Sustaining Passion and Wellbeing in the City of the Future

Veteran urban designer and planner Rahul Mittal reflects on key trends in the evolution of urban life, and how planners can engage with community aspirations and energies.

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Date Posted

29 Jul 2022


Issue 24, 1 Aug 2022

What are some of the most significant shifts happening in the way people in cities are choosing to live, work and play?

The traditional definitions and boundaries of what it means to live, work and play are now getting blurred. And the pandemic has not just reinforced but accelerated this. Play is becoming quite central to everything that we are doing.

When you think about living: people want connectivity, convenience, access to transport and so on. But along with functionality, they also want access to nature and places of recreation, where you can go and destress. So the notion that you live here, you work there, you learn in this place and you play somewhere else, is passé now.

Something else that is now coming to the forefront, that many policymakers and planners are deliberating, is the idea of owning your own property versus renting your residence. The convention, especially in Singapore, has been that you own your own property and home: it becomes part of your stabilityand your growth as an individual, as a family, as a professional. And now a lot of the millennial generation and the younger population are challenging this. For them, it may be more important where they live, and whether they rent or own their home is secondary. They may feel no need to own property when they could be doing other things with their time and resources. This change in attitude obviously has a lot of implications from a societal standpoint and from an urban planning perspective.

The same thing is happening at work. Since the pandemic obliged more people to work from home, many no longer want to be in the office every day. And when they do come to the office, they want the experience to be more than just about work; it has to have an element of play: which is also about socialising, catching up with colleagues or partners and friends, and talking about things. So play is also seeping into work.

Taking reference from Singapore, we are also seeing a shift in the Central Business District (CBD). Over the next decade, it's going to evolve quite significantly from a CBD to a CAD: a “Central Activity District”. When you come here, your primary goal might be to work, but you may also end up watching a show, going to evening classes, having fun, networking. And this is facilitated by the infrastructure: there’s the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system, heritage buildings and everything else. So the district could be a place where you don’t only spend your 9-to-5 on Mondays to Fridays, but is somewhere you may want to be 18, 24 hours a day, even on weekends.

There are great examples of this around the world: one of my favourites is Melbourne, Australia, where you’ve got offices, residences, sporting facilities, universities, museums, everything’s there. You just need to show up and something interesting will be happening that you can get involved in. To make this work, we need a push not just from the public sector but also the private sector, to make our city centre more vibrant and liveable.

The traditional definitions and boundaries of what it means to live, work and play are now getting blurred. Play is becoming quite central to everything that we are doing.

How can planners respond to these shifts in lifestyles, norms and mindsets?

One of the areas to pay attention to in future is mental wellbeing and happiness. Even with wonderful infrastructure and support systems, people are experiencing a lot of societal stress. This has been heightened by the pandemic and uncertainties because of geopolitical risk or supply chain disruptions.

So, we will need to make sure that our places of living, working and playing should also be opportunities for destressing. Just as sustainability is becoming a mainstream consideration for planning, so too should mental wellbeing and happiness also be a part of that. A stressful place is not a sustainable place.

We need to make sure that for generations to come, people have the same passion, excitement and ideas to make Singapore successful. In my team, we are constantly being challenged by our younger staff: Why should I do this? How does this help the environment? How does this benefit society? And eventually how does it benefit me? Because if I can’t see the organisation striving towards a vision I care about, then it’s meaningless to me. I’m going to find somewhere else to work.

In fact, the public, in all age groups, at all income levels, are becoming very vocal. People want to be heard and to contribute. We are concerned for what’s going to happen, we are concerned about our families and friends. And more importantly, how can we help? Like it or not, if you are not involved, we will go ahead and do it ourselves.

I have seen beautiful examples of people taking over spaces to carry out urban farming on their own, with the requisite permissions. I don’t think that their intent is to feed the masses: they want to raise awareness and get the issue noticed by the public and later the policymakers and politicians, so that something significant might be done about it later.

So, while there is a general increase in nervousness about the future, social media has also allowed people to connect in ways that were not possible before. It has led to people coming together to try and make a difference, and do something, even if it is a small effort, rather than watch the world go by helplessly. We are going to see more of these efforts: some of them may be disruptive, others may be groundbreaking and innovative. For policymakers, it is important to listen to these voices and try to engage with them—whether or not something comes of their efforts.

