Putting the WOW into a masterplan

Putting the WOW into a masterplan


A good urban plan must have impact and give a sense of excitement, says Jeffrey Ho, executive vice-president of home-grown Surbana Urban Planning Group, which has won global planning awards


By Jessica Cheam


HOME-GROWN Surbana International Consultants, which used to be part of the Housing Board (HDB), is well-known for winning architecture awards for its work in designing and building Singapore‘s public homes.


But elsewhere in the global arena, Surbana has also carved out a name for itself. It has fought off competition from international firms to win awards and clinch contracts to create masterplans for various projects, and even whole cities.


Surbana’s urban planning arm, Surbana Urban Planning Group, has traversed far and wide to draw masterplans for diverse locations including China, the Middle East, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, South Africa and Cambodia.


Some of Surbana’s masterplans to have won international awards include those for Tianjin Port Island in China, the Van Chuong New Urban Area in Vietnam and Greater Doha in Qatar.


Q What defines masterplanning and what do you consider when planning a new town or project?


A A masterplan is actually a physical plan that defines land uses in a specified area.


More specifically, in our context, it is called urban planning.


This requires a multi-disciplinary group of professionals to put together plans, perspectives, scale models, computer- generated animation and written reports.


There are many aspects of a site that urban planners need to understand before any masterplan can be developed. These aspects are related to existing conditions such as: land uses, transport, landscape, community values and traditions, climatic conditions, constraints, environmental quality, vibrancy and the general feel of the place as a whole.


Q What does the work of urban planners entail?


A A masterplan can take three months to a year to complete.


We develop the plan through site visits and meetings with the relevant authorities, local businessmen, academics, fellow consultants and stakeholders. We also review documents, statistical reports and so on.


We go beyond being a tourist in the country that we are planning for. We have to live and breathe the country.


Sometimes, I find urban planning quite intuitive. Once you understand the place, you have a knack for knowing what goes where.


There is a pattern and formula you can apply, but you need to adapt it to the local context. For urban planning, there is no one fixed approach.


Q What challenges do you face and how do you tackle these issues?


A Sometimes being an Asian firm is a disadvantage as we are competing with very established European firms. But this does not deter us. Rather, it sharpens our professional and negotiation skills.


We started small but we have tried as much as possible to get international exposure. Slowly, after doing more projects and getting a proven track record, we have started to gain a reputation. It’s a very steep learning curve but we are getting there.


Also, Singapore has a tight labour market, which makes it hard to find good and committed people – and cost is high.


Q How different is it working overseas?


A Language can sometimes be a big problem in places such as Vietnam and Cambodia. You need a translator, and sometimes the essence and meaning of words get lost in translation.


Then other things you have to consider include how to find the right place to get the information you need, understanding the political situation of various countries and being able to respond to changes in government policies. Basically, we have to be more flexible.


Q So what makes an iconic masterplan?


A A good urban plan must be what I call ‘imageable’. You have to look at it and go ‘wow’. It must have impact and make you feel a sense of excitement.


If it is well-composed, you also get a certain feeling of ‘comfortability’.


Some key aspects of an iconic plan are: attractiveness, convenience and efficiency.


Our projects in the Middle East are examples of mega and iconic masterplans. One of them is the Al Salam City Masterplan that we did in 2006 – it is a 2,000ha site in Umm Al Quwain – one of the emirates of the United Arab Emirates.


Our clients were so satisfied that they have engaged us to implement the masterplan.


From there, we went on to clinch the biggest masterplan project with the Qatar government: a 4,000 sq km planning of two municipalities.


Most of the Middle East projects are done on a clean slate with hardly any constraints. And here lies the golden opportunity for us to showcase our creativity, capabilities, knowledge and skill in delivering a project on time and meeting international standards.


Q What are some current global trends in urban planning?


A The biggest buzzword now is sustainability. Everywhere you go, people are ‘going green’. Future urban planning will place special emphasis on eco-friendliness.


Environmental issues have always been part of our urban- planning philosophy. But now more than ever, this needs to be expressed physically in our plans, and in the landscape too, using green spaces and green technology.


There are two major trends on top of this – one is the desire to create a ‘must visit’ destination that attracts investment and people.


The masterplan must have that ‘wow’ factor I talked about, that differentiates the location and helps it stay ahead of other developments. This is more prevalent in the Middle East.


In other places like China, the other trend is more apparent – that of using the masterplan to focus on solving issues such as traffic congestion, environmental pollution, housing needs, growing population and the need to conserve.


Q Which is your most memorable project?


A I have to say the next project will be the most memorable one, because you start all over again. Every project is interesting so I can’t really single out any one.


But for me, the greatest job satisfaction is actually the interaction with my clients. If they are really enlightened and are open to ideas, the whole development process becomes very stimulating and inspiring.


Source: Straits Times

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