Daniel Leong moves on from playing Sim City to planning the Lion City.
Cities are our greatest collaborative achievements with their complexity, diversity and energy. Our city is among the most advanced and dynamic in the world, and the planners of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) have the privilege and responsibility to guide its continuing evolution for the benefit of its citizens. This is a challenge and a calling that I embrace as a local planner in the URA.
My fascination with urban planning was first enkindled through SimCity (as an avid virtual mayor, I have played most versions), and was strengthened through sketching cities in Southeast Asia, China and Australia (which is a great way to sit unobtrusively in a public space and observe the different ways in which citizens inhabit different cities). After junior college, I applied for the URA Undergraduate Scholarship and secured not just a job but a privilege that would allow me to play a part in shaping Singapore. Fortunately, all those hours of building virtual metropolises and doodling architecture paid off.
Practical Experience In New York
This scholarship allowed me to study at Columbia University in New York City. The Urban Studies course enabled me to approach the city from a multidisciplinary perspective and I had covered urban economics, politics, planning, film and history. Sociology equipped me to understand how the lives and behaviours of citizens are affected by a myriad of factors (psychological, social, economic, environmental and so on) in their city.
It made a big difference to study cities in one of the world’s greatest cities. The professors constantly used New York as a resource, a laboratory and a perspective. They used its streets to investigate the factors that make a great public realm, its historic architecture to demonstrate how economics, politics and function shape built form, and its citizens to explore the causes and effects of the greatest asset of urban life: diversity. New York City positively teems with fascinating people, and there were many deep and stimulating encounters within the classrooms, living rooms and subway cars, in bars, restaurants and theatres, on sidewalks, stoops, fire escapes and roofs, with friends and strangers alike.
I also had the chance to intern both in the public and private sectors of city-making. I worked for six months on updating PlaNYC, the sustainability blueprint for New York City, with the Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. I also spent two months with the urban design team at AECOM Beijing working out master plans for new urban areas in China.
I also had two internships with URA, where I was part of the teams preparing for the Master Plan 2008 exhibition, researching public engagement methods for the Concept Plan 2011 and investigating illegal sublets. These internships complemented what I learnt in the classroom with practical experiences to see how urban government and development work in different cities.
After graduating, I took up my post as the local planner for Queenstown in URA’s Physical Planning Group. Physical planning is about deciding where things – from houses, schools and malls to parks, sewers and roads – should be placed in the city. As a result, local planners are exposed to many interesting fields, from school management to public housing design, from power grid engineering to biodiversity. To me, physical planning is like a knapsack problem: you have a limited space to pack in the most and the best stuff in the best order (for example, polyclinics go together with MRT stations but not factories). But in today’s complex operating environment, it is also like cooking a stew: you can follow a recipe and consult chefs and diners, but sometimes you just have to think out of the box and try something new.
After two-and-a-half years on the job, I find the knowledge and experiences I gained from my undergraduate days still useful in daily work. In particular, I still use urban sociology and ethnographic methods on frequent site visits to Queenstown’s many mature neighbourhoods, to go beyond just observing the form of the city to also understanding how people’s lives are shaped (or hindered) by the built form. Also, as URA pursues the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in analysing and mapping urban data to gain actionable insights to guide planning, a methodological course on GIS that I had taken in school has proved to be invaluable.
Being a local planner is a heady responsibility. More than 60,000 people live in the area where I am in charge of its planning. It is a stimulating and exhilarating job, where my analytical and problem-solving skills are constantly put to the test to find the best solutions to problems involving multiple stakeholders and interests.
It is also a highly social job, as many cases cannot be solved adequately without working closely with partners from other agencies and organisations, and, of course, your own teammates (sometimes over dinner and/or drinks). It is also a uniquely rewarding job. After proposals are approved and things get built, it is very satisfying to see people enjoying things in the built environment that I had a hand in shaping.
Our city is a great city, and it is a privilege to be able to play a role in directly shaping it for the future and for everyone. Take up the URA Undergraduate Scholarship and join this on-going effort.
Daniel Leong Ji Yung
URA Undergraduate Scholarship
Now: Planner, Physical Planning Group, URA
Attained: BA in Sociology & Urban Studies, Columbia University, USA
From: Raffles Institution