverns, tunnels and deep basement, for commercial, transportation, industrial and institutional purposes, he added.  

Another idea that is being explored is the use of subterranean space under very large parks, such as the one in Marina South. In Washington DC and Paris, for example, some museums are housed beneath public spaces. 

“Dare To Think” is today’s motto, and town planners and architects are being challenged to come up with any possibility, even building new cities on the sea.  

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