Choices

I’d read this comment on Singapore’s urban planning before but I’d forgotten how good it was as a reminder of the drawbacks of Singapore’s conscious decision to plan its land use along modernist lines:

It seems that everyone has focussed excessively on what is wrong with the public transport system while ignoring the bigger contextual paradigm shift.

Much of Singapore’s planning is based on the mid 20th Century modernist precept of division of zones, ideal cities as friction-free environments with smooth transport accessibility – and a large part of the urban thinking behind present-day Singapore was based on a 1963 UNDP report of 3 urban experts.

The verdict then was that Singapore (inner city) would be congested if it only grew along traditional corridors to its periphery. (Queenstown, being relatively ulu in those days). Hence congestion would be alleviated if we had expressways linking new towns out in the suburbs into the city centre. (Which if you remember, in the 1980s, Singapore’s CBD was pretty lifeless at night).

Most of us who have travelled to other cities would note that such a modernist ideal of separation of zones, planning, strict land-use, does not exist in such stark terms because they depend very much on a pedestrian city block. People walk as a means of transports along busy streets with retail life to their nearest metro or even to their workplace. If you lived at CLementi Ave 6, think of how many shops and fellow pedestrians you would walk past on your way to Clementi MRT. (answer = none, because of trees, because you have to take a bus to the MRT station)

To give another analogy, metropolitan Paris within the peripherique is equivalent in area to Raffles Place extended out to Toa Payoh. (or not much further beyond) and it is humanly possible to walk through most of Paris in an entire day. My point is that as a result of decisions and choices made in the early days of Singapore’s physical development, the scale of Singapore’s planning and where most Singaporeans live, almost everyone who cannot afford a car needs to rely on public transportation (over long distances) to get to where they need to get to.

The infrastructure for pedestrians is purely utilitarian – in terms of covered walkways, air-conditioned underpasses in the shopping district – is purely a means of accessing the main stations. As such, walking as a means of transport is not enabled. (Because we do not have tight streets and blocks lined with shops, sidewalk interactions, etc…that used to characterise our now sanitised five-foot-ways.) By contrast, for example, New Yorkers walk a lot… and many walk long distances. (arguing about our climate is a different matter)

So in a sense, Singapore’s scale is such that it relies so much on either the expressway or the MRT (or the bus through very circuitous routes) to get from one place to another. When its population faces a sudden spurt in away that was not planned for, it becomes obvious that the entire transportation system comes under duress.

While our climate is foreboding, I find that we rely too much on transportation itself as a way of life. That it is close to impossible (maybe except for those lucky few who live in Tiong Bahru, chinatown or Outram) to walk and easily access different places and amenities sans public transport. Nor is there any cycling infrastructure or dedicated (and shaded, since our weather needs it) cycling paths..

We seem weirdly proud of our urbanism and ready to export our ‘solutions’ to places like Rwanda or China when really, without understanding the inherent humanism in cities in a more down to earth way. (read Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities) We have so much more to learn from other more human cities that are not only in Europe, but in more ‘backward’ places like Bogota in Colombia (which has an extensive network of cycling paths connected to transit) or Mexico City.

Whenever someone claims that Singapore’s planning problems are in any sense inevitable, ask yourself how far those problems were due to the conscious decision to embrace modernist planning.

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