#SG50: How planning made Singapore a Garden City

Ayee Macaraig

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#SG50: How planning made Singapore a Garden City
Planning, parks and open spaces, and constant reinvention made Singapore Asia's most livable city, offering many lessons for urban centers around the world

SINGAPORE – After stepping out of the airport just minutes upon arrival, the global traveler sees none of the billboards or towers that make the first impression in most cities. Instead, on the East Coast Parkway, a manicured row of rain trees, shrubs, and pink and purple flowers give the warm greeting: welcome to Singapore. 

While this metropolis is a global hub of commerce, Singapore is no concrete jungle but built itself as a city in the garden. Lush greenery and over 300 parks join futuristic skyscrapers to create iconic landmarks. Most Singaporeans take the efficient public transportation. Vehicles share the road with expats off to work on bikes and scooters, neckties flying in the breeze.  

From China to Rwanda, leaders look to the tropical city-state to learn about urban planning and design. It is a marvel considering that just 50 years ago, slums stood where multinationals now hold office. Yet it is not just landscape and infrastructure but exceptional governance and policies that made Singapore Asia’s most livable city. 

“It is a system of parks and open spaces integrated into a seamless urban fabric. In Singapore, everyone understands that everything is interconnected,” Filipino urban designer and landscape architect Paulo Alcazaren told Rappler. 

Alcazaren knows Singapore’s transformation all too well, having worked with the Singapore Tourism Board to improve heritage and tourism districts. He laments that the island-nation and his home country are worlds apart, but points out that Philippine and other global urban centers have much to learn from Singapore in an era when cities house more than half of the world’s population. 

CULTURAL SITE. The Singapore Botanic Gardens was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July, the first botanic gardens in Asia on the list, and the third in the world. The Gardens include a National Orchid Garden with over 1,000 species and 2,000 hybrids. Photo by Adrian Portugal/Rappler

Plan, implement, coordinate

The story of how Alcazaren designed the landscape for shopping centers on Orchard Road is typical Singapore. After he completed a master’s degree in urban design at the now National University of Singapore in the late 1980s, the Singaporean government head-hunted him, as it has with other top talents in the private sector.

He lived in Singapore for 12 years where he set up the local office of his global PDAA Design firm, one of a few Filipino architectural companies in the Lion City. Alcazaren witnessed how planning and forward-thinking made the former backwater an oasis for tourists and locals. 

“This was the late 90s and the trend was towards al fresco and areas that were based on outdoor spaces, whereas previously a lot of physical developments were based on building complexes and malls that were more internally focused. So Singapore already prided itself in being ahead of the trend,” he said. 

URBAN DESIGNER. Paulo Alcazaren is a Filipino landscape artist and urban designer who helped improve on the design of Singapore's tourist sites like Orchard Road, Chinatown and Little India in the 1980s and 1990s. Photo by Adrian Portugal/Rappler

Like other aspects of Singapore’s development, urban planning and design can be traced to Lee Kuan Yew, the architect of modern Singapore. When Singapore was expelled from Malaysia in 1965, its founding father and his ruling People’s Action Party asked the United Nations’ technocrats and city planners to create a physical master plan for the former British colonial outpost. (READ: Lee Kuan Yew and the Singapore he built)

Since then, the master plan was reviewed every 5 years, laying out Singapore’s development over the next 10 to 15 years.

Singapore and Metro Manila have roughly the same land area, but the Philippine metropolis has a population about 3 times that of the city-state’s 5.5 million. 

Unlike Metro Manila which is divided into 17 towns and cities with different leaders and priorities, Singapore has one central government overseeing the plan. 

“A master plan is never set in stone. It’s just a framework, but you need to have a starting point – which is the total opposite in Manila. We had plans but we never used them really as any point for development. We have planned for it before, as recently as the 1956 master plan, but none of this was ever fulfilled because of greed, public lands cut up and sold,” said Alcazaren, also a columnist and a heritage conservation advocate.  

3-IN-1 RESERVOIR. Singapore's Marina Barrage serves 3 purposes: to store and desalinate water, to alleviate flooding in low-lying areas in the city, and to offer a space for recreational activities like boating and kayaking. Image from skyrisegreenery

Parks, not malls 

Part of Singapore’s plan was Lee’s urban greening program in 1963 under his vision of a “Garden City.” A nature-lover, the former prime minister instituted an annual Tree Planting Day, and required planting roadside trees. Singapore brought in flora and fauna from all over the world including the Philippines’ Doñas Mussaendas, named after Philippine first ladies. 

Today, Singapore’s parks and open spaces are not just environmental attractions but also economic and tourism jewels. 

‘If you look at Metro Manila, the only segment of the urban population that has access to really good public open space are the rich, the military, the sick, or the insane.’

– Paulo Alcazaren, urban designer and landscape architect


There is the Singapore Botanic Gardens, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July. Gardens By the Bay’s solar-powered “supertrees” combine energy and water sustainability with a light show that tourists eagerly capture on their smartphones. The nearby Marina Barrage is both a freshwater reservoir, and a flood control structure. Its spiraling Green Roof is also a recreational park for jogging, kite-flying, and the occasional pre-nuptial shoot. 

Alcazaren said Singapore’s emphasis on open spaces is exemplary. 

