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Hope You’re Well: Building Healthy and Happy Cities

21 October 2021 (Thursday), 4:00pm - 5:30pm (Singapore time: GMT+8)


  • Prof Lam Khee Poh (Dean, School of Design & Environment National University of Singapore)
  • Sima Xiao (Dean and Chief Planner Urban Planning and Design Institute of Shenzhen)
  • Brian Yang (Architect and Partner Bjarke Ingels Group)
  • Curt Garrigan (Chief, Sustainable Urban Development Section UNESCAP)


  • Teoh Zsin Woon (Second Permanent Secretary Ministry of National Development, Singapore)

Prioritise People, Nature, and Flexibility for Healthier and Happier Cities

The COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted the pressing question of how to build cities that help residents not just to live, but to flourish as healthy and happy individuals. City and industry leaders express their confidence in prioritising people-centric, nature-based, and flexible cross-disciplinary approaches for planning cities.

Session Takeaways:

Placing people at the centre

“The Greek philosopher Aristotle said this 2000 years ago: ‘Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.’” quoted Professor Lam Khee Poh, Dean of NUS School of Design and Environment, adding in his own words that “Happy people tend to be healthier people due to lifestyle choices. A healthy city must therefore create inspiring and enabling physical and social environments to support such choices. So, the focus must be on the people that cities are built to accommodate and serve.”

As COVID-19 has shed new light on health and wellness, Brian Yang, Partner & Architect at Bjarke Ingels Group, highlighted that we must reconsider how social connections are formed and strengthened during a time of disruption. During Copenhagen’s lockdown, bakeries, plazas, and parks became important spaces that allowed residents to still feel connected to each other. He emphasised the importance of community-centric design, highlighting the 8 House, an experiment in extending the life of the street into buildings, while creating a “unique sense of community and intimacy, but with the density and programming of an urban perimeter block”. Not only does the 8 House allow residents on high floors to access streets and move from the bottom floor to the top on a bicycle, its design also allows residents to take ownership of the shared spaces and gather together as a community.

For people-centric planning, our speakers agreed that participatory and experiential planning are crucial to building healthy and happy cities for all. Curt Garrigan, Chief of Sustainable Urban Development at UNESCAP, shared how accessible urban spaces are made best when co-produced with its citizens: “While there are technology solutions that could easily be applied, sometimes what's missing is the engagement with end users to identify the access barriers.” Bringing participatory planning a step further to the little ones, Dean Sima Xiao of the Urban Institute of Planning and Design, Shenzhen, shared their “child-friendly city” plan, which builds child-friendly walkways and parks, and invites children to participate in design workshops to encourage and guide their interests in city planning.

Beyond asking citizens, we should also try to experience their perspectives when including them in our happy and healthy cities. Prof Lam fondly recalled asking his students to navigate Singapore’s housing blocks with wheelchairs, as part of his experiential learning pedagogy: “Once they do that, they never forget!”

Connecting with nature and sustainability

In addition to focusing on people, Mr Garrigan also implored the importance of valuing nature: “We need to recognize that the future happiness or healthiness of populations really requires a foundation of low carbon and climate resilience.” He emphasised that there is still much to do to protect our planet, encouraging governments to engage the private and informal sectors in sustainable solutioning. For example, protecting wetlands and biodiversity or harvesting rain gardens breeds multiple benefits for urban communities.

Dean Sima agreed that nature plays a key role in cities, detailing Shenzhen’s philosophy of creating urban ecosystems by integrating natural resources with the city centre, thus integrating multiple functionalities into one space. For instance, Shenzhen created corridors that link the city centre to the nearby mountain and ocean, set up a 24-hour city observation platform for residents to enjoy the view, and co-located a Wetland Museum and Eco-Park right above a subway system.

Encouraging flexible, cross-disciplinary approaches

In agreement with the principle of integrating leisure, environment, and other functionalities, Prof Lam encourages taking on flexible approaches to urban planning: “Don’t isolate and define things in boxes. That means you don't do one thing for one thing only. You provide one thing for five purposes, so that there is multiple flexible use.” He emphasised how limited resources can be maximised, and old infrastructure can be repurposed, such as Singapore’s Rail Corridor, which was once a railway track but now serves as a connected green pathway for residents’ enjoyment and mobility. He further expressed his excitement for a recently announced innovative health district that will connect directly to the Rail Corridor. “Necessity is the mother of all invention,” Prof Lam added, sharing that this spirit of multiple use is what allows high-density cities to be planned successfully.

Prof Lam also encouraged building flexibility through holistic planning approaches, urging different sectors to take action: governments need to ensure equitable planning and resource distribution policies, and the private sector needs to work with governments in driving a “human-centric lifecycle approach to building a city” that goes beyond seeing real estate as a mere commodity. Mr Yang agreed, noting that the private sector also symbiotically gains from the life of the communities they build for. Speaking of his CapitaSpring project in Singapore, he noted that: “With the developer, we never had a single discussion about the economic returns of providing such a space, because there was a deeper understanding that being in the very heart of the CBD, the CBD’s success is tied to the success of the building, and the building is tied to the CDB’s ability to attract people to bring the life of the city into the tower as well.”

With the need for cross-disciplinary work in mind, moderator Teoh Zsin Woon summarised the session with an encouraging note: “The innovation continues, and as we embark on designing new communities to be happy and healthy cities, there is so much to learn from one another across the globe.”

Session Recording: