What a question? Is there any doubt? Singapore is seen as the poster child of successful urban and economic development.
But it is good to revisit such certainties, if only to reassure oneself that the case continues to hold.
The reason for this particular revisit springs from an article in the New York Times published on January 3, 2009 (Singapore Prepares to Gobble Up its Last Village). Readers should look at the short article which describes how Singapore’s last village (Kampong Buangkok – 28 houses in an area the size of three football fields) is being acquired for high-rise development.
Three statements reflecting three perspectives stand out in the article:
The Government: “We will need to optimize land use, whether it is though reclamation, building upwards or using subterranean space.”
The owner: “If there’s a change, I won’t have my friends any more,” she said, but added: “We must not cling on to things. If the government wants to take the land, they will take it.”
The citizen: In modern Singapore, few neighbors know each other, said Sarimah Cokol, 50, who grew up in Kampong Buangkok and now lives in one of the apartments that people here call pigeonholes. “Open door, close door,” she said in the terse speech of no-nonsense Singapore. “After work, go in. Close door.”
These statements provide us the frame for our revisit. What we take away is that the government is focused on optimizing land use, the owner feels helpless against the State, and the citizen is unhappy with the outcome.
So, how do we look at the choices and tradeoffs implicit in this story? First, Singapore is renowned for the efficiency of its land use. But is efficiency everything? Should we forget that we are dealing with human beings in the pursuit of efficiency? Would it be preferable to give up some efficiency for a little bit more happiness? If so, how much?
Could the starting point be wrong? A successful city might not be one with the highest land use efficiency or the highest GDP growth but one with the most satisfied and unafraid citizens. How would we rate Singapore if this became our criterion for urban success?
Let us begin with the owner who is 55 years old. If there is a change, she will not have her friends anymore – she clearly does not wish to sell. Could there be some compromise at the cost of some land use efficiency? Could only part of the village be developed now and the rest after the owner reaches an age when she wishes to move voluntarily or dies? Have we lost the imagination to think in these terms? If so, is that a good thing?
And then look at it from the perspective of the citizens living in what they call pigeonholes. That is not a description of happiness but of resignation – a one-word verdict on the model of development. Should we be listening to these voices? Would they have preferred a slightly less rich Singapore that gave them slightly more room to live?
Suppose, East Asia were to become like the European Union with the choice to live anywhere in the region and suppose there was a rapid transit link between Singapore and Johor Bahru across the strait in Malaysia. How many Singaporeans would prefer to live in Johor Bahru and commute to work in Singapore? Have we tried to elicit that opinion?
This lack of choice, this constrained unhappiness, the feelings of helplessness are not revealed to us by the statistics of GDP per capita that we use to measure success. But these are dimensions we should think about too because, in the end, life is about people. People do not exist to maximize the GDP of cities; cities exist to give people the kind of lives they want for themselves.
If we look at cities through this lens, which cities would you rank as the five most successful cities in the world? Or to make it more concrete, if nothing else in your life changed (you had the same assets, the same education, the same skills), only there was freedom to live in any city of the world, what would be your first five choices in order of preference?
Would these two lists be the same? If not, why not?