ETHOS Issue 02, April 2007
The Asian Development Bank has enlisted Singapore's help to step up urban development in the region. The multimillion dollar agreement, inked in March this year, will see Singapore share its expertise and conduct joint research in urban planning and management with policymakers and planning professionals in developing countries across the Asia-Pacific.
This partnership is more than a ringing endorsement for Singapore's competence. In a rapidly urbanising region where as much as 60% of the urban population still live in slum-like conditions, this deal represents a salient opportunity for Singapore to export one of our maturing strengths to a much under-served market. Our public housing and airport infrastructure have been lauded in the past. However, some scholars in the developmental field, like Dr Cecilia Tortajada, also see Singapore as an unsung leader in specialised sectors such as water management, where global demand for relevant expertise is still growing.
Lending a helping hand to the region is all well and good, but what does this mean for a small city-state that aspires to be a distinctive, vibrant and world-class cosmopolis? If we are to distinguish ourselves as an urban destination, venue and home, imitating successful cities elsewhere will only take us so far. Participation in regional development will offer our planners a broader canvas on which to try out new ideas, technologies and approaches. There may well be opportunities to develop our own innovative solutions and cultivate fresh talent in the fields of urban design, planning and regulation. These will pay off richly for Singapore's own cosmopolitan future.
At heart, urban planning is about strengthening a city's capacity to respond to change. The question is how this capacity might best be served. Indeed, Professor Sir Peter Hall of University College London argues that the creativity of great cities in the past was the result of tensions wrought by rapid economic and social change; he challenges Singapore's planners to embrace such creative tensions rather than plan against them. In contemporary urban design, the prevailing question seems to be: What to plan for, and what to allow to grow organically? After all, buildings, roads and sewers give a city structure and value, but it is the free and often unanticipated interaction of its inhabitants that bring cities to life. Nevertheless, in all cities, but particularly in land-scarce Singapore, trade-offs have to be made between equally attractive opportunities.
It is for these reasons that public communication, community participation, and consensus building have become integral to the planning process in cities worldwide, from Boston to Berlin. Singapore's own Urban Redevelopment Authority has derived great value from engaging the public, as the review of its latest Concept Plan attests. Undoubtedly, the public discussion will continue to mature and deepen in the years to come.
Urban planning is about strengthening a city’s capacity to respond to change.
It is our hope at Ethos to contribute to the discourse on urban planning and management in some small way. Our contributors in this issue offer bold new perspectives on the theme. In an interview, Professor Asit K. Biswas envisions Singapore as the water capital of the world. Paul Barter from the National University of Singapore proposes ambitious changes to public transport development and regulation. Rounding up the issue's theme is Professor Simon Tay, National Environment Agency Chairman and former Nominated Member of Parliament, who reflects on the value of the unplanned and the relationship between place and identity.
In addition, featured in our General topical section are essays by Andrew Tan, Deputy Secretary (International), Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and BG Ng Chee Khern, Chief of Air Force, and a conversation with noted financial journalist Martin Wolf on globalisation and its implications for our region. We will also be making additional material on topics under discussion available online at https://knowledge.csc.gov.sg/.
We look forward to hearing from you and wish you a constructive read.
Dr Alvin Pang