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Singapore Goes Underground

by Joshua Kurlantzick
September 27, 2013

People walk through Ion, a mall on Orchard Road in Singapore on May 7, 2011. The mall has many stores located underground. (Russell Boyce/Courtesy Reuters) People walk through Ion, a mall on Orchard Road in Singapore on May 7, 2011. The mall has many stores located underground. (Russell Boyce/Courtesy Reuters)

On Wednesday, the New York Times had an extensive article about how Singapore, which hopes to expand its population from around 5.4 million today to around seven million people in fifteen years, plans to house its mushrooming population given its severe scarcity of land. Singapore is, of course, an island, it has already reclaimed large portions of land from the sea around it, it has a reputation for maintaining green space that is critical to its ability to attract companies from around the world, and it already has built nearly fifty skyscrapers in the downtown area, with more to come. So, in Singapore’s classically planned-to-the-hilt style, the city-state is considering building an extensive underground complex including shopping malls, walking areas, bike paths, and research and development areas.

Singaporeans have been discussing the underground concept for at least four years, well before the Times picked up the story, and the city-state’s government already commissioned an extensive feasibility study, which has given the approval for the idea for a large underground science R and D center. And given the scarcity of above-ground real estate, and popular concerns in Singapore about income inequality and the high cost of living, the possibility of sizable underground property becoming available, relatively cheaply, for companies and possibly homeowners is likely to be relatively popular. And even if the idea is not so popular, when the Singapore government makes a long-term plan, it doesn’t usually junk the idea.

But I find the idea very worrisome. Sure, Singapore needs to plan for global warming and land scarcity, and other cities in the region, like Bangkok, have done an atrocious job of planning. Bangkokians know their city is sinking into the swamp beneath it, but no Thai government has a convincing idea how to solve Bangkok’s land crisis. Yet in cities that already have extensive underground areas, like Montreal or Toronto Coober Peedy in the Australian Outback, the underground region is necessary but depressing to spend significant time in, and few Montrealers would want to live underground. (In Coober Peedy, which I have visited, it is so hot you need to stay underground, but that does not make the underground catacomb town any less depressing.) The cookie-cutter sterility of the high-rise, above-ground housing development blocks constructed by the Singapore government also does not give one hope that a vast underground complex, even one with parks and bike lanes, will be human-friendly enough to counteract the natural unhealthiness of burrowing into the ground.

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