Dr. Cheong Koon Hean is celebrated as Urban Land Institute J.C. Nichols Laureate
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Singapore – Dr. Cheong Koon Hean, a widely acclaimed architect and urban planner credited with shaping much of Singapore’s urban landscape, has been celebrated in Singapore as the most recent recipient of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. Dr. Cheong is the 17th Nichols laureate and the first from Asia. The prize is the highest honour bestowed by the Institute, which is a global, member-driven organisation dedicated to responsible leadership in land use and the creation of thriving, sustainable communities.

The ULI J.C. Nichols Prize recognises a person or a person representing an institution whose work demonstrates a commitment to the creation of communities that reflect the highest standards of design and development. The prize honours the legacy of Kansas City, Missouri, developer J.C. Nichols, a founding ULI member considered to be one of America’s most creative entrepreneurs in land use during the first half of the 20th century. 

Dr. Cheong, whose extraordinary career in city building spans 35 years, is Chief Executive Officer of Singapore’s Housing & Development Board (HDB), which builds and manages public housing for more than 80 percent of the city-state’s population. With over 9 in 10 of them owning the homes they live in, it has one of the highest homeownership rates in the world. Since holding this position in 2010, she has overseen one of Singapore’s largest residential building programs to help address the high housing demand. She has also introduced HDB’s ‘Roadmap to Better Living in HDB Towns’, which guides HDB’s development of well-designed, sustainable and community-centric towns. 

In 2004, Dr. Cheong became the first woman to be named CEO of Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), where she had worked as an urban planner since 1990. In that capacity, Dr. Cheong played a key role in several transformative developments, including Marina Bay, a new vibrant live-work-play destination that created a signature skyline for Singapore. She championed the concept of creative placemaking to inject greater vibrancy not only at Marina Bay, but also in downtown areas such as the historic Singapore River and the civic and museum district at Bras Basah-Bugis. She was instrumental in the development of new growth areas at Kallang Riverside and Paya Lebar, as well as Jurong Lake District, transforming an industrial area into a new regional center with a vibrant community by introducing new housing, retail, and commercial uses. 

Under Dr. Cheong’s leadership, the URA developed a conservation programme that has been recognised by ULI as one of the most comprehensive conservation programmes in Southeast Asia, balancing economic considerations with the need to safeguard Singapore’s heritage. She championed policies and urban plans to beautify Singapore with “sky rise” greenery, ample public spaces and urban art.
Dr. Cheong was awarded the Nichols Prize by ULI Foundation President Kathleen Carey. “What Dr. Cheong has accomplished in Singapore exemplifies what the Nichols Prize is about – being an urban visionary, taking chances, weathering the risks and producing even better results,” said Carey. 

“Doing this has not come easy. It requires collective effort, innovative policies and plans, and dedicated and capable people, all supported by strong leadership. It s heartening that the Urban Land Institute recognises the role of urban planners, many of whom work behind the scenes, to shape cities for a better future,” said Dr. Cheong.

In selecting Dr. Cheong as the prize recipient, Nichols Prize Jury members pointed to Dr. Cheong’s successful efforts to improve the quality of affordable housing – not just increase the quantity – for Singapore’s residents, with a special emphasis on keeping extended families closer together. In raising standards for housing design, she guided the transformation of Singapore’s public housing into award-winning projects, including The Pinnacle@Duxton, Waterway Terraces at Punggol, as well as SkyTerrace and SkyVille @ Dawson. “She has been very effective at finding new ways to make housing for families attainable, and at accommodating the many different cultures and ethnicities in Singapore in socially harmonious communities,” said Jury Chairman Marilyn J. Taylor, professor of architecture and design and former dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design in Philadelphia.

In addition to Taylor, other jury members were: Mark Johnson, president of Civitas in Denver, Colorado; Dana Crawford, chairman, Urban Neighborhoods Inc., Denver, Colorado; Ellen Dunham Jones, professor, School of Architecture, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, Georgia; and Sir Stuart Lipton, a former Nichols Prize laureate and founder of Lipton Rogers Developments LLP in London.