Land scarcity in Singapore – time to wave goodbye to leisure parks and golf courses?

Photo: Tristan Schmurr/CC BY 2.0

Singapore’s leisure spaces are under threat as more golf courses are being acquired for infrastructure and housing projects. Instead of removing leisure spaces, why not use the opportunity to innovate and make Singapore a housing pioneer?

By Oliver Ward, edited by John Pennington

As plans for a High-Speed Rail (HSR) line connecting Kuala Lumpur and Singapore begin to be implemented, one demographic is unlikely to be behind the infrastructural improvements. Golfers have seen their facilities impacted by projects which look to turn golf courses into housing and infrastructure developments. To set aside the land for the HSR development, two golf clubs, Raffles Country Club and Jurong Country Club, were closed in a government acquisition process which highlights the growing problem of land scarcity in the region.

While land acquisitions are rare and most projects plan their land resources in advance, golfers have reason to feel scorned as the government has taken the axe to courses to meet the growing development demands of the city’s expanding population. Several clubs, including Keppel Club and Marina Bay Public course, have not had their leases renewed and will have to yield to housing developments. This is becoming a trend in Singapore. In 2013 there were 18 courses which occupied 1,500ha, now more than 219ha has already been set aside for other development projects by 2030 despite Singapore Land Authority CEO, Tan Boon Khai, stressing that golf courses were not being targeted for land acquisitions.

Land development is trying to keep up with Singapore’s maturing economy

Development and land planning in Singapore represents a mighty challenge. Singapore is a city state with limited space in which to provide housing, infrastructure, industry and leisure space. With the population expected to grow by a third in the next two decades, land will only become more scarce and sought after. Singapore’s limited space and strict restrictions on building height due to flight paths mean that space needs to be optimised. To keep green spaces, golf courses and leisure parks, compromises will have to be made on housing density, unless alternative solutions can be found.

Land management in Singapore has been undertaken with two core objectives in mind: to promote growth and provide a comfortable living environment. But because Singapore’s economy is growing, Minister for National Development, Lawrence Wong, says land constraints are now tighter than ever before and things are “starting to bite”. With these two objectives in mind, housing, infrastructure and industry will all take priority over social activities like golf and leisure parks as land grabs for project developments become more competitive.

Land reclamation has until now been the preferred solution

In an attempt to solve the issue of land scarcity, the Singaporean government has long embarked on a policy of land reclamation using sand or polder. Over the last 50 years Singapore has added to its total area by a staggering 22%. Singapore was importing six to eight million tonnes of sand annually with 90% of it coming from Indonesia before Indonesia made the decision to ban the exportation of sand in 2007. Since then, Cambodia has taken on the mantle of providing Singapore with the sand necessary for construction aimed at reclaiming an extra 810 hectares of land from the ocean. The latest project in land reclamation involves the construction of four man-made islands for a new luxury living space in the Jodhor Strait, an hour off the shore of Singapore.

However, the policy is not sustainable in its current format. To continue the reclamation, Singapore needs a steady supply of salt-free sand. Singapore claim around 73.6 million tonnes of sand has been imported from Cambodia at a value of US$752 million. Environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have become increasingly concerned by the effect of this sand dredging and mining on the Cambodian eco-system.

One such NGO, Mother Nature, has hired a law firm to investigate and the organisation’s founder Alex Gonzales-Davidson wants to discover whether, “the relevant laws that might have been broken there, in relation to the social and ecological destruction the mining has caused.” If these investigations unearth financial or ecological wrongdoing, Singapore will have to rethink its approach to the land scarcity crisis.

Innovation could save the country’s golf courses and leisure spaces

The Committee on the Future Economy (CFE) is hoping technological innovation can provide the solution to the land shortage. As infrastructural technology is advancing and driverless vehicles become advanced enough for widespread use, these “people mover systems” could help free up some space currently being set aside for transportation such as car parks.

To overcome Singapore’s physical development constraints, the CFE is considering developing underground potential, initially by putting power stations and storage facilities underground to alleviate congestion. That will cost more but will provide a solution to overcome land scarcity and may save the country’s golf courses and green spaces. The Building Construction Authority, who will conduct the underground surveys, said that houses, offices and shopping malls could be underground by 2050.

While the idea is certainly innovative and appropriate for the nation’s industry, the government might have a challenge persuading the general public to move underground. Although subterranean shopping malls and train stations already exist, The Building Construction Authority’s vision would need people to spend far more of their time underground and away from natural light. People are unlikely to agree to spending their lives living deep underground in subterranean communities. Patricia Bian-Hing is one resident who holds this view, saying, “the only time I will go underground peacefully to live will be in my coffin.”

A waterborne future could be the solution

With rising sea-levels threatening Singapore’s already scarce land space and an onerous task ahead in persuading residents to relocate underground, waterborne housing and commercial spaces could provide the answer. As eco-architect Jason Pomeroy explains, “If we design cities or communities to be dynamic, that can float, we have the chance to reinvigorate those water bodies that may have fallen into decline.” Floating communities already exist in places like Bangkok and Cambodia and high-tech floating structures would provide a solution to rising sea levels and housing shortages across the city. Given the access to light and fresh air it may be a more palatable alternative for the general public than a subterranean community.

One reason many places have not embraced waterborne living has been the cost of construction, however, as a floating waterborne structure would be resistant to flooding and rising sea-levels they could save billions of dollars in the long term as the effects of climate change become more severe.

The deadline for Singapore’s green spaces and leisure activities is a pressing one

To keep Singapore’s green spaces and leisure activities a solution needs to be found in the next two decades. Access to open spaces provides a better quality of life and should not be underestimated by the city planning authorities. Their vision of a subterranean Singapore may solve the logistical problem of special shortage but limited access to natural light would not provide the comfortable living environment which has been a core objective of the land development of Singapore.

A waterborne model would provide a sustainable model for future living in Singapore and provide a buffer against rising sea levels and flooding. Singapore has the opportunity to make itself a community of the future and it can capitalise on this. Let the golfers play in peace; instead of redeveloping their clubs, redevelop the way we construct houses and make Singapore a housing pioneer.