Cheong Koon Hean.jpg

Photography: Jeff Chang; Hair and Make-Up: Vinna Er

The first floor of HDB Hub, the headquarters of the Housing and Development Board (HDB), always crackles with anticipatory energy, thanks to the daily influx of aspiring homeowners. But the top floor of this building, with its full-length windows, has a different vibe. Here, Toa Payoh—the first town designed and developed by HDB—is laid out before you, older slab blocks side by side with newer flats that reach much higher into the sky. Trees line the roads and green spaces dot the estates. In a way, it’s the Garden City condensed into one sweeping view. 

“Our vision of a Garden City has kept us focused even as we planned 30 or 40 years ahead,” veteran urban planner and HDB CEO Cheong Koon Hean believes. “We had to develop innovative planning solutions and harness technology to support our growth. For example, to overcome our small size, we create the illusion of space in the way we juxtapose our buildings with green and blue elements. A good example is Marina Bay which doubles up as a reservoir.”

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Koon Hean played a pivotal role in the dramatic transformation of Marina Bay during her tenure as CEO of the Urban Redevelopment Authority. She took the helm at HDB in 2010, and recently became the first Asian, and Singaporean woman to receive two prestigious international honours in the same year—the 2016 Urban Land Institute J C Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development, and the 2016 Lynn S Beedle Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. 

Both awards recognise that fostering community spirit is vital to successful urban planning—an ethos that Koon Hean has long championed. “Urban planning is not just about the development of architectural ‘hardware’, but also the creation of ‘software’ that gives a place greater identity and vibrancy,” she says. “Beyond building flats, we see building communities as HDB’s mission. We want to help residents go beyond owning their flats, to owning their community and feeling a sense of belonging.” 

The design of public community spaces plays an important role in this endeavour. Some void decks, for instance, now feature community living rooms furnished with seats and tables, where residents can mingle. Community spaces have also been elevated, quite literally, with the introduction of features such as rooftop gardens on multi-storey car parks. 

“We also pay attention to the location of community spaces,” says Koon Hean. “For example, we are creating social linkways, which are routes where residents are likely to walk, within estates. Locating community facilities along such routes will facilitate more opportunities for social interaction.” The upcoming Bidadari Greenway will see the realisation of this concept.

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The Nichols Prize jury members pointed to Koon Hean’s successful efforts in improving the quality of affordable housing, with a special emphasis on keeping extended families closer together. “We believe that strong families make strong communities and a strong nation, and helping extended families live closer is not only done with physical design but also policy design,” she explains. The mother of two also knows first-hand how enriching it can be to have family close by. “My parents live with me. They were a great source of support when my children were young, and my children learned how to relate to and communicate with the older generation. On my part, living with them has made it easier for me to take care of them.”

These days, the Garden City also wants to be a Smart Nation, and planners now use computer simulation and data analytic tools. But beyond technological advancements, “ultimately, it is the residents who make an estate vibrant”, says Koon Hean. “When a public space is used by people for ground-up initiatives or even informal gatherings, that is when the space has truly succeeded.”  

Tags: marina bay, Cheong Koon Hean, Garden City, HDB, Urban Land Institute J C Nichols Prize, Smart Nation, Housing and Development Board, Singapore urban development