Uncovering the Underground

Calendar 29 November 2018
Time 4.00 pm – 5.30 pm. Registration from 3.30pm, seated by 4.00pm 
Location  MND Auditorium, MND Annex A, 5 Maxwell Road Singapore 069110
cpd 2 BOA-SIA CPD pts, 2 SIP CPD pts


Lecture Poster (246KB)
Lecture Report (1.64MB)
Prof Yong Kwet Yew's Slides (4.8MB)
Mr Peter Stones's Slides (1.3MB)

Lecture Video & Photos

Source: Jurong Rock Cavern
Prof Yong believes that Singapore currently has the capability and technology to shift heavy and pollutive industrial utilities underground to free up land above for living and recreation. 
Source: Jurong Rock Cavern
Prof Yong believes that Singapore currently has the capability and technology to shift heavy and pollutive industrial utilities underground to free up land above for living and recreation. 
Source: Jurong Rock Cavern
Prof Yong believes that Singapore currently has the capability and technology to shift heavy and pollutive industrial utilities underground to free up land above for living and recreation. 
Source: Jurong Rock Cavern
Source: Centre for Liveable Cities
Source: Centre for Liveable Cities


In the face of increasing land scarcity, developing underground spaces would be the next frontier for Singapore’s urban planning. Currently, these spaces are reserved mainly for transportation. However, through a Underground Masterplan and technological innovation, spaces for other infrastructure, logistics and even research could be shifted below ground, leaving more surface land for housing and recreation.

In this lecture, Prof Yong Kwet Yew will be sharing his research on underground land use in Singapore. What are the key policy, economic, technical and human behavior drivers affecting its development and what can be learnt by studying the creative use of subterranean spaces worldwide?
A panel consisting of experts from both the public and private sectors will also discuss how to further develop underground spaces and what we can look forward to in the future.

Lecture Report

“We have to see how to make good use of underground spaces. Having been involved with underground space development, I see the challenges. Without a clear plan, it’s going to be a struggle in time to come. Right now, we’re already facing a struggle, not (for) engineering solutions, but because you have to spend more and the risks are higher when you have to navigate a new structure amid the existing structures.”
- Prof Yong Kwet Yew


Could Singapore become more liveable if transport networks, industries and infrastructure were shifted underground? This future prospect was raised by civil engineering professor Yong Kwet Yew at the recent CLC lecture and panel discussion “Uncovering the Underground”.


Outlining his vision of Singapore in the next 50 years, the National University of Singapore professor imagined a city where many developments have moved below the surface, including roads, services, reservoirs and even commercial spaces.


“It’s all about liveability. At some point, we’re going to run out of (surface) space. If you want a better quality of life, put environmentally unfriendly, polluting, noisy industries and infrastructure underground,” explained Prof Yong who co-chairs the Ministry of National Development-National Research Foundation’s research and development committee on land and liveability.


While underground space development was a key strategy put forward by Singapore’s 2008 Inter-Ministerial Committee on Sustainable Development, Prof Yong noted that the city was “far behind the global curve” in using them.


“From an engineering perspective, there’s really no limit to underground space (construction), including areas under the seabed. The limit often lies in the economic and commercial viability of the project,” he said.


But this is a matter of perspective. “Bear in mind though that when land prices get expensive, it makes sense to go as high as you can and as low as you can. The higher costs are also compensated by savings on facades, and studies have shown that (underground spaces) can have lower energy consumption as well,” added Prof Yong. “We should see the higher costs as a trade-off with a better environment.”


While Singapore already uses underground tunnels for many of its infrastructure and services, this can be done even more efficiently with a “mother of all tunnels” instead of housing them separately today. “You would only need to find the right depth that meets all the requirements and do the tunnelling once. But this needs to be done early, at the planning stage, even before we need it,” he explained.


Over the last decade, the Singapore government has been gearing up for the development of underground spaces. Fellow panellist Adele Tan, who is the group director of strategic planning at the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), shared that the government has been organising data on the city’s underground spaces and geology, including building virtual models. Its aim is to put things underground where it is “meaningful and feasible”. For instance, when it helps optimise the use of the city’s limited land, improve the quality of the urban environment above-ground or enhance connectivity. Other reasons include if it is safer or makes the infrastructure more resilient.


“Broadly, we are prioritising (for underground spaces) utilities, transport, storage and industrial facilities,” said Tan. “Our priority is to make sure that the above-ground is a very good quality living environment for people to enjoy, and we put the infrastructure underground to make the city work.”


This shift in planning is being felt on the ground, said panellist Peter Stones from engineering firm Arup. The senior engineer has encountered an increasing number of new estates and business district that require considerations for their underground spaces.


“(Technologically), we’re at that tipping point where we can handle the complexity of underground space, such as the geology, the existing structures, the interwoven mess of utilities,” said Stones. We can start to handle and visualise it, and that’s a key differentiator now versus 10, 15 years ago. We’re at an opportune moment in our path of underground space use.”


The social and ecological impact of underground space development was also discussed during the panel moderated by Dr Hossein Rezai of the SingaporeMilan Research Lab. Prof Yong noted the importance of hearing diverse perspectives before embarking on a project and cited the recent proposal for an underground rail line to go under Singapore’s Central Catchment Nature Reserve. Discussions with environmentalists and groups like the Nature Society opened up another dimension regarding the impact of an underground space on nature and wildlife.


“We learned about the flora and fauna that was important to protect, and it was through that dialogue that we start to see how to do things better and try to protect the environment through engineering solutions,” he said.


This report first appeared in the Dec 2018 Better Cities newsletter.


About the Speakers


Prof Yong Kwet Yew
Professor of Civil Engineering and Senior Vice President
(Campus Infrastructure), National University of Singapore;
Scientific Lead and Co-Chair,
MND/NRF Land & Liveability R&D Committee


Prof Yong Kwet Yew is a Professor of Civil Engineering at the National University of Singapore, and is an expert in the field of geotechnical engineering, tunneling and underground construction. He is the Scientific Lead and Co-Chair of the Ministry of National Development and National Research Foundation’s Land & Liveability R&D Committee, which has a focus on Space and Sustainability, as well as the Cities of Tomorrow Programme. Prof Yong has published over 200 technical publications, been involved in over 100 major infrastructure projects and chairs several professional and government committees including the International Panel of Advisers to the Land Transport Authority.


Ms Adele Tan
Group Director (Strategic Planning)
Urban Redevelopment Authority


Adele Tan is Group Director of Strategic Planning at URA, responsible for long-term land use planning for Singapore. In her 20 years of public service, she has been involved in a broad range of land use planning areas, from planning for an aging population, to developing a master plan for our underground space.


Mr Peter Stones
Senior Engineer
(Civil and Environmental)


Peter Stones is a Senior Engineer at Arup. He co-authored “Underground Space Development: Key Planning Factors” following a benchmarking study with URA informing the development of Singapore’s future Underground Space Master Plan. He also has a long track record of practical underground space planning regionally and was the lead planner in projects such as the Jurong Lake District Underground Space Master Plan.


Mr Peter Stones
Director of Web Structures,
Singapore & Milan Research Lab


Dr Rezai is an engineer, a design visionary and an educator. One of the initiators of the concept of “fusion engineering”, he is the first and only engineer to receive the coveted title of “Designer of the Year” from the President of Singapore under the President’s Design Award in 2016. He is passionate about advanced computational design, and a holistic approach to architecture + structure + environment. Dr Rezai’s high-profile contributions to industry discourse include his recent service as a member of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture’s Master Jury (2016), and as a Jury member for the President’s Design Award (2017 - 2018), amongst many other competitions and awards.