For a Long-Term Vision, City Leaders and Urban Planners Look to Singapore

March 30, 2016

Story Highlights
  • Singapore Urban Week convened 200 city leaders and urban planners to discuss how to plan sustainable cities
  • Global Platform for Sustainable Cities, launched during Urban Week, promotes an integrated approach to urban development, focusing on planning, financing, and implementation
  • Singapore offers example of long-term vision complemented by an ‘ecosystem’ for infrastructure investment

“Plans are nothing,” former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said.  “But planning is everything.”

That could have been the motto of Singapore Urban Week, which gathered some 200 city leaders and urban planners from around the world to discuss how to plan more sustainable cities.

Singapore, a city known for carefully considered self-renewal, is arguably the synthesis of forward-looking planning. Yondela Silimela, Executive Director of Development Planning for the city of Johannesburg, South Africa, said that what struck her most during a week of sharing knowledge with her peers was Singapore’s example of preparing well-articulated plans for decades ahead.

“There are real lessons here for Johannesburg, and, among them, is the lesson of the importance of a long-term vision and sticking to that vision. That is something we struggle with,” said Silimela, who explained that the challenge in Johannesburg includes integrating poor communities into long-term planning, so that they may receive their fair share of the urban dividend. She added that equally important is putting in place governance systems that underpin activities to ensure that the plans keep moving forward.

Johannesburg is part of the Global Platform for Sustainable Cities (GPSC), a knowledge sharing and management program launched during Singapore Urban Week. 

With 24 participating cities across 11 countries and supported by development partners, including the Africa Development Bank, the Islamic Development Bank, and several United Nations agencies, the GPSC ties city level projects together under one platform and promotes an integrated approach – so that any urban development program considers equally the importance of planning, financing, and implementation.

As Commissioner of Bhopal municipality in India – a city of 2.3 million people facing urban sprawl and a shortage of affordable housing – Sanjay Kumar faces challenges on all three fronts. But Kumar said that if sustainability is the goal, integrated planning and implementation are the bigger hurdles to overcome rather than financing.

“Creating infrastructure will not solve the problem or lead us to sustainability. We have to have an integrative approach,” he said.  And indicators or benchmarks, which the GPSC provides, would help his city determine how to proceed to the next step.  “This forum helped us see what kind of indicators, what kind of data, will help our cities,” he said.  The platform also provides diagnostic indicators that help planners understand the structural causes of developments in the city.

For Mayor Datuk Zainel Bin Hussin of Melaka, a city in Malaysia that is pursuing a more sustainable development path, the GPSC provides opportunities for funding his city’s aspirations. Transfers from national governments to the cities, said Hussin, are often insufficient.  “They do support, but it is not enough,” he said.

Building a financing pipeline was one of the key lessons provided by Singapore, which abides by the ‘ecosystem’ model it has established.

“Developing the whole ecosystem means that you have the enterprise that deals with infrastructure, you have the finance institutions that deal with infrastructure, and also the insurers who deal with infrastructure,” said Kow Juan Tiang, Environment and Infrastructure Solutions Group Director at International Enterprise Singapore.

Kow recognizes, however, that these ecosystems need not be replicated everywhere, and that solutions must be adapted to the needs of individual cities.

“We do not profess to know everything. But at least we have certain capabilities, we have a track record, and we can share our experience,” said Kow. 

Other agencies in Singapore are also sharing their knowledge. The Urban Redevelopment Authority may soon offer a training course for city managers to learn more about green infrastructure development.

Johannesburg city planner Silimela agrees that enabling cities to self-determine their development path is key.  When asked whether learning about other cities’ experiences prompts a sense of competition, she responded, “Ultimately you do compete, because you are trying to attract investment.  But for me it is inspiring rather than competitive. If they can pull that off, I think, maybe we can as well.”

Singapore Urban Week was jointly organized by the World Bank Group’s Singapore Hub for Infrastructure and Urban Development, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and several Singaporean agencies, including Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, International Enterprise Singapore, and the Center for Livable Cities.