YSEALI Urban Planning and Smart Growth – Singapore (Part 1 of 3)

This is a re-share of my experience in a YSEALI Regional Workshop experience in Singapore, and this was originally posted at Rappler X, June 18, 2017. 

This piece is not meant to compare the Philippines with Singapore. Though I want to. Though I can’t help but to. Because what is real to them is theoretical to us, or probably not even in our imagination. The objective of YSEALI was to learn best urban planning practices from the Lion City of Asia, and to get to work with other young leaders across the ASEAN, get a feel of what we share, or how we are unique. If only I could bring the entire Filipino population to see, feel, and know what urban planning is really like, once implemented. If only I could channel every moment on learning the perspectives from Chiang Mai, Ha Noi, Vientiane, Jakarta, and so many other cities represented to bring back home the knowledge and empowerment. If only I could convince you that planning is not merely consultancy work for another document gathering dust on a mayor’s bookshelf, or for the extra money in the pockets of our dearly elected councilors. This piece is here because in sharing my experience, I hope that there will be better awareness, more voices, and conscious efforts to improve our urban planning.

Seeing Green

Let me start by saying, I finally breathed.

Take it literally: Singapore is a city in a garden. That is their vision for the country. So simple and achievable—they’ve actually already achieved this.

How they did it: By overwhelming spaces with greens. By spaces, I don’t only mean soils and landscapes. I mean on top of building roofs, facades, on footbridges, walls, even tree trunks, even within already green parks, and every inch they could find. Trees, shrubs, crawlers, flowers, name it. Not a garden in a city, but a city in a garden. Biophilia is how it’s called. We are a part of nature, and so we should live with nature. Development can be integrated with gardens. It doesn’t mean one or the other, it’s not always a dichotomy. We can use trees to connect our built-up environment.

Facades have their own gardens springing out from its many storeys.
Even footbridges have flower beds.
Malls are spaces for trees.
Sky and rooftop gardens exist.

What guides the development of this green city? Four simple principles: Work, live, play, learn. All within reach of another, give or take a few minutes. Whether it be inside a business district, or an industrial park. They got the concept of the neighbourhood right.

You do not have to travel too far to work, to find a church, to get the groceries. All you need to do is to walk. And enjoy that walk. Because the sidewalk is wide, and you could strut with a nice bag without fearing pickpockets. Because there is clear signage everywhere. Because there is absolutely no smoke from cars.

Parks are connected and accessible to communities.
Avenues are lined with trees and greens.

If you live in Metro Manila, like me, you share the poison of daily smoke in your lungs. We complain about it, but we keep buying more cars. We keep keeping the old ones that emit black toxins into our air. We allow such an environment when we could actually rally by putting more efforts into growing plants, or responsibly maintaining our vehicles. A pot and a small seedling would do. Perhaps that could also help solve even a tiny portion for our everyday complaint: The heat. Canopies bring shade, plants minimize our carbon dioxide, contribute to risk reduction, and gardens beautify our environment.

But even in the metro, we exchange trees for malls. Despite zoning ordinances. Singapore increased their green cover from 35.7% to almost 50% in a little bit more than two decades, and with a slow rise of population. Other countries know how many trees are in one city. I can’t even tell how many are in my subdivision. Damian Tang, Asia-Pacific President of the International Federation of Landscape Architects, said, “When we plan with trees, it’s not just about aesthetics. It’s about valuing life.”


Strategies such as fringes and greenbelts are used to guide development.

Fellow Filipino, I ask you: What is our country’s vision today? What was it for the past six years? For the next three decades? I ask this in lectures, and across our islands. Most if not all do not know our vision, few would know it could be found in our Philippine Development Plan (if they knew about the PDP), but most likely, no one could recite it.

Some local planners I’ve met do not even know their own city visions. Urban planning strives to achieve a vision in how many years time, but how do we take steps towards a future that we do not know? That we may not share? Our city visions include all of these adjectives that we have to create indicators and targets for. How much of these have we actually achieved? Perhaps we monitor because of DILG’s whip, or because of HLURB’s checklist. Or because of the efforts of those in the development sector—our friends in NGOs and CSOs, doing their best to deliver change. Beyond the race to competitiveness plaques, and bragging rights, how meaningful are our planning efforts? I know cases when these progress indicators become a wall to defend the ego or reputation of a city instead of spurring growth or achieving sustainability (such a marketable word in our country).

That thing called politics

Planning in the Philippines rests on the heavy political drive and struggling technical capacities of our professionals. Political, because law and implementation rest with our legislative bodies, and technical, which provides all the baseline information, assessments, and strategies.

But our politics is too animalistic to be true, beyond mudslinging, self-first policies, and project prioritization with envelopes under the table. Conversations with local planners have a common denominator: “We comply and follow whatever our politicians want us to do. Even without data as basis. Even without an approved CLUP.” I constantly check in workshops how many councillors are represented. Very few planning officers would get them to join in the process. Directions without goals create what Ernesto Serote calls “aimless rambling,” defeating the purpose of planning.

Now, let’s take breathing figuratively.

We visited the Urban Redevelopment Authority. We learned how agencies integrate information as a basis of their planners. Urban development rests on the issues of housing and urban problems. In Singapore, these are never tackled without inputs of finance, sports, health, education, tourism, construction, transport, parks, trade, and most importantly, the people. Data is available, and plans are made transparent. Plans are consulted with communities, and are inclusive enough to have online feedback. Planning is long-term, directed towards a better life for their people, and in achieving their vision. Documents are presented to the politicians, but there is trust enough on planners to have made strategies well, and the plans are easily accepted and implemented.

