Archive for the 'Urban Planning' Category

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.

New Urbanists Who Admire Singapore’s Urban Planning

I just learned, via this blog, that they exist. I’m frankly astonished. I suspect few of these admirers have actually lived there. Superficially, Singapore may seem to align with New Urbanist ideals because of the high ownership taxes on cars, which have slowed down the growth of the car population, but it fails in a major way on these other fronts:

  1. Road design. While it is very expensive to own a car, if you do own one, you get treated to infrequent stop lights and many, many wide arterial roads and expressways, so cars can go much faster than they would in American cities of similar sizes. There are no traffic calming measures that I know of. This makes being a pedestrian or cyclist very uncomfortable. Furthermore, it is very difficult to find alternate routes for walking or biking on, because arterial roads are rarely interrupted by minor roads, so you’re often forced to take arterial roads just so you can cross yet another arterial road.
  2. Walkability. As mentioned in 1., there are few intersections, so pedestrians often have to walk a long way to cross roads, and the roads are wide, so it takes a long time to cross. Traffic light crossings at wide roads also mean waiting a really long time, in scorching 90 degree weather with 90% humidity. Also, most people live in high rise buildings, which gives an appearance of ‘density’, but they are built in clusters widely separated by empty land that the state is keeping for future development. If you live in a cluster far from the local urban center, you may be completely reliant on infrequent feeder buses or a private car to run routine errands. Or, you can brave the roads on your bike, which few are willing to do.
  3. There are no mixed use neighborhoods. None. The “new towns” most people live in consist of high rises with little or no commercial development on the ground floor, with commercial developments clustered at the nearest subway station. If you live a more than walkable distance from the subway station, good luck. Rich people live in terrace houses or bungalows, but these similarly are not interspersed with commercial developments — since these people are rich, they can drive to town centers to run errands, so the lack of walkability does not bother them.
  4. Very little variety of dwelling types. Most people live in high-rise public housing that looks very homogeneous.

I grew up in Singapore and have since lived in Chicago and Pittsburgh, and I found the latter two cities far more livable, and closer to fulfilling New Urbanist ideals, than Singapore is.