Leveraging Singapore’s urban development success


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I grew up in Singapore in the 1980s, and left for Perth, Australia in the early 2000s. Upon returning to Singapore again in the mid-2010s, I found that much of the city’s dynamism has remained, yet so much of the built environment has changed. With its constant urban renewal and redevelopment over the decades, I felt almost like a tourist in the city I grew up in.

Both Singapore and Perth are ranked as some of the most liveable cities in the world, and indeed both cities are wonderful places to live. However, what struck me the most was the difference in urban density between these cities. As such a small city state, Singapore would never have the luxury of being sprawling, yet the city was able to achieve liveability despite increasing density and population growth. 

Density vs. Liveability

The Centre for Liveable Cities’ Liveability Matrix shows the correlation between density and liveability rankings. Based on the matrix, the denser a city, the less liveable it becomes. While less dense cities generally enjoy better liveability rankings, a sprawling city loses the economies of scale that a dense but well-planned and serviced city enjoys.

Centre for Liveable Cities’ Liveability Matrix

Sustainable planning and management of cities has never been more urgent and pertinent. Currently, 55% of the global population lives in urban areas, generating more than 80% of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Much of this economic and population growth is taking place in emerging economies.

The long-term success of any rapidly growing city requires a rethink of planning and sustainability, and how urban services play a role in enabling liveability. To be able to plan and manage a liveable city, there must be active collaboration between levels of government and across agencies to ensure urban services are delivered efficiently and effectively.

Singapore’s Success

Singapore has a population of 5.61 million, and spans an area of 719 km2, with a density of 7,800 persons/km2. It has limited natural resources and requires land to meet essential needs of accessibility, connectivity, defense, and basic services. In the early days of independence in the 1960s, Singapore experienced many of the urban challenges growing cities face today: overcrowding, slums, traffic congestion, environmental pollution, floods, and water shortages. As documented in the Singapore Liveability Framework, Singapore managed to overcome many of these challenges through the principles of integrated master planning and development, and dynamic urban governance. 

Many of the policy trade-offs and lessons from Singapore’s urban development experience can be useful to others looking to achieve a highly dense yet liveable city. As such, the World Bank collaborated with the Centre for Liveable Cities and Infrastructure Asia of the Government of Singapore to deliver the Singapore Technical Deep Dive: Sustainable Urban Planning and Management 2019 program, to share some of these insights with our clients.

Singapore Technical Deep Dive

From 17-21 June 2019, participants from the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Romania, Uzbekistan, and Saudi Arabia visited Singapore to build knowledge, skills, and solutions to improve sustainable urban management. 

In designing the program, special attention was given to match the strengths of Singapore’s experience to the areas of urban development and financing that were most pertinent and relevant to these specific countries. Areas of focus included sustainable and liveable cities, integrated urban planning and development, harnessing technology, infrastructure and municipal financing, and action planning. 

Participants from Vietnam discussing their urban challenges

During the week, participants interacted with policymakers, subject matter experts and ‘urban pioneers.’ They also had the chance to interact with solution providers with international best practices through the coordinating agency and program partner, Infrastructure Asia. Discussions revolved around liveability, urban planning and management, sustainable environment, geospatial technology in land management, and infrastructure finance. Each delegation presented an action plan that they would take back to improve the cities they represent. 

Centre for Liveable Cities Fellow Mr. Michael Koh sharing planning insights along Clarke Quay riverfront

Some Singapore Technical Deep Dive Impacts

The Indonesian delegation consisted of representatives from municipalities, coordinating agencies at the provincial level, and national-level agencies. Such a broad range of representatives across different levels and sectors of government provided the conditions to start discussing issues collectively. The group described the institutional challenges they face and emerged by the end of the week with a united voice, committed to working with each other to deliver better outcomes for their country. 

Model of a liveable city by participants during a planning activity

Participants from the Philippines took lessons from the program to further develop the scope and approach of an ongoing disaster risk and tourism project supported by the World Bank.

Through our existing engagements with governments in the region, we can identify needs of cities and develop an ongoing technical deep dive program pipeline for our clients in the region and beyond.

Long Term Engagement

Beyond this training, the World Bank Group’s Singapore Infrastructure and Urban Development Hub seeks to provide continued and long-term benefits to our clients by further partnering with the Government of Singapore. This partnership focuses on: co-hosting international flagship events to build knowledge and awareness; country and sector specific partnerships; and collaboration on projects.

Some might argue that Singapore’s uniqueness makes it difficult to apply its lessons to other cities. However, with increasing pressure on cities to be denser, yet perform better, perhaps some of the principles that enabled Singapore’s development success are indeed worth sharing.


James Tay

Operations Officer

Bruno Rabl
August 15, 2019

What lessons about funding urban development has the World Bank learnt from their involvement in low cost housing in Mexico?

August 16, 2019

Completely agree with the way forward, coming from India, which needs to govern cities and urban space by creating many Singapore like governance structures.

Robert Rexford Anim
August 16, 2019

Emulating success of other economies serves as the bright path to continuous development. However, it is important to consider financial powerhouse of the economies that seek to emulate. Ghana is still struggling with challenges of planning and development, and dynamic urban governance.

Such decisions should focus on relevant and pertinent policies to specific countries. Although funding for such initiatives may be supported by some international organizations such as the World Bank, but their sustainability is equally important.

The social responsibility boom in Ghana where private institutions and individuals continually established or provided social intervention in policies and infrastructure faced challenges due to lack of funds to keep them running. The government had to set up an office that inculcates all of such policies into plans and make provisions to support their sustainability. For a example, the government will ensure that a private’s communication giant who builds a dormitory for a government school will provide the need funds for its renovation and other required servicing purposes. This is done with consultation with the decision making organizations.

It is therefore, important this and other factors in place when learning from the success of other economies. Ghana May be able to implement the success of Kigali in managing her waster but may not necessarily need the success of New York City.

Neil Nyirongo
August 16, 2019

I live in City of Lilongwe, Malawi that is facing a lot of pressure on liveability with increasing density. Insights in coping with increasing density without loss of liveability would be very useful.

Sande Knight
October 25, 2021

Thank you for this informative article, but...where's TORONTO???