Singapore - the global city

Posted: 2 October 2002

Author: Don Hinrichsen

With four million people squeezed onto an island of just 647 square kilometres, developing a populist planning culture was the key to Singapore's success in building a modern city state unrivaled in Asia for its reputation as clean, green and safe. Don Hinrichsen reports.

Like other big cities with limited land areas, Singapore decided to build up rather than out. This decision proved pivotal for it allowed city planners to control sprawl, maintain and even expand parks and protected areas, limit highway construction, build public transport networks and zone development so that people could live and work in the same areas.SingaporeView of downtown Singapore from a flower-covered bridge.© Don Hinrichsen Planning for people's needs with the central aim of maintaining a high quality of life prompted Singapore to build a number of satellite towns - Ang Mo Kio, Tao Payoh, Woodlands, Tampines, and Jurong West. All are connected by a rapid transit rail network and bus lines to central Singapore. However, each satellite town is planned so that residents can live and work in the same community without resorting to long commutes to the city centre or to other parts of the island.

Behind Singapore's planning culture is the Concept Plan, a strategic development framework that is updated every decade. The current Concept Plan, drawn up in 2001 with inputs from all ministries and the public, sets broad-based development plans for the next half century. The vision of the Concept Plan is, in turn, translated into 55 detailed "development guide plans" which address specific land use needs such as housing, commercial and industrial development, transportation and recreational facilities.

Neighbourhood planning

This transparent process, with inputs from citizens and communities, allows for local development planning by neighbourhood. "We take planning very seriously here in Singapore," points out Michael Koh Soon Hwa, Director of Physical Planning in the Urban Redevelopment Authority. "Since Singapore is land short and resource short, we had to develop an extensive planning culture. Our survival and growth depended on it." The new Concept Plan allows for an eventual population of 5.5 million within 50 years.

Another feature of urban planning that separates Singapore from virtually the rest of the developed world is its liberal housing policies. "We want every citizen to have a stake in the city's development, in its future," observes Hwa. Instead of creating a city of car owners, which is what characterizes most of the urban areas of Europe and North America, Singapore created a city of house and apartment owners. Fully 86 per cent of all Singaporeans live in public housing apartments (flats) built by the Ministry of National Development; the rest live in condminiums or houses. Over 90 per cent of Singapore residents own their own apartments or houses, a rate unmatched anywhere else in the world.

With ownership comes more involvement in civic affairs and quality of life issues. This hands-on, people-based approach to urban planning and development has allowed Singapore to develop and nurture its "garden city" image. Currently, Singapore has 2,340 hectares of parks and green areas, just under 3,000 hectares of nature reserves and 2,158 hectares of protected watershed in the middle of the island which provide half of Singapore's freshwater needs. The city-state gets the rest of its water from next door Malaysia through a long-term deal with the state of Johor.

Green oasis

However, what is most notable about the city's addiction to green space is not the amount, but the quality. The city has four large water reservoirs protected completely from any development since 1860. When Singapore began to develop rapidly in the 1970s, farsighted city planners formed a "garden city action committee" in 1973 with members from each of the city-state's mainline ministries. This helped to ensure the city's long-term commitment to setting aside and maintaining nearly one hectare of green space for every 1,000 people.

Moreover, Singapore's central watershed, protected since the city was founded by Sir. Thomas Raffles in 1819, contains perhaps the world's only urban old growth tropical rainforest. This oasis of greenery supports a profusion of life on just 52 hectares of land and is a living laboratory for botanists and others studying pristine forests.

Not satisfied with setting aside parks and protected areas, Singapore has also embarked on a new campaign to provide 245 hectares of "park connectors" by 2010. These are green corridors cut through urban areas of the city that will eventually connect every park and reserve on the entire island. The corridors will contain bike paths and hiking trails, affording residents other options for getting around in the city, while experiencing nature.

Pollution plan

Maintaining environmental quality has always been a central part of Singapore's master plan. Currently, Singapore's Environment Ministry operates six large sewage treatment plants, covering 100 per cent of the population. Each plant has two stages of treatment. The effluents are discharged through out-falls into deeper offshore waters. An experimental sewage treatment plant at Bedok, with three stages of treatment, produces effluents so clean that the water is used by the semi-conductor industry to manufacture silicon wafers.

The city is just as meticulous about disposing of its solid wastes. Four large incinerators reduce 85 per cent of the city's solid wastes into fly-ash that is then deposited in a monitored landfill located on an offshore island. A recently introduced recycling and re-use program expects to capture up to three-quarters of the paper, metals and organic wastes generated by Singaporeans, transforming wastes into useful products.

With only one in ten Singaporeans owning a private vehicle, air pollution is not a problem. The city's residents make close to 8 million trips per day using public transport. The average level of nitrogen dioxide in 2000 was just 30 micrograms per cubic metre of air, well below the US EPA standard of 100 micrograms per cubic metre of air. Similarly for the same period, suspended particular matter (mostly from industries, power plants and incinerators) averages only 10 micrograms per cubic metre (the US EPA standard is 50 micrograms per cubic metre).

Another oft over-looked aspect of urban air quality is the city's tremendous amount of greenery. Trees and shrubs not only produce oxygen, they also act as natural air-conditioners cleaning and cooling the air. Singapore has another distinction: it is the only large city in the world that soaks up more carbon dioxide than it produces, making it a carbon sink.

"Singapore is an excellent example of how the combination of land use planning, urban planning and transportation planning can help create a sustainable city for the 21st century," states Loh Ah Tuan, Director of the Environmental Policy and Management Division of the Ministry of the Environment.

Don Hinrichsen is contributing editor to People & the Planet, he is author of the latest issue of Population Reports on the Urban Revolution.