It may be arguable that we do the same in the Philippines. Per the guidelines, perhaps. But every change in administration impacts long-term and continued efforts. Believe me, local planners I’ve worked with sigh in exasperation, and need a breath of fresh air from politics.

Someone in the audience asked the URA how they manage the problem, “How do you go about politics in planning?” Very simply, they answered, “We discuss issues and fight productively rather than destructively.” Politicians rely on science-based strategies. Urban development and housing management authorities collaborate with each other instead of pointing fingers and citing their own mandates.

Enough said.

Mixed, not fixed

The workshop tested its participants by asking us to identify our countries using World Economic Forum statistics: Population, GDP, unemployment rates, tax allowance, housing boards, and so on. While I easily identified Inang Bayan with our incredibly growing 100 million population, I took a close look at the different land areas. Singapore was definitely the smallest, with the Philippines 417 times larger, and with Indonesia (the largest), being 2,649 times larger.

Progress is not about the size, it’s about efficiency. How do we value our land? How do we use it?

The way to utilize our land is in our physical framework. Our land use plans tell us which parts of our city are residential, commercial, industrial, and so on. But despite these mandated plans which become zoning ordinances, we continue to face the problem of urban sprawl and not really walkable cities.

We are way too rigid when it comes to zoning, and way too flexible at giving out permits.

Land has so much value that we take for granted. In Singapore, building something new means tearing something down. Demolishment is common, after a cost-benefit analysis. They don’t have the privilege of just building wherever they want to, unlike in ASEAN neighbours who just have to find the available space. “Build in flexibility rather than using up all the resources available,” they taught us.

Mixed densities follow mixed land use. “When we don’t mix people with different incomes, it will be problematic.” We looked into cases of gated communities and estates, and the problems of exclusive uses. There is crucial importance in social class integration.

Taking this a step further is mixing uses vertically. Jack Sim said,“We should not keep building more buildings. One building can do the function of three.” Their advice for crowded metropolitans is to experiment: Try high-density in high-rise, and use the checkerbox strategy to create pockets of open space relief. Avoid conurbation at all costs. We cannot afford to run out of land.

The city-state of Singapore at bird’s eye view in the Urban Redevelopment Authority gallery.
How many years does it take to develop integrated plans from the national to local levels?
Dynamic planning is when all the uses are mixed together within different levels of a development project.
We should learn to leave space for future growth.


The life of a city

Let’s talk about what makes a city: Its people.

People drive the growth of a city—not cars, not malls, not houses. People migrate to where there are opportunities, and find shelter, impacting jobs, income, the demand and supply of basic services, transport, and everything they need to live. That is why it is important for cities to make its environment liveable for its people. With its dynamics and the exponential growth it creates, urbanization is as big a threat as climate change.

In the workshop, slides of Philippine slums and Manila Bay poop became examples of our living environment in the Philippines. Things we weren’t proud of under the spotlight of ASEAN friends, but also matters we should bring to the table all the more.

It is impressive that Singapore does not have any slums. But hold it right there, before we try to compare. While we’re on the topic—what is our perception of a slum?

Many of us would prefer to remove slums from the picture. But slums naturally surround a city, even if it is well-planned. Look at Brasilia. Look at any city under the god-like view of the satellite, and around it gathers slums.

We perceive them to be ugly, dirty, unsanitary—an eyesore. But let us learn from history’s lessons, and dig deep into that humanitarian heart: People living in slums are our neighbours. They are the people in our workplace, probably providing maintenance services to our big corporations, or giving you your salon fix. They play around a big, but most likely invisible chunk of our economy. Urbanists have observed that people living in slums would most likely know the people in their communities as compared to people in subdivisions. They would most likely know streets better than the rest of us who pass by their daily lives.

But many of these people may be the ones who are victims of social exclusion, of segregation, or of migration from despair. This poses a problem for our government.

Singapore’s story wasn’t too different in the early 50’s to 60’s. They showed us the pathetic state of pollution, squatters, and flooding. But they shared how they overcome the problem: Prioritize education, employment, and public housing.

Now that we mentioned public housing, let’s think beyond Philippine norms. In another universe, public housing can look like this:

This is an example of the interior they offer for public housing. In Singapore, they offer a program to redevelop housing interiors.
Imagine the possibilities of how much we can improve our public housing.

Of course, the Philippine delegation cracked endless jokes on how our own homes were actually better than these, but deep down, we knew how the tremendous disparity of public housing in Singapore and the Philippines make our own people miss out on comfortable lives.

Again, apples and oranges. But there are some things they do we might want to think about.

Given the scarcity of space and the demand for very high efficiency in space utilization, only one unit is allotted for each household. If you want a second house, you would have to sell your first before moving in to the new one. Flexible, smart spaces are integrated with these living areas. Schemes are available for new couples, families with children, the elderly, and singles. With the principles of an always renewable and rejuvenating environment, ethnic integration, and affordable options, public housing becomes preferable. The Housing Development Board provides 82% of the housing in Singapore.

On a social aspect, participants were keen to ask about inclusion. Very honestly, the Urban Redevelopment Authority answered, “We started strengthening inclusivity in the 2010s. It’s relatively newer, but we have worked on it.” Communities are consulted and updated with plans. Ethnic differences are put together to make a community diverse.

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