It is quite amazing to see what difference connecting interesting bits of townscape to each other makes to their use. Shanghai made me very aware of that. During my four years in this metropolis the city added dozens of kilometers to its landscaped, fully pedestrianized and connected by one unimpeded cyclepath Huangpu riverfront. When I arrivedelement and started exploring the city on the run I was amazed by what felt like a curious underuse of the various bits of pedestrianized riverfront other than its major tourist attraction, the Bund. How come that all these obvious and easily accessible escapes from the surrounding hectic urban mayhem did not attract more people?
And then magic happened: as soon as the formerly stand-alone bits were hooked up by the opening up of the connecting parts of waterfront, usage boomed. When fully ready in the not too far future the city is going to have what must be the world’s most ambitious riverbank development, 25k of unimpeded landscaped walking and cycling connection, on both sides of one of the busiest rivers in the world, cutting through the heart of Shanghai’s twin cities of Puxi and Pudong. The increase in people hanging out at the riverfront is mindboggling and highlights importance of the uncompromising vision of Shanghai’s planners about the need for full-on connectivity. If that takes a couple of new bridges, building boardwalks (similar to the Bukit Chermin boardwalk connecting Labrador park to Keppel harbour), prioritizing public access over private ownership, so be it.
It seems to me that Singapore’s urban planners are well aware of this. The Marina Bay development is a good indication. So I imagine that they are going to keep this in mind wherever existing infrastructure and ownership allows them to do so. Thus one may have high hopes for the redevelopment of the coastline between the Marina South promenade and Vivocity/Harbour Front (once Tuas is fully operational). Another indication is the Southern Ridges which by connecting existing parks made all of them way more attractive, and created a whole that is way way more than its parts. And it is this same insight that underlies the Park Connector Network (PCN) concept: the linking up of individual parks holds the promise of an emergent whole that is orders of magnitude beyond its constituent parts.
However, there are also reasons for skepticism. Southern Ridges shows that an uncompromising vision doesn’t come cheap. The infrastructural requirements for this (hugely successful – it wouldn’t be hyperbolic to describe this project as ‘iconic’) undertaking were massive. And looking at the PCN, which is (also) presented as a crucial element of Singapore’s transportation policy for a less car-centric future, I wonder what the countless forced traffic light stops on PC routes indicates about Singapore’s ambition level. ‘Uncompromising’ means that policy-makers plan for overpasses, underpasses, whatever is necessary to ensure unimpeded movement. Anyone familiar with the PCN knows that it doesn’t live up to that standard. I think it shows in that its effectiveness to stimulate the use of cycling for home-work transport etc. has been quite limited. And other than Southern Ridges (which was not dependent on the PCN for its success) I don’t know of any other PCN connected parks that show signs of an emergent fushion more attractive and popular than any of its parts.
Another reason for worry is Singapore’s apparent unwillingness to enforce public right of way wherever that makes sense. The above mentioned Bukit Chermin boardwalk is a perfect example of how private property rights and public accessibility can both be honoured. Another would be the way that the Singapore Island Country club doesn’t block the possibility of a full-circle MacRitchie reservoir hugging trail. The whole Eastern part of Sentosa island would be a protypical counter example of money trumping the common good.
I am fully aware that current planning cannot undo all the harm of decades of car-centric urban development, that the ‘perfect’ is often the enemy of the ‘good enough’, that resources are limited, that choices have to be made. But I also feel that Singapore does make fundamental choices that would be unheard of and impossible anywhere else, e.g. with respect to its stunningl;y effective public housing policy. Here, particular ambitions were prioritized (and continuously reassessed and adapted to the changing needs of the times) and then were and are being realized withing the city-state’s means. When I walk/run/cycle the city, regularly hitting insurmountable disconnections that impede continuous movement, no, way more forceful, discourage continuation, sorta scream ‘take the bus’, I wonder why Singapore’s ambitions to create a truly green, walk and cycle-centric city seem not cut of that same cloth.