What are the essentials for realizing the full potential of underground development?
Cheryl Lee: There are several key factors. Effective planning is the starting point in the process. In 2014, the Urban Redevelopment Authority in Singapore called for an underground study to support the efficient and coordinated use of Singapore’s underground resource. Ongoing, effective use of underground space requires the Singapore government to develop comprehensive regulations that effectively guide the use of underground space.
Integrated master planning is essential, and this requires coordination and inclusion of government and private stakeholders, and the public, especially to properly link underground infrastructure to existing surface infrastructure. These steps also apply to underground development around the world.
Underground construction involves its own set of safety considerations. Of course, technical expertise is another necessity. Cost of construction is a major factor; underground construction is typically more expensive than above-ground build. However, with the introduction of more state-of-the-art technology, underground excavation can become safer, quicker, less costly and more easily achievable.
It is difficult to overstate the value of planning properly for the use of underground space—considering the social, environmental and economic impacts of use. It is also important that governments and institutional leaders possess the financial capacities to fund underground construction. Feasibility studies and cost-benefit analysis help to identify major cost and time savings, as well as areas where productivity can be enhanced during the construction phases.
Can you explore the potential impact of subterranean development on Singapore’s central business district [CBD]?
Cheryl Lee: Singapore’s CBD consists of both new and old buildings, skyscrapers and conserved buildings, along major roads with frequent traffic and pedestrian movement—very densely populated areas.
It is important to keep in mind the potential impact of subterranean development on the CBD during construction. Here is where the necessary factors discussed earlier come into play—such as safety for underground construction and the overall site to ensure that the ground settlement is controlled well to avoid damages to surrounding buildings. Detailed damage assessments would also be required and conducted to ensure the existing CBD buildings within the precinct are kept in a safe and serviceable condition.
Subterranean development can certainly bring positive impact for pedestrians; underground networks provide convenient and seamless connections between, transport facilities, key spaces and attractions, and the advantage of all-weather comfort.
How can the experience with the pandemic inform the planning and design of underground spaces?
Cheryl Lee: The pandemic has changed lifestyles drastically. We now rely on technology to enable people to work from home, students to learn from home, and people to take care of their daily shopping needs online, such as banking and shopping for groceries; almost everything can be done from home without the need to walk out of our front door. But it is important to also consider what communities want urban places to provide—their purpose—and how infrastructure can support more livable cities.
Safe distancing and other measures to create healthier environments, both aboveground and below, will continue to be considered in our designs. For example, the overall underground ventilation system could be improved to reduce the spread of viruses and airborne contaminants. All common touch points and common area surfaces should be coated with a self-disinfecting coating. Public toilets in the underground space should be specially designed with improved hygiene. These steps, which also apply to aboveground infrastructure, can go a long way in designing spaces that support people’s health and wellbeing in the underground environment over the long term.
Looking ahead, what are possible uses of underground space?
Cheryl Lee: Current use of underground space in Singapore reflects functionality and adaptation to human activities. Going forward, there are numerous possibilities such as farming or urban agriculture through hydroponics. Other potential areas are laboratories, light-industry factories, data centres and swimming pools.
We should also think about how we can maximize the value and usage of these underground spaces. For example, an underground farm can be designed with a secondary purpose by functioning as a public park; underground carparks can also be utilized as driving schools or for recreational purposes such as a go-cart track; facilities to accommodate large capacities—theatres, concert halls or sports arenas—can be located underground, freeing up more land aboveground.
As I mentioned earlier, this is a pivotal time to influence and set a proper course for sustainable development in Singapore. Although we have some regulations in place for underground development, considering the objectives of the recent COP26 [2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference], the big question is, How can we do more with underground space and advance toward net-zero carbon emissions?
1 “The remarkable history of Dutch polder systems in the Netherlands,” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2010
2 Charting Singapore’s Low-Carbon and Climate Resilient Future, National Climate Change Secretariat Strategy Group, Prime Minister’s Office, 2020