Singapore’s urban planning vision, some more of the good, the not so good and the bad

Singapore’s reluctance to really say goodbye to a car-centric planning vision is lamentable, but there is more to its vision than just that. Some of it appeals to me tremedously, some bothers me, some seems really counterproductive.

I don’t like myself much when I whine and complain. As this post and many others show, that doesn’t shut me up, but it does create the need for some mouthwash and some positive sounds. Whatever beef I may have with my surroundings here, nothing beats the here and now.

That Singapore’s ambition to make its citizens live in a garden is immediately visible to any visitor. I don’t know of any other metropolis, with comparable pressures on very limited land, that has so successfully prioritized greenery as this little red dot. You want good policy, doesn’t get much better than this.

But there also seems an underlying concept of green spaces being either a park, with paved foot and cycle paths, or nature to be admired from a boardwalk or platform, or something wild, to be protected from human disturbance, potentially dangerous and implicitly or explicitly made off limits. I know that there are perfectly valid reasons to  pave trails, like increasing accessibility to those less mobile, preventing erosion, or avoiding accidents. But paving as the default option has some real dark sides.

Unpaved nature does something with and to your senses that a park can never bring about. Nature reserves are constantly being ‘upgraded’ with somewhat gnarly, rocky, etc. existing trails either being closed off, or turned into stairs or similarly ‘improved’. And yes, building a staircase down the somewhat steep back of Bukit Timah makes it more accessible, but also changes Bukit Timah into something other than it was before. I strongly believe our bodies and minds need to be able to regularly fully engage with the natural world, rocks, mud, slippery slopes and all, not partially, only visually. All major parks totally lack unpaved trails. The gravel trails around the Bedok and Pandan reservoirs’ are evidence of a perfectly fine alternative for the major paths in the larger  parks, and why would they not (also!) have some longer totally unpaved trails? I am told that the relevant authorities do listen to popular protest against plans to e.g. turn the rail corridor into another pavement only ‘park’. So maybe the tide is slowly changing, I sincerely hope so. If not, Singapore’s future may be a visually pleasing garden but without any possibility to fully immerse oneself in the natural.

Paving what is deemed green for public consumption feels like an aspect of the same mentality that implicitly or explicitly closes off anything not (currently) considered green for the public. I come across so many green spaces without any access (obvious trails going through), or signage declaring it off-limits. Often there are good reasons (military exercise terrain etc.), but equally as often there seems none other than that off-limits is the preferred default option. My point is that there seems to be plenty currently unused green available that would offer immersion possibilities if made accessible. Green doesn’t need to become a park or nature reserve to ‘work’ as natural environments that are able to give us what our biophilic species needs.

If that was the not-so-good, the bad is something that is so universal that one cannot ‘blame’ Singapore’s authorities other than lamenting that this city-state is certainly no exception: very obvious public health campaigning about the importance of leading an active life, get your 10.000 steps a day, etc. etc. goes hand in hand with creating  an urban environment  that continuously provides lazy stationary/sedentary alternatives that ensure you have to do nothing active. Singapore, with its extensive and superb MRT network, is no stranger to stairs (about which I have ranted before), but most of the time there is an escalator option. You will all be familiar with the sight of a long cue before the escalator and the (near) empty staircase beside it. That’s what happens if the comfort option is available. When it is not, no one complains. And those who really have trouble with stairs patiently take the elevator.

My point being that a government serious about enticing its populace to ‘exercise’ more should make for an environment that naturally makes for movement rather than emphasizing comfort and expecting that strength-of-will kinda exhortations will be effective. They never are. And people shouldn’t be blamed for that. The considerably more active lives of our predecessors were not a matter of choice either. They just had no option. The issue with movement is very similar to the issue with food. Don’t want kids to gorge on fast food? Don’t offer it to them. Don’t surround them with it.

I must admit that I have similar thoughts about the promise of autonomous vehicles for getting from home to the nearest public transport hub (future Tengah new town), to get people to and around larger parks (the plan for Jurong Lake Gardens I believe), all fine for those for whom walking or cycling is (already) beyond them, but as a general offer a huge infrastructural disincentive to get people to lead healthy lifestyles.

Sedentary lifestyles are killing. We know that much by now. Don’t expect knowing to make much difference, other than for the already converted. Create environments that make movement the default. Make us walk!

Some disclaimers to avoid misunderstandings (I know, that normally doesn’t work, those who want to misunderstand will do so anyway, but at least I tried)

Disclaimer one: bloggers have the liberty to make single perspective judgements without the need to take all relevant public interests into account, as politicians and policy-makers are expected to do. Even if I would try, as a non-expert recent arrival, to make the kind of balanced assessment a local government is supposed to produce, I lack the required overview, and my praises and criticisms are thus to be understood for what they are: impressions based on navigating this cityscape, and the limited reading I have been able to do so far.

Disclaimer two: I happen to write about Singapore, but much of what I come across is undoubtedly not unique to Singapore, and might be better or worse than elsewhere, who knows. Singapore’s stated willingness and practice to learn from other jurisdictions, taking on board the best and tinker with it until it suits local circumstances is admirable, prudent, and overall successful. And it certainly hasn’t prevented, or should I say has resulted in some unique policy stances that have been – in my humble opinion – stunningly successful, e.g. regarding public housing. Anyway, my point is that my praises are for (my understanding of) policy positions and practices, rather than Singapore. I just happen to come across them here because I live here.



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