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Singapore, an urban planner’s dream?

On the southernmost tip of the Asian mainland lies a small, odd city state. Small, because it has roughly the same size as the Dutch Noordoostpolder. Odd it is because of many reasons, but in particular due to the fact it is an oasis of wealth and order in a part of our world where poverty and chaos are parts of daily life. I probably don’t need to tell that this description fits to Singapore. Wealth and order are also reflected in its urban planning system; Singapore is often dubbed ‘the urban planner’s dream’. Why exactly is that? And is it actually true? To illustrate these questions, in this article I take you on tour through Punggol, a suburb that is currently still being developed in the northeast of Singapore.

A short introduction to Singapore

One cannot understand Singapore’s planning system without having a basic understanding of its society and history. The table next to this section illustrates that Singapore is a very densely populated, multicultural, multilingual and multireligious society that ranks to the most developed nations on Earth. Singapore as we know it today was established as a British trading outpost in the early 19th century and it remained part of the British Empire until 1959. After its independence, Singapore joined a short-living marriage with Malaysia between 1962 and 1965. In 1965, Singapore was forced to a divorce, but no better decision could have been taken: the country started to develop rapidly as a result of effective government, favourable tax conditions and a very strategic location. It also grew in population; in 1961, just over 1.5 million people were calling Singapore home, relative to 5.9 million in 2017: an increase of a whopping 490%.

Why is Singapore dubbed ‘the urban planner’s dream’ ?

Rapid population growth and rapid development on such a small land area created both the need and the opportunities for a well-thought urban planning system. All these new people needed space to live and the well-regulated economic growth provided the necessary money to organize this in a wellstructured system. Another reason for an adequate planning system could be sought in Singapore’s multicultural divisions: the philosophy was that in order to prevent social conflict, it was better to provide adequate housing programmes in which all citizens, no matter what their background is, would be treated equally. In order to do so, the country is subdivided in 55 Planning Areas, in which spatial planning is fully organized by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), although the system became more market friendly over the years. For each Planning Area, a master plan revision is established every 5 to 10 years. These plans are very detailed: they exactly outline where which types of housing are going to be built, how many and what types of schools and shops are needed and even how many cars will possibly be driving through the streets. Singapore namely has a very restrictive permission system for private car ownership. Instead, a very dense and cheap public transportation system is continuously being extended to ensure adequate accessibility for all Singaporeans.

Punggol Planning Area

A very typical example of such a Planning Area is Punggol (see map for location in Singapore). This area was designed to develop into a new suburb by 1996, to accommodate the increasingly growing population. Due to the Asian economic crisis of 1997, however, the developments in Punggol did not really started off before 2003. Before that time, Punggol was a relatively sparsely populated and poor area. Nowadays, Punggol is still being developed and has almost 150,000 inhabitants. 

But what does such a thoroughly planned area look like? The map below indicates our travelled route and the numbers indicate the locations where the pictures have been taken. Our tour starts at Punggol MRT station, where we just arrived after coming from the downtown area. Here we change to the (fully automatic) Punggol East LRT line. Looking out of the LRT train window near Oasis LRT Station (1), it is already clearly visible how Singapore’s planning philosophy materialized in reality: the elevated monorail track and the road below separate two neighbourhoods with clearly distinct apartment buildings: the one side has bigger, more luxurious apartments and the other side has smaller apartments for less fortunate Singaporeans. Both types look very neat and welldesigned, though. We get off the train at Riviera LRT station, because we are starting to get hungry.

Map of the route, adapted from OpenStreetMap.

We take a short detour through the less dense areas of Punggol before we arrive at the Punggol Plaza shopping centre (2). Here we have lunch at the central Koufu food court, an element central to all Singaporean neighbourhoods. Then we walk through the area between two rows of apartment blocks, where recreational facilities (3) carefully planned for all different age groups are located (3a). When we walk across a viaduct crossing Punggol Central (4), the main traffic artery, it is remarkable how little cars are around. We walk past it, along wide open spaces that are not yet filled in. Right in the middle of the area, between the Oasis and Kadaloor LRT stations, our attention falls to the huge Horizon Primary School (5) and other central facilties that have been purposefully located in this central part of Punggol. Then we decide to walk to Kadaloor LRT Station in order to take the MRT back to downtown.

Pictures of the route, own work.

Is Singapore the urban planner’s dream?

If you read the article, you might justifiably think it is. In many ways, Singapore is the ultimate example of a country that is completely thought through and designed by urban planners. But to what extent that really is what an urban planner needs to do? After all my enthusiasm on what I saw and experienced when I was there, important questions were popping up: are Singaporean planners aware for whom they are doing it? Do these people have a say in what their living environment looks like? To what extent can they adapt their neighbourhoods to their liking?

Although I don’t know the exact answers to these questions, I have my doubts: many apartments looked empty, there weren’t many people on the streets and the neighbourhood looked rather monotonous and sterile. Maybe it was just the moment of the day or my opinon, but it could also be that there is more behind these observations. During the coming years, you will probably figure out that these questions are very important for urban planners.

So think about it: what really is an urban planner’s dream?

Key facts about 
Surface area716 km2
Population5.9 million (12,569/km2)
Ethnic divisionChinese (74,5%), Malay (13,5%), Indian (9%), other (3%)
LanguageChinese, Malay, Tamil, English (all official)
ReligionBuddhism (33%), Christianity (19%), Islam (14%), Taoism (10%), Hinduism (5%)no religion (19%) 
Average income per inhabitant€83,000 (3rd)
HDI 0,925 (5th)

This article was first published in the First year edition (Year 49 of Girugten – issue 01 -september 2018).



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