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URA – An Urban Planner’s Education

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Aaron Ong finds his studies at Cornell University ­challenging, exciting and empowering.

I was originally set on pursuing ­Geography for my tertiary studies in the UK.  ­However, as I was serving National Service, I had time to think through what I really wanted to study and applied to other universities.  By then, I already had the URA Scholarship.  My URA mentor working in the Strategic Planning Group suggested that I consider a degree in Planning from a US university, as it will be a better fit for my personality and academic goals.

I remember being in a dilemma.  As I explored my options, many returned URA scholars who had either studied Geography or Planning, or who had specifically completed a Planning degree in Cornell, took time off to share their personal experiences and clarified my doubts.  ­I ­eventually chose the Urban Studies programme at Cornell and never looked back.

According to American planner Paul ­Davidoff, planners frequently have to ­coordinate amongst many agencies and ­functions.   From enforcing urban ­design standards to formulating social and ­economic policies, a planner’s education must be broad-based.  It must not only ­include the technical tools of the trade, but also impart knowledge in areas such as ­social justice, law and environmental psychology.

The need for a broad-based ­education became evident as I embarked on my eight-week internship with URA in June 2014.  During my four weeks in the Physical ­Planning (North-East) Department, I witnessed the deliberation of ­bread-and-butter ­cases, sketched a new design to reconfigure Serangoon Gardens, and developed a set of principles governing activity on Pulau Ubin.  In my first month alone, I had already learnt and employed a wide range of skills.

My subsequent four weeks in the ­Planning Policies Department ­further exposed me to the complexities of ­macro-scale planning with a 50-year ­horizon. How do we increase public ­transport mode share?  Is our supply of end-of-life ­facilities ­sufficient in the long term?  How do we balance ­biodiversity conservation and our ­development needs?  Under the close guidance of a senior planner, I gained a deeper understanding of URA’s ­comprehensive planning process.

Doing planning in a professional setting has been ­invaluable.  In school, I am able to analyse ­urban ­theories from a practitioner’s ­viewpoint.  Knowing the challenges facing Singapore, I am now able to ­select a mixture of classes that will best equip me for my future career as an ­urban planner. Beyond the classroom, my extensive travels during breaks have proved fruitful as well.  As I ­explored major cities like New York, Chicago and Houston, I gained insights into the myriad strategies that city planners use to tackle urban problems.  These ideas will certainly prove useful when I return home.

Ever since I received the URA Scholarship in 2011, this community of architects, urban designers, and planners has been most supportive. Perhaps it’s the ­unspoken commitment to our common goal – to make Singapore a great place to live, work, and play – that keeps this community such a tight-knitted and spirited one. I am thankful to have chosen this meaningful career, and more importantly, with an organisation that places utmost value in its people.

Aaron Ong Chee How
URA Undergraduate Scholarship
Age: 22
Now: 2nd year doing BSc in Urban & Regional Studies, Cornell University
From: NUS High School