“If you look at Metro Manila, the only public open spaces left are mostly government owned: hospitals, the mental institution, and military camps. The only people with real parks are those in rich people’s enclaves. So the only segment of the urban population that has access to really good public open space are the rich, the military, the sick, or the insane,” he said.  

“The rest of us have to make do with malls.”  

PUBLIC HOUSING. These are just some of Singapore's Housing Development Board (HDB) flats, subsidized public housing for citizens. The trend was to build structures like HDB flats vertically to save space. Photo by Adrian Portugal/Rappler

Reinvent, build up 

With leaders that see paranoia as a strength, Singapore focused on its vulnerability as a small nation lacking natural resources. 

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s minister for the environment and water resources, told Rappler how Lee’s famous obsession with water led the country to make the most out of its limited supply, and learn from the rest. 

“The big breakthrough came about 12 years ago when we realized reverse osmosis through membranes will allow us to recycle or desalinate water at a commercially viable cost. In the last 12 years, from 0% we built up over 50% of our water capacity using reverse osmosis,” Balakrishnan said in his office, which houses a display of plaques and books hailing Singapore’s water initiatives. 

‘Because we have an existential need and a single-minded coordinated focus, we can take the idea, prototype it, and make it work.’

– Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources


“The point is, although we didn’t invent resource osmosis, but because we have an existential need and a single-minded coordinated focus, we can take the idea, prototype it, and make it work. Now, we have a water industry that can access global opportunities elsewhere.”

It is not just water that Singapore recycles. Take colonial buildings as an example of how reinvention plays a role in preserving heritage. The Fullerton Hotel was Singapore’s post office. The National Gallery was the old Supreme Court and city hall, while the former convent Chijmes is now the site of restaurants. 

Land is also scarce in Singapore. With the limited space, the government imposes heavy road and vehicle taxes to discourage car ownership, and to prevent congestion. And to expand, the country turned to reclamation: over the years, the so-called “little red dot” expanded its land area from 580 square kilometers to 718. 

“Towards the Changi area, they’re claiming more land for terminals 4 and 5. So I see a future where they’ll probably be used as a hub for suborbital flights because they’re just 100 plus kilometers from the equator,” Alcazaren said.  

Housing became a key priority – and there was no way to go but up. The Housing Development Board (HDB) built high-rise, subsidized public housing. Now, 80% of Singaporeans live in the HDB flats. 

The HDB flats also served a purpose other than the efficient use of space. Singapore’s so-called nanny state imposes ethnic quotas in public housing to ensure that ethnic Chinese, Malay, Indian and others learn to live together in this multicultural state. 

“Public housing created a sense of ownership, a sense that this place was worth defending. So in a matter of 30, 40 years, you get the sense that his place was home. Public housing is one of the essential ingredients of Singapore’s success,” economist Donald Low of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy told Rappler.

OPEN SPACES. A view of Singapore's iconic green landscape from the roof of the Marina Barrage. Photo by Adrian Portugal/Rappler

Regional governance needed

Singapore and Metro Manila offer stark contrasts. After going through immigration lines and waiting for luggage for 30 minutes or more in one of the “world’s worst airports,” the global traveler is greeted with ladies who yell, “Taxi! Taxi!” Leaving the area is itself a challenge with traffic snarling an airport too close to the business district to have room for badly-needed expansion.  

Yet Alcazaren chose to take the trip home in 2002. He now helps build and improve Philippine landmarks like Roxas Boulevard, the Iloilo Esplanade, and – still under construction – the Philippines-Ortigas Greenways. 

He dreams of a day Metro Manila, Metro Cebu, and Metro Davao – the Philippines’ primary metropolitan areas – will have the effective governance that made Singapore an urban paradise. To achieve this, he supports the creation of metropolitan governments as Singapore, Hong Kong, and Jakarta have done. 

“Metro Manila has fractured governance of 17 LGUs [local government units], none of them following any coordinated or comprehensive physical plan for the entire metro region. It’s idiocy. You cannot legislate streets not to flood if the adjoining LGU has not looked at where the water is flowing, and then they all flow to you. The same goes for crime and traffic,” Alcazaren said. 

It is about time the Philippine government develops infrastructure instead of relying on private developers to build parks and verdant landscape. 

In the so-called gates of hell that is Manila, Alcazaren said that Filipinos are beginning to see the value of building well-planned, green cities like Singapore.

“We have to die until we realize that something is wrong. We have to suffer until we can bear it no longer. That’s the realization. Why not do it the other way? That’s the definition of planning: to prevent people from dying, especially in the context of Metro Manila.” 

He quipped: “Singapore has always been smart. Most politicians here are smart alecks. It’s idiotic not to think of planning in that sense.” – 

This week, Rappler puts the spotlight on Singapore as the city-state celebrates its 50th anniversary on August 9. We take a look at the forces that shaped it, and what lies ahead. 

#SG50: Rappler Talk: Singapore after LKY – legacy, leadership, and change

#SG50: Crowdsourced list: Filipino trailblazers you should know

#SG50: Foreign workers less welcome in Singapore?

#SG50: ‘Philippines can succeed like Singapore’

#SG50: The MRT in Singapore and Manila

#SG50: Singapore’s vision of a Smart Nation

#SG50: Smart Nation: The future of Singapore’s wired city 

#SG50: Around Singapore in 16 dishes

#SG50: FAST FACTS: Singapore world records

#SG50: In Numbers: PH-Singapore relations

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