the perfect Singapore map for exploration (first thoughts)

Singapore has some superb online map resources. Mining them for whatever they are worth greatly helps exploring the city, its urban treasures as well as its off-road trails, but still leave out much that a pedestrian would want. The perfect doesn’t exist, I know, and striving for it often hides the good enough from view. Let me describe my thoughts and wishes about ‘perfect’. Who knows, it may trigger someone out there to translate them into something good enough.

I call this ‘first thoughts’ because I plan/expect to add to it in the future. Needs and wants are only partially givens; they also and largely arise in one’s interactions with the world, in this case my continued exploration of the red dot. And – I hope – that will include input from others out there, thinking alike and along.

My ideal map has the following features

Shows all relevant city exploration info in one map

The city is a magical place, chock-a-block with amazing sights and sounds and possibilities. From the explorer perspective it is irrelevant that a park is a different kind of sight than a heritage building, or a foodcentre. But governments, and Singapore is no exception,  divide their bureaucracy into ‘agencies’, each responsible for their own turf. Singapore’s agencies put some amazingly helpful map resources online. Among the most helpful are:

  • NParks: most importantly park connectors
  • HDB: public housing info, hawker centres, sights of interest
  • URA: conservation areas & heritage buildings, architecturally distinguished buildings

But, for quite a while now Singapore has also had a very commendable effort to make the information of all its manyfold agencies available on one platform/portal:

Unfortunately, although onemap is great for bringing nearly everything onto one platform (with the utterly weird exclusion of NParks pretty crucial park connector map), one still needs to click to different maps to see all one would want to see. And onemap doesn’t seem to have an option (yet?) to upload one’s own routes, and make them available to others (as in the my maps facility of google maps). All observations/thoughts below refer to the PC/laptop version, not the mobile one.

Uses a basemap that shows most of relevance clearly and add layers for what needs improvement 

Onemap offers a plethora of different basemap options. What is good in one basemap, e.g. clearly showing the pedestrian overpasses (the default; for figuring out optimal pedestrian routes essential info) is much less clear in some others (e.g. the URA conservation & monuments map). For a city explorer like myself, the designated heritage is quite core to my interests. The default map with the conservation & monuments info as a clickable layer would thus have been the ideal combination. The way it is made accessible now is not ‘onemap’ enough for me.

Makes the relevant info appropriately visible at all scales 

What Nparks does with its park connectors (and what e.g. google maps does when one imports a GPS track into it) is project the info in a way that makes it usefully visible at all scales. When your zoomed out, you see the park connector/GPS-track, and when you zoom in, it remains visible in more or less the same way (in other words, the ‘thickness’ of the track adjust to the scale).

In the maps of the other two agencies (especially on the URA-map) the park connectors become invisible when you zoom out. Being able to zoom in and out without loosing sight of what is important for figuring out interesting/promising routes is hugely useful.

The reverse is also true: the HDB map only starts showing block-level info when one zoomes in, so its map doesn’t allow for an island-wide, or even ‘regional’ (e.g. Jurong West) overview of how public housing is located.

Adds the gaps in the existing online available info

Maps of individual agencies have layers, and those layers sometimes contain more and sometimes less information than a city explorer would need. Of the wealth of data contained in the ‘housing’ layer of the HDB map (relevant for those looking to buy or rent), only a little bit is of interest (‘lease start date’ – indicating when estates were build). But onemap’s choice of what it includes is different. I have no beef at all with the presentation of what is included. They appear as symbols one can click to get a pop-up description.  I have no way to improve on this – very user-friendly and very helpful for showing what a route has to offer.

But there are serious gaps. To point to the most obvious example: heritage as depicted in the so-called conservation areas and buildings as shown on the URA map (which is different from the ‘places of heritage’ included in the HDB map layer) only includes what has been ‘designated’ as such. Which means that lots of what any somewhat architecturally and/or historically interested explorer would consider interesting enough to make a detour for. E.g. most of the HDB pre-decessor SIT’s buildings are unmarked, most colonial Black & Whites are unmarked, and even some of Singapore’s most iconic buildings like the People’s Park Comples, or The Golden Mile Complex are unmarked. To give another more prosaic example: there are many more food centres than the so-called ‘hawker centres‘ (government agency owned) and for the hungry and thirsty and in-need-of-toilet customer the difference is not important. Thus that layer has many gaps.

It is not that the ‘gaps’ would require extensive research. Most missing info is readily available but none of the agencies has so far considered it relevant to include it in ‘their’ map. And thus it doesn’t show up in onemap. All very understandable because each map has been designed with specific users and specific purposes in mind.

