“There is no perfect city, nor is any city smarter than the rest”

28th May, 2014 by Anna Simpson

As Singapore prepares to host three environmental summits in a week, Khoo Teng Chye, Executive Director, Centre for Liveable Cities, tells Anna Simpson why it’s a golden opportunity for global cities to look 50 years into the future and discuss the common challenges they face.

What is a ‘liveable city’ to you? Which factors are the most important?

The presence of a competitive economy is crucial to a city’s liveability – by definition, how suitable a place is for human living. Residents must have the opportunity to make a living and achieve a degree of economic security. Likewise, the city must be able to generate income in order to sustain itself, invest and create further opportunities for economic growth.

Environmental sustainability means the long-term maintenance of natural resources vital to the survival and functioning of a city. Singapore, for example, has had to survive with limited natural resources in terms of land and water. Finally, a city has to maintain an acceptable quality of life, which includes addressing environmental and hygiene problems, as well as providing affordable education, housing and healthcare.

Does the density of the city make a difference?

Today, many highly liveable cities exist in large geographical spaces, with low-rise developments, less dense populations and low-polluting industries. Cities such as Sydney or Vancouver are often cited. Yet cities like Singapore and New York City are outliers that have combined highly dense urban structures with high standards of living, demonstrating that high densities need not impede on a city’s quality of life.

But surely urban population growth is a challenge for cities?

Yes: cities today accommodate more people than at any point in history. The world is urbanising at an accelerated pace, and as a result, cities are under increasing pressure. Urbanisation brings with it a unique set of challenges including a dramatic increase in the consumption of resources such as energy, water, basic infrastructure, sanitation services, transport, safety and security – and the provision of jobs for the masses. The main challenge all cities face is how to integrate planning and governance, while implementing policies and measures to ease the pressures of rapid urbanisation.

Ultimately, the solution does not lie with governments alone, and there is a need for the public, private and people sectors to collaborate constructively in order to move toward the ideal of a liveable and sustainable city. It is for this reason that we saw the value of strategically co-locating the World Cities Summit, Singapore International Water Week, and CleanEnviro Summit Singapore, to address urbanisation challenges in a more holistic and integrated manner. Leaders, policy makers and solution providers can discuss challenges and share best practices with a multi-disciplinary perspective as the three events together will offer a unique platform for richer and deeper dialogue on the most pressing urbanisation issues.

Which cities do you see as world leaders in sustainability? What makes them so smart?

Every city is different in terms of its physical environment, social make-up and historical experience. There is no perfect city, nor is any city smarter than the rest. However, given that cities face common challenges, there are many lessons we can learn from one another.

The Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize, a highlight of the World Cities Summit, is held biennially to honour outstanding achievements and contributions to the creation of liveable, vibrant and sustainable urban solutions around the world.

In 2010, the Prize Laureate, Bilbao in Spain was recognised for its integrated and holistic approach in urban transformation, demonstrating that urban regeneration can be a powerful social and economic driver to catalyse change, strengthen urban fabric, inject vibrancy and improve the quality of life for its citizens.

New York City was honoured in 2012 for strategically orchestrating a remarkable transformation over the last decade by embracing its complexity, density and diversity to bring about a marked increase in the quality of life.

This year, Suzhou in China has been conferred the LKY City Prize 2014 for sound planning and good urban management, despite facing numerous challenges through China’s rapid industrialisation and urbanisation processes. It has achieved remarkable economic prosperity while preserving its celebrated cultural and historic heritage.

With Singapore in the limelight as the most expensive city, how important is affordability? What are the obstacles to this?

The ‘limelight’ came about when the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) ranking of the world's most expensive cities put Singapore on top, overtaking Tokyo and Osaka as the Singapore dollar appreciated against the yen. According to the EIU, Osaka and Tokyo fell off the top of its ranking because of the weaker yen.

It must be noted that the EIU survey compares the price of products and services such as food, clothing, transport and domestic help among 140 cities with New York City as a base. It is aimed at helping companies and HR managers calculate allowances for executives being sent overseas. Therefore, the survey measures the cost of living for expatriates who are impacted by the stronger Singapore dollar and the cost of high end goods and services, such as Burberry raincoats and good theatre seats. Their spending pattern is different from local residents.

According to the survey, Singapore's curbs on car ownership, which is necessary given our limited land area, make it the most expensive city to run a car. And overall transport costs in Singapore are almost three times higher than those in New York. But the survey does not include public transport, which is most commonly used by Singaporeans. Private car ownership makes up only 10% of the population.

For housing, Singapore, being smaller in size than New York City, has seen home prices jump to record highs in recent years amid rising wealth. But the survey does not include public housing, and over 80% of the population here stays in public housing.

Affordability is indeed important, and Singapore’s public housing has achieved that. This was highlighted in an article in the New York Times in April, a month after the EIU’s ranking was published. The article was titled ‘Rent Too High? Move to Singapore’.  

What advice would you give urban leaders making plans for the future?

Instead of giving specific advice, I would offer the dramatic transformation of Singapore as a useful reference. From widespread poverty in 1957 with one in four persons living below the minimum standards of livelihood, Singapore’s current per capita gross domestic product (GDP) is US$36,537 when adjusted for purchasing power, and ranks among the top ten in the world. At the same time, Monocle has named Singapore the 15th most liveable city in the world in 2013, while Mercer’s 2012 Quality of Living Survey ranked Singapore the most liveable city in Asia. The same survey also ranked Singapore one of the safest cities in the world.

After studying Singapore’s development over the past five decades, CLC believes that to make a truly liveable city (assuming that this is the aim), two levers are needed: planning and development that is both integrated and long-term, and governance that is visionary and pragmatic.

Urban leaders need to think long term, looking up to 50 years into the future – to look ahead for problems and forestall them. In making plans, cities have to build in some flexibility, making space for changes and reviews to take place. What worked well today may be different 10 years later, and cities must be able to adjust to such changes. At the same time, urban leaders must realise that it is no longer effective to address individual challenges in silos, and integration is imperative to develop solutions to address the issues that cities face today.

The second lever, dynamic governance, refers to leaders who actively interact with citizens and stakeholders, and manage to strike a balance between competing demands. Sound governance is also about how leaders and government bodies set up transparent structures to defend against corruption and create processes that enable good decisions to be made, so that governance is less dependent on individual judgement.

A city is a complex system. How can all the important players come together with a shared vision?

Stakeholders such as government leaders, industry experts and international organisations can make use of platforms like the World Cities Summit to share best practices and innovative urban solutions and forge strategic partnerships. With the Singapore International Water Week and CleanEnviro Summit Singapore, the combined events present a unique marketplace where city leaders are strategic buyers are looking for specific solutions, and industry players and experts are available to sell, share and co-create innovative and integrated urban solutions, tailored to the needs of each city.

Khoo Teng Chye is Executive Director, Centre for Liveable Cities. Anna Simpson is Editor, Green Futures.

Photo credit: HK Strategies/World Cities Summit, gracethang/iStock Editorial/Thinkstock, joyt/iStock Editorial/Thinkstock

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