On 12 February 2022, Dr Liu gave a talk to more than 8000 participating officials of the Henan province, China, via an online video conference that included an interesting exchange of questions. During this 2-hour talk, Dr Liu shared not only his experience during his career with the Housing Development Board (HDB) and Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) the civil service, and with MORROW, but also his experience in the urban planning and development of Singapore that saw its transformation into the world-class city it is today.
From slum settlements to skyscrapers
Back in the 1960s, Singapore was a poor and backward country that had three-quarters of its population living in slums. Fast forward to 1985, and Singapore has had a total makeover, to become a liveable and progressive city, with 80% of its population housed in public housing (HDB blocks). Furthermore, it had a central business district (CBD) filled with skyscrapers, while also boasting colourful historical districts, and marine and environmental biodiversity.
Not only did the cityscape evolve over the decades, but Singapore’s population also saw an increase of 3.4 times over the past decade to the current 5.7 million. However, Singapore’s GDP has increased by a whopping 137 times, testament of the good planning and policy formulation that has allowed Singapore to become a world-class city within 25 years.
Smart urban planning
Dr Liu then shared the main goals of planning — the people and land — encompassing the liveability and resilience of a city for the people, and the function and ecology of the land. It has to be done with consideration of many factors in order to create a virtuous cycle to complement both the administration and planning of the city, which can also be considered the software and the hardware respectively. The purpose of the development has to guide the process, and it hence involves more than simply just stacking buildings together.
Sound urban planning has to begin with wise government policies and strategies, before strategic urban planning for the functionality can be done. The infrastructure and government measures have to be put in place together with the design guidelines. When it comes to land use, the land also has to be segregated for government and private development, with architectural design coming into play only after these foundational steps are met.
When planning for a city, the different parts of it have to be treated as a family unit and not as separate entities. This means that each town is further subdivided into secondary new towns, and there exists a centralised business district where the highest-level functions can be performed. The definitions of a centralised business district must be clear. Comparing the layout with a human body, the ‘organs’ of a city comprise the commercial centre supported by the industrial area, airport, and seaports, while the heart of the city would be the highest level of the service industry. With the face of the city as the most critical image it portrays, the centre of the city is where citizens are able to move around in the public spaces, with the CBD being the most important commercial and public centre.
Pointing out three of the crucial factors required for good urban development — government, land, and plan — Dr Liu emphasised that the long-term, continued expansion of a city is driven by the power of smart urban planning. This is also dependent on three key elements of art, science, and value, which requires urban planners to have a humanist heart (value), a scientist head (science), and an artist eye (art).
The secretary of the provincial party committee, Mr Lou Yangsheng, gave a speech, and also highlighted how planning is indeed the soul of urban development. Party officials were also advised to strengthen their sense of responsibilities for the history and knowledge of urban planning in order to be “good planners”. Mr Lou also expressed how the rich details of the cases have inspired him. In addition, he pointed out how many famous historical cities and buildings in China have become richer in their significance and cultural penetration, as a result of urban planning.
Potential opportunities in the Henan Province
Even though the cities in the Henan province are largely different in terms of the environment and size, Dr Liu highlighted that good urban planning coupled with effective implementation is something that can be replicated to suit cities of various sizes, and can speed up the city’s economic development. Furthermore, there are many urban development opportunities for the many cities of the province of Henan.
Situated at the intersection of a dual axis cutting across historical cities of China’s central plain, the province joins more than half of the ten historical capitals of China, with four of them in the Henan province. Furthermore, with Kaifeng City being the architectural capital of the Song Dynasty, it can be built into a world-class historical city.
With 55% of the Henan province urbanised currently, not only do the historical cities need to be protected, existing urban areas will need to be renovated in order for new urban areas to be built. Therefore, Dr Liu introduced the concept of constellation cities to aid the development of the Henan province.
In conclusion, urban planning has to be done as a complete plan, and not a patchwork of smaller plans. The plan need not be a hundred percent perfect, but it should be complete for the city and its environment is able to satisfy the various needs of its people without damage to its ecology. Ultimately, the urban planning of the city also decides its fate, and should hence be well thought out and adequately supported by the government and its policies.