The Singapore Model

Urban Crossroads #128

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I got the chance to visit Singapore this summer. The visit was particularly educational for me since I attended a conference on urban planning. The conference was organized through a collaborative effort between the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Singapore, the National University of Singapore, the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, and the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. The participation of two Singaporean institutions in this event gave me the opportunity to come into direct contact with Singaporean planners and to get firsthand information on a number of planning projects taking place there.

This southeastern Asian city-state has made impressive achievements since it gained independence in 1965, particularly when considering that it has a population of about five million people occupying a group of islands that collectively only amount to 700 square kilometers (about 40% the area of Amman). Its per capita income in terms of purchasing power parity is among the highest in the world. It has the world’s tenth largest foreign currency reserves. It is the world’s fourteenth largest exporter, and the fifteenth largest importer of goods. Its port is among the busiest in the world. Its airport is among the best anywhere. It is a major industrial center with impressive industries in the fields of electronics, petroleum refining, chemicals, mechanical engineering, and biomedical sciences. It is a major tourism center. Its educational and health systems are superb. And it is one of the world’s least corrupt countries.

I would like to concentrate on Singapore’s experiences and accomplishments in urbanism. As expected, these too are impressive. As a country with a high level of population density, tremendous efforts have been made to ensure that the land on which Singapore is located and also the resources of that land are used in a most optimal manner. This is evident in how Singapore deals with issues such as housing, building density, water resources, waste management, and transportation.

The issue of housing is of considerable importance in Singapore. It has implemented policies that aim at achieving high levels of home ownership. Housing in Singapore is the responsibility of the Housing Development Board (HDB), which has been developing decent housing that is made available to Singaporeans at affordable prices. Most of this housing consists of high-rise apartment buildings. Today, house ownership rates in Singapore reach 95%, with 82% of the population living in apartments that HDB built.

Since the vast majority of Singaporeans live in high-density conditions, great efforts have been made to provide ample green areas. About 47% of Singapore’s area consists of green zones that include nature reserves, parks, and community gardens. Moreover, Singapore’s parks currently are being connected through the Park Connector Network program, which involves about 300 kilometers of paths on which people may walk or cycle.

Although Singapore is located in the tropical belt, it had no land or infrastructure devoted to water storage at the time of independence. The government therefore has developed a policy that aims at achieving very high levels of water collection and of wastewater reuse. Singapore today has 7,000 km of drains and seventeen reservoirs. Storm water and sewage networks are completely separated, which allows for a very efficient management of water resources. Moreover, two thirds of the country’s area functions as a water catchment area.

Because of Singapore’s small size, very little space is available for landfills. Singapore therefore has developed solid waste management strategies that have allowed it to achieve one of the world’s highest garbage recycling rates. Almost 60% of Singapore’s garbage is recycled. Most of the rest is incinerated, with only 3% going into landfills. Efforts are continuously being made to ensure that recycling rates steadily increase, and that the amount of generated waste is kept steady or even reduced.

Not surprisingly, Singapore boasts a high-quality public transportation system consisting of buses and trains. One usually does not need to walk for more than ten minutes to reach the nearest public transportation stop. Car ownership is not encouraged, and owning a car is made very expensive through high tariffs and also through car ownership certificates, which have a ten-year validity. The cost of a car ownership certificate is equivalent to the price of a luxury car. Moreover, Singapore was the first city in the world to put in place a congestion charging scheme, in 1975. The scheme has evolved into an electronic system that automatically charges vehicles as they move through certain roads. Every vehicle owner is required to install an onboard electronic unit fixed to the vehicle’s dashboard, with a cash charge card in it. The system automatically deducts money from the charge card as the vehicle passes under its electronic toll units. This electronic system has the ability to vary prices according to factors including traffic conditions, time of day, and type of vehicle. It has been very successful in decreasing traffic levels in the city since it encourages residents to use public transportation instead of private vehicles.

When visiting Singapore, one cannot but be impressed by its cleanliness, high level of organization, and the abundance of well-maintained open green areas. Singapore clearly follows a Modernist approach to urban planning. This is based on developing zones of multi-use high-rise buildings located in expansive landscaped areas. In that sense, Singapore avoids the model of more traditional urban fabrics, where the city’s network of streets is its primary organizing element, and most urban activities therefore concentrate along those streets. In spite of the high quality of urban life that Singapore offers, its dependence on this Modernist planning model does have disadvantages. The world-renown Danish urbanist Jan Gehl, although impressed by Singapore’s many urban accomplishments, states that it is a city that is “still in search of a soul.” He adds that there are no places where the city comes together, and that it generally feels disjointed. I can relate to these comments. I walked in a number of parts of the city, and even though I found most of them pleasant to be in as a pedestrian, I found it difficult to walk between those different parts since that required me to navigate the zones of heavy vehicular traffic situated between them. These problems, however, are not insurmountable, and can be effectively addressed through developing effective pedestrian links between these parts of the city.

Singapore has been presented as a model that Jordan should emulate. I am not sure about that, simply because the two are widely different places in terms of geography, size, social habits, culture, and population mix. Singapore nonetheless has much to teach in terms of urban policies that have effectively addressed issues such as housing, water management, solid waste management, public spaces, and public transportation. Therefore, even though Singapore may not be the most appropriate model for Amman to emulate, it still can learn a great deal about urban management from Singapore.


Mohammad al-Asad 

November 25, 2012


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