And on top of agency data, why not make onemap also a portal for the often outstanding work of Singapore’s non-academic natural and historic heritage researchers, who publish their findings on blogs? To give but one well-known example:

Indicates temporarily closed roads, park connectors, etc. on the map

Onemap has an option showing traffic obstructions. But for a pedestrian there is way more than that affecting her navigation around Singapore. I’ve ranted about Singapore’s car-centric take on what matters (the rhetoric has changed but the voice of car interests still seems to weigh heavier than any other). That longer-term closures of the rail corridor, of whole sections of parks like Jurong Lake Gardens, of popular trails like the Kampung trail and the Durian loop (Bukit Timah/Riffle range park), of park connector sections like the bit along the Sungei Bedok South of Upper Changi Rd East, or even permanent closures of whole parks like Bukit Gombak, are not visible on onemapis testimony to my ranting having some base in reality. I’m sure temporary closures of (sections of) parks, part of the PCN, etc. are always announced somewhere, one can find plans etc. online, somewhere, but the only sensible way to make sure that such info is easily accessible and avoid disappointments is to indicate them on that one ‘master’ map.

To summarize so far

Onemap would come much closer to serving my exploration needs if decisions about what to map would include pedestrian (and cycling) city exploration considerations. The available map seems totally focussed on finding services and officially ‘recognized’ places, and navigating efficiently. Exploring the city, as a resident or a visitor/tourist, is not about efficiency and is enriched by info that is currently not on onemap’s radar.

To some extent the most glaring example for this is the way HDB’s ‘heritage’ is being dealt with by onemap. Singapore is justifiably proud of its stunningly successful public housing history. Now look at it from a city exploration perspective: HDB dominates the cityscape! But hardly anything practically useful is available to quickly identify when a particular estate was approximately build (based on physical characteristics), where particularly (architecturally) noteworthy examples are to be found (and obviously I’m also referring here to the often superb new complexes), and how to make optimal use of the public nature of these estates to use them as traffic-free/pedestrian thoroughfares to get from A to B – let alone on a map….

Before continuing, let’s lighten up a bit with something all of us will recognize, maybe hidden deep down and never expressed, but undeniable nevertheless…

Such a map would allow for showing

Routes connecting places of natural, historical, architectural, whatever interest

The kind of routes that I try to design, weaving their way through the cityscape in the most pedestrian (and cycling) friendly way possible. To the extent possible, linking up with each other, connecting everything in a web of endles diversity. The basemap and its layers would provide all the necessary access (bus/MRT), food/drink/toilet, and sights-of-interest info.

Thematic routes

Singapore has plenty accessible info on a plethora of places catering to a specific interests. Some of these places will be named on the basemap (but not explicitly flagged), others will be part of one of the additional layers and thus covered by a clickable symbol, some may need to be specifically marked by an pop-up connected to a specific route. Obviously these are not always ‘doably connectable’ on foot, but if they are, a thematic route would show what the nicest way is to do so.

Where one can walk/run on unpaved surfaces

As I have described elsewhere, despite what I feel is a urban planning preference for pavement as the default option, Singapore has way more possibilities to leave pavement than generally recognized. Many are right in front of our blind eyes. If I were in charge, I would go for a colour scheme that indicates sections of a route which offer a e.g. 75% or more off-road possibility.


Singapore has many, and maps of specific walking routes often include them but a Singapore-wide map offers the possibility to ‘master’ map them. This would include well-known viewpoints like the the pagoda in the Chinese gardens, the Jelutong tower in MacRitchie, and the Henderson Waves in the Southern Ridges, but also places like the sky terraces of Skyville@Dawson and Pinnacle@Duxton, waterfront promenades like West Coast and Labrador Parks (for spectacular harbour views), etc. etc. etc

Where the major pain points are in connecting parts of the city

The nature of these pain points may vary, but the majority will be large roads without appropriate pedestrian overpasses/underpasses, and inaccessible areas (military and other off-limits stateland, impassable secondary growth greenery, and larger privatized areas (including facilities like golf and other clubs, but also landed properties, and industrial complexes). Obviously some, maybe even much of this just is what it is, but at least some pain points might be removable, be it by creating a connection (e.g. trail through a forested area), or building some infrastructure (footbridge, boardwalk, whatever is appropriate and affordable) be it by some right-of-way arrangements with owners. The first thing on the way to change is to make the problem visible.

Having said all that

What I would really like to have is a detailed handdrawn map of all of Singapore. Totally impracticle, outdated at the moment of its release, but nothing beats it for a map lover like me. One of my personal favorites is the work of compratriot Jan Rothuizen. This is a drawing of one square in Amsterdam; imagine the whole city drawn like this!

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