How to make Singapore more liveable and lovable?
Population Trends Articles

How to make Singapore more liveable and lovable?

Green space in Singapore

Singapore is one of the densest cities in the world.  What does it mean to live in a dense city? Firstly, contrary to popular belief, high density does not necessarily equate to crowdedness or a low measure of liveability. In fact, Singapore has been consistently ranked as Asia’s most liveable city by HR consultancy Mercer’s annual Quality of Living Survey. Globally, the country is in the 25th spot.

Singapore’s liveability is also enhanced by its green urban areas and is famously known as a ‘City in a Garden’. The city topped the charts in a joint study by the World Economic Forum and Massachusetts Institute of Technology – ahead of major cities like Sydney, Vancouver and Paris.

Second, there are benefits to being dense and compact when a city is well-planned – economic vibrancy, more efficiency in delivering services such as public transport, and a greater array of activities are just some of them.

Ultimately, the question of density is about finding the optimal balance that will support economic growth while ensuring a high quality of life – with good jobs, affordable homes and a conducive living environment.

The city-state relies on careful planning and innovative solutions to optimise its limited surface land. It has carved out vertical space in the sky with high-rise buildings and now, it is embarking on plans to make better use of underground space.

Whichever direction Singapore is going – higher or lower– in search of more space, the solutions have to be sustainable.

High quality living in dense Singapore

“Singapore is one of the few cities that has been able to achieve relatively high liveability amidst high density,” said Mr Khoo Teng Chye, Executive Director of the Centre for Liveable Cities, under the Ministry of National Development.

“This is the outcome of an integrated urban systems approach we’ve taken over the decades not just to plan and regulate, but also to take action and make things happen to achieve the liveability outcomes of a sustainable environment and high quality of life.”

Urban planning is crucial. The Urban Redevelopment Authority’s Concept Plan, which was first formulated in 1971 as a strategic land use and transportation plan, guides Singapore’s overall development efforts for the next 40 to 50 years. The plan, reviewed every 10 years to ensure there is sufficient land for future developments, has seen Singapore transform from swampland to modern metropolis.

“There is the challenge of making sure that as our city becomes denser, people don’t feel that it is becoming much more crowded,” added Mr Khoo.

Creative use of space: Multi-purpose instead of single use

While planning ahead is of paramount importance, there are other innovative measures to address limited land space in Singapore.  

Chief Executive Officer of the Housing & Development Board (HDB), Dr Cheong Koon Hean, offered various suggestions during her three-part IPS-Nathan lecture series held this year.

One idea is recycling existing land to constantly rejuvenate the city. For instance, the consolidation of Singapore’s ports at the upcoming Tuas mega port will free up much land in the Tanjong Pagar and Pasir Panjang areas for residential, commercial and recreational uses.

Dense cities around the world are also looking to maximise space, such as New York City’s High Line project that Dr Cheong cited. What started as a citizen-led initiative to save a disused elevated railway line from demolition in 1999 is now repurposed into a 2.3km long elevated linear park.

Another proposal is thinking about how existing spaces can have multiple uses. For example, building decks over transport infrastructure like highways and MRT depots could create space for other purposes. Dr Cheong also gave two foreign examples. Klyde Warren Park in Dallas was created by decking over highways. And the Millennium Park in Chicago and the new park at Hudson Yards in New York straddle a working railyard.

As Mr Khoo puts it: “We should constantly look out for opportunities to turn our constraints into strengths as a highly-dense city.”

He cited the Active, Beautiful, Clean Waters (ABC Waters) programme, where concrete drains and canals are transformed into naturalised waterways which still retain stormwater management functions, but also beautify the urban landscape and open up spaces for people to enjoy for recreational and educational purposes.

A flagship of the ABC Waters programme is the Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park, where a concrete canal has been transformed into a beautiful naturalised river that is also a recreational area for residents.

Place-making: Creating meaningful public spaces

While efforts to utilise space more creatively are ongoing, a key trait of successful liveable and distinctive cities lies in designing “people-focused” places.

“They go beyond functionality to build identity, image and a great environmental quality through good design,” Dr Cheong added in her lectures. 

She introduced the concept of “place-making”, where community-driven activities take place in designated public spaces. Place-making gives meaning to these spaces, which allows people to form a sense of connection with them.

Public spaces become even more critical for high-density cities where there is less private space, added Mr Adib Jalal, an architect by training and co-founder of Shophouse & Co, a placemaking studio that develops sustainable spaces through creative designs.

“Great public spaces can offer us the expanse of space that our compact living environment cannot afford us,” he said. “In these places for people, there is the luxury to establish connection with ourselves, others, and the urban environment around us.”

For example, Shophouse & Co found that Telok Ayer Park was not well used, despite surrounding areas like the nearby Amoy Street Food Centre being packed during lunchtime. It introduced the ‘Lunchtime Prototype’ programme last year, providing amenities like portable chairs and tables to create a conducive space for nearby office workers in the Central Business District to have lunch, and a temporary bicycle pit-stop for riders to rest.

"From the perspective of the community, a place that has been developed with good place-making principles often result in a stronger sense of ownership and pride of the place,” explained Mr Jalal.

Make room for everyone in a lovable city

While past efforts established the country as an extremely liveable city, the goal now is to elevate it to being a “loveable” city, said Mr Jalal. 

Mr Jalal added that to go from liveable to being lovable as well, maintaining the happiness and wellbeing of residents despite space constraints ranks as the one of the top priorities.

With far-sighted and sustainable planning, the better utilisation of spaces and more organisations like Mr Jalal’s looking to build stronger bonds between residents, Singapore could dial up its happy and lovable index.

“[A loveable city] is what today’s society wants and aspire towards, and it is also a way for our city to remain relevant in today’s competitive world,” he concluded.

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