SINGAPORE (Aug 12): The Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Singapore Master Plan (both the 2014 and the Draft 2019 iterations) is a well-thought-out, comprehensive, and sensible plan to ensure Singapore is ready for the future of city living and working.

The plan details how it will facilitate the journey from home to office, and the public and green spaces that will be created to provide not just an efficient use of space, but also for beautification and recreational pur­poses. It is a plan for a city that knows its land space limitations, and wants to ensure that every square inch serves a purpose.

Not only that, the master plan is also preparing the country for a digital economy, taking into account developments ranging from mobile payments to the use of data analytics to inform decisions for coping with spatial and demographic changes in the years to come.

The city state is not alone in its concerns about the future. All major cities in the world have a master plan for rapid urbanisation and an increase in population, even as they face space limitations.

Hong Kong has the Hong Kong 2030+ Plan, which is a strategic study to “update the territorial development strategy and provide a spatial planning framework to guide the future planning, land and infrastructure development of Hong Kong” beyond 2030.

London, meanwhile, has its London Plan, which outlines the city’s broad-based strategy over the next 20 to 25 years and acts as a guide for its economic, transport, environmental and social development. The plan aims to tackle some of the old city’s biggest issues — the lack of affordable housing, rising costs, inequality and a London Underground system that is clearly showing its age.

But as we have seen in these cities, just planning for infrastructure and other tangible aspects is not enough. The intangible issues at the heart of every city — quality of life, safety, a sense of identity and belonging — often go unmet.

In London, as the average monthly rent rises to as much as £1,588 ($2,702) a month, young people are forced to seek creative alternative arrangements, from the imaginative to the unsavoury — while some choose to live out of mobile homes or have become professional house-sitters, others are being solicited by their landlords. Crime rates in the city have risen.

In Hong Kong, even as millionaires live in the lap of luxury, an estimated 200,000 citizens live in “coffin homes” the size of cupboards, in crowded subdivided flats. Hongkongers are also some of the most overworked people in the world, with many slogging up to 75 hours a week, compared with the global average of 40 hours a week.

The consequence of ignoring the wellbeing of the people is rearing its ugly head in Hong Kong, where protests have been going on since March. Priced out of the housing market, unable to cope with the increasing costs of living and depressed wages, the protestors are not taking to the streets just to object to the extradition bill; they are protesting against a government that has failed to listen to their plight.

Singapore is held up as an example of what a well-planned city looks like. But what does it mean to be Singapore, and Singaporean? How is the city helping to fulfil its people’s intangi­ble needs, give them a sense of purpose, and help them find meaning in their everyday commute from home to work? Are we a nation driven solely by economic efficiency, where success is measured in the per capita GDP we churn out?

In May, audit firm Deloitte found that Singaporean millennials are less satisfied with their lives than their peers around the world, and are largely pessimistic about the country’s economic outlook in the next 12 months. In its poll of about 13,500 millennials across 42 countries (200 in Singapore), it found that only one in five (20%) Singaporeans surveyed said that they were satisfied with their lives now, compared with nearly three in 10 (29%) globally.

Are Singaporeans truly content? How is their mental wellbeing? One in seven Singaporeans has experienced a mental disorder such as a bipolar disorder or alcohol abuse in his or her lifetime, according to the December 2018 Singapore Mental Health Study, up from one in eight just a few years ago.

Statistics like these should spur a conversation about how we can find meaning and purpose in the endless grind of city life. This conversation must be held at the same time as, not separately from, the formulation and execution of the overall Singapore Master Plan, because a city is its people. If the welfare of the people are not met, the city cannot be a true success.

This story first appeared in the 54th National Day special of The Edge Singapore (Issue 894, week of Aug 12) which is on sale now. Not a subscriber? Click here