In Singapore, there are many strategic parcels of land, owned by the Government, which lie vacant for many years. They are good opportunities to test out ideas and experiments. Perhaps some of these can be activated for community-driven activities, as a living lab or a showcase.

The idea is not to have commercial gain from these, but to make the most of spaces in a land-scarce city. Some of these grassroots ideas may fail, which is fine: we can still learn from the effort. This approach gives us a way to safely test these ideas, and gives the community a way to build trust, and show that the Government is prepared to involve them in co-creating solutions. Whether or not they are successful, it will be a great experience for those involved. Even if they were successful, it should be made clear that these are temporary sites, which were never meant to be there for a long time.

Bangkok’s Artbox project is perhaps a close example of how this was done elsewhere: they had shipping containers dropped into the city centre, strung up some lights, opened for the weekend and thousands of people came. Some of the most amazing spaces around the world are successful because they allow people to get involved and at the same time sit back and watch life happen.

The public, in all age groups, in all income levels, are becoming very vocal. People want to be heard and to contribute.

To what extent is inclusiveness an important consideration in planning for a sustainable urban future?

A couple of years ago, when faced with a plan to rezone and develop Emerald Hill, the alumni of the school in that area banded together and carried out extensive community engagement and lobbied the Government not to proceed. This level of community activism is quite healthy, because it shows that a place has a strong relation to a community’s sense of identity and heritage. People are passionate about their memories of a place. That physical connection still matters.

Will growing digitalisation change this? It may be that we end up with a hybrid situation where we have a digital life and a physical life. There will be individuals who are able to cross over easily. And there will be individuals who might struggle in the metaverse. There might be others who will completely avoid entering the digital sphere and just want to stay in the physical. The metaverse may further challenge the notion of owning physical property or assets. People may have a more fluid physical footprint but a more permanent digital presence. I can see a segment of the population who will be comfortable with that and even aspire to it. But there are others who will not be. So this potential divide is something that we’ll need to address.

But the metaverse could also help planners better understand how people interact, especially those who may be a bit reclusive in the physical world, or have difficulties navigating the physical environment, such as the elderly or those with mobility challenges. They may find the digital sphere more liberating, which is great. For policymakers and planners, this can help us understand where we fall short in engaging them in the physical world.

I think the key is to allow for both: to give the virtual world a presence for the people who want to engage more intently with it, while also making the physical world better.

For policymakers, it is important to listen to these voices and try to engage with them—whether or not something comes of their efforts.

Are there challenges and opportunities particular to urban centres in Asia that are different from cities elsewhere?

Singapore is a good example of this. It has a unique system, with cohesive government that allows it to do many things. But it could also have gone very wrong. One thing that I’ve admired is that Singapore is always looking long term: having a 40-, 50-, 60-year view and then working backwards from there: it’s not just the next five years or the next election cycle. It is about having that courage, commitment and vision for the long term, with the financial wherewithal to see it through.

The other point is that a lot of Asia cities must pay special attention to the rapid urbanisation they are undergoing. The challenge is to make sure people can live in high density environments that are also very liveable. And not only liveable, but also affordable: so that they don't push out the middle-income and low-income populations that are equally important to any city. The combination of high density, high liveability, high affordability is going to be key. And the cities which can crack the combination and use that to their advantage, harnessing the power of having many living well in a city—rather than borrowing from incompatible Western models—are going to be the winners.

The combination of high density, high liveability, high affordability is going to be key.

In pursuing liveability, affordability and sustainability in urban development, what should we never forget?

That it’s the people that we are working for and making decisions for at the end of the day. It will be paramount to make sure we are as inclusive as possible; that we are listening, consultative, and communicative.

This is a very scientific process in some ways. It is also an art in some ways. And we have a lot of tools now to help us, by allowing us to understand consumer preferences, behaviours, patterns and so on. Keeping people at the centre and at the core is going to be important.

In this regard, what has been happening with the high level of public engagement in Singapore in the last few years, across all interest groups, irrespective of income and age, is heartwarming and necessary. It’s about understanding people.


Rahul Mittal is Director at the urban consultancy Cistri. He has more than 20 years of consulting experience in master planning, urban design and landscape architecture, and has worked on major projects around the world, including transit-oriented and mixed-use developments, urban infill and redevelopments, business and industrial parks, redevelopment of waterfronts, new town planning, golf course and resort developments, and airport cities. In addition to his consulting work, Rahul speaks regularly at real estate related conferences in the region and teaches in the Master of Urban Planning programme at the National University of Singapore.


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