Published on Sustainable Cities

Singapore: The Pelé of urban design

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Photo: Nicolas Lannuzel/Flickr
Who is the best soccer player of all time? A Google search will offer this name: Edson Arantes do Nascimento, popularly known as Pelé. Kicking off in 1958 as a 17 year old World Cup winner, Pele bookmarked his brilliant career a dozen years later with another World Cup triumph for Brazil. 
I like to think of Singapore as the Pelé of urban design. The city regularly appears in the top ranks of  globally livableconnected and  competitive cities. Pelé once famously said, "Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice, and, most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do”. There is no doubt that Singapore’s accomplishments have been made possible by the hard work, perseverance and far-sightedness of its policy makers.
2013 speech by Peter Ho, Chairman of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, outlines the careful thought, planning and attention to detail behind Singapore’s urban policy, particularly the decisions, influence and foresight of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew over the decades of development. One astonishing success has been the provision of affordable housing and the care with which each neighborhood has been designed, taking care of the smallest details, in order to ensure social cohesion and a sense of community. These details include provisions for hawker centers and  high quality public green spaces.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, speaking last year, said that, “…the secret sauce is our neighborhoods, the composition of the neighborhoods, and the way the neighborhoods are designed so as to maximize interaction and give us the best chance of achieving an integrated society.”
The counter argument I often hear confirms that Singapore is a great success story but that it is much too sui generis and small. The city-state's entire population is smaller than that of a single mega-city, such as Beijing, Mumbai or Sao Paulo.  Singaporean architect and planner Liu Thai Ker  explained that, with regards to urban planning: “…we break down the city into regions. Each region is a million people. And below each region, you have new towns. But when you have a city of 20-30 million, you have a megacity, which should then be divided into cities, and then regions, and then small towns. When you have these layers, most of the things can be bought in the town, and then you don’t need to go to the big city and then the traffic is dispersed.” Every town, city and region of the world can be planned and designed using these principles.
  These sound principles of urban planning are the focus of Urban Week, taking place in Singapore from March 8 to 11. Jointly organized by the  World Bank Group Singapore Infrastructure and Urban Hub, the  Center for Livable Cities (CLC) and  International Enterprise (IE) Singapore, and with the support of the  Global Environment Facility (GEF), Urban Week will host over 200 city officials and representatives to discuss the challenges of building thriving cities.
At Urban Week, city leaders will connect with Singapore's urban planning experts from both the public and private sector. We hope that the forum will enable cities to build longer term partnerships towards the goal of designing sustainable cities. Cities like Da Nang, Brasilia and Dakar will be exploring in depth issues like transit-oriented development and urban flood risk management. Will Urban Week be like Pele’s first World Cup goal in 1958, a first step in a very promising journey? Will these potential partnerships be the catalysts for transformative and sustainable urban planning in the near future?


Abhas Jha

Practice Manager, Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management, South Asia Region

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