Asia Life

Singapore Underground: The Lion City Frees Up Space Below

Are Singaporeans prepared to take their lives underground?

Jonathan DeHart

Singapore enjoys a sterling reputation for cleanliness, convenience and slick modernity. Unfortunately, however, conditions are a little cramped in the city-state. With only 714.3 square kilometers to work with there simply isn’t a lot of space to house, employ, and entertain the Lion City’s 5.4 million residents – a number that could surge to 6.9 million by 2030.

This has led to an increasingly heated debate about how to deal with the overcrowding. Given that developers are building on island real estate, they cannot easily expand outward. Reclaimed land is more susceptible to rising sea levels and already accounts for one-fifth of the city’s landmass. This leaves two options: up or down.

Solution A: erect more buildings – preferably tall ones. This option is complicated by the fact that Singapore is on an island. Further, it is already overloaded with high-rise apartment complexes – 4,300 to be exact – towering over the city. Although there is a height restriction of 280 meters put on buildings near the city’s airports and airbases, a hopping 49 skyscrapers have materialized downtown. There are only so many monoliths that can stand on the island’s limited land plots. This reality prompted authorities to consider solution B: go underground.

“Singapore is small, and whether we have 6.9 million or not, there is always a need to find new land space,” Zhao Zhiye, the interim director of the Nanyang Center for Underground Space at Nanyang Technological University, told The New York Times. “The utilization of underground space is one option for Singapore.”

While the discussion about taking things belowground began at least as early as April 2009, the subject has come in and out of media reports in recent weeks. Singaporean politician Khaw Boon Wan also recently advocated for the ambitious idea, citing cities in Canada (Montreal prime among them) and Japan, which are also known to have extensive places to shop and conduct the business of living beneath the earth. Amsterdam is also planning a $14.4 billion underground city project.

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It bears noting that Singapore already has around 12 kilometers of expressways and 80 kilometers of transit lines underground. Soon these transport lines will be joined by shopping malls, transport networks, public squares, pedestrian walking routes and even cycling lanes, which will weave and intersect throughout the earth beneath the city. This is only the beginning. There are also plans to make room for an underground landfill that would hold around 40 years’ worth of garbage. And what’s a landfill without an oil storage facility? When completed, Jurong Rock Caverns will contain nine storage galleries for oil and will be Southeast Asia’s first underground oil storage project, freeing up an estimated 150 acres of land aboveground – for yet more building.

Last year, chatter broke out about a potential Underground Science City, which would consist of 40 linked rock caverns of approximately 25 meters in height and cross-sections of around 500 square meters, totaling roughly 192,000 square meters. The caverns would house data centers, R&D labs, and up to 4,200 scientists doing a brisk trade via research in the IT, biomedical and life sciences sectors. As far-fetched as this may sound, a feasibility study conducted last November all but gave the green light to the cavernous experiment.

While these may sound like clear-cut solutions for Singapore’s space struggles, there are a few major hurdles to get over before borrowing through the belly of Lion City. For one, there is the issue of cost. Building underground is four times more expensive than building aboveground. The planned oil storage facility, Jurong Rock Gardens, will cost an estimated $950 million to complete.

But dig a bit deeper and there is a very human concern at play. Many have expressed an understandable psychological hang-up when it comes to the idea of spending much of their waking lives underground.

“If we think about it, there are already underground spaces here in Singapore and throughout most major metropolitan regions,” said Erik L’Heureux, an architecture professor National Singapore University. “We already have underground train stations and malls, and there are already many buildings here that take advantage of spaces below ground so the real questions are how much time will one spend underground, what goes on there, and how far down from natural light and fresh air.”

“Over the years, many of us have relocated from kampongs (traditional Malay villages) to high-rise living in government flats,” said Joseph Tan, a 69-year-old retired accountant. “Just when we have finally adjusted to living in these residential buildings, there are plans for us to live below ground. At my age, I just hope to live comfortably.”

A retired Singaporean teacher named David Ong added: “Why are the living going underground? Only the dead return to the ground.”