Planning for Change: Singapore’s launch to global city status

Singapore is known as one of the most well managed states on the planet. It often ranks among the least corrupt, cleanest, “freest” (economically), and greenest in the world. Much of this is a testament to the real successes the government has had, but there are also many challenging issues the goverment must still contend with on a daily basis, such as housing, employment, water sourcing, flooding control, business development, social justice, identity building, etc. The following pictures illustrate Singapore’s past, present and future as an emergent global city. One of the defining features of that past, present, and future, is a commitment to “good” urban planning not found in many other places. This urban planning is used to attempt to launch Singapore to global city status and provide the physical basis for future prosperity. These pictures provide one way of understanding how this takes place by integrating the urban planning story of Singapore with its visual landscape, giving students a tangible vision of Singapore planning.

Objective: Students will be able to describe and understand the planning processes and outcomes that have shaped the landscape of Singapore today as it attempts to become a top global city. (They will reference the imagery in the photos to help them.) 

Questions to think about: What makes a city a “global city”? How does a city become a “global city? What is Singapore doing to achieve global city status?

To get you thinking click the link below to read an Intelligent Life (The Economist) article suggesting that Singapore become the next “Capital of the World.”

Singapore, Capital of the World?


This is a view from the top of the Singapore Flyer, the largest Ferris Wheel in the world. This image is important for understanding how the economic landscape has evolved over the 46 year history of an independent Singapore. One can see the old customs house which once was the center of trade in a colonial Singapore as well as the emerging financial center off to the left side of the photo. This skyline, still remarkably young, is a dynamic testament to 46 years of rapid economic growth and to Singapore’s strategic location in the flows of the global economy.

 The Merlion is the symbol of Singapore, representing a combination of a fish and a lion. The fish represents Singapore’s origins a Fishing village before it was ever known as Singapore. The lion represents Singapura, the original name of the city and a key feature of Singaporean mythology. It is also a reminder of one of the most important aspects of Singaporean urban planning; a sympathetic nod to the practice of Feng Shui. So, the layout of the CBD is such that it encourages the recycling of wealth in the country and prevents it from flowing out of the country. As well, after the Asian Financial crisis in 1997 the country even changed the scroll on its dollar coins to create a smiley face. These sorts of elements reveal how culture  is not just a background element reserved for private space, but is enacted through the built environment. (FYI: My professor at the National University of Singapore was the person that recommended the current location of the Merlion!)

It is important not to forget Singapore’s colonial past as a British colony. Unlike many newly independent nations, Singapore chose not to abandon some of its colonial influences, such as its educational system, government system, and the English language, seeing them as an asset rather than a burdern. Thus they were able to leverage what was left them to mobalize the people in the process of nation building and emerge successfully in the 21st century as one of the richest countries in the world. The Raffles Hotel, pictured above, named after the British “founder” of Singapore is today a chic spot for the city’s well to do. It remains a reminder of Singapore’s colonial past, but it has also gone under changes to incorporate it into a modern Singapore.

This image, from Singapore’s “Little India” is of interest because it signifies an ethnic neighborhood where ethnic economies and cultural traditions from India remain an important feature of the landscape. It is a reminder of the diversity of Singapore. It is a constant reminder of the complexity faced by Singapore’s urban planners as they attempt to create a Singapore for “all” even when this is not necessarily feasible.

A street in Chinatown reveals the juxtaposition of a historic preservation area consisting of old “Shophouses” in the foreground and Singapore’s largest public housing project in the background. This image reveals one of the central policies of Singapore’s nation building efforts. It is also a dramatic reminder of the role the government plays in shaping the landscape of Singapore. It does this through controlling all of the land in Singapore, choosing when, where, and how to develop.

Chinatown, a largely tourist area of Singapore in which an odd mix of government preservation, low cost shopping, and traditional Chinese medicine and tea shops make for a unique walkable shopping and eating district. Changes dramatically throughout the week as it is still a living economic space.  Was all but destroyed in the early 1980s until economic crisis sparked an interest in its preservation. This is an interesting space to discuss planning issues because of tensions that developed over the “correct” depiction of “Chinatown” as a place for residents, tourists, and creative workers attracted to the historical architecture. Who controls this space?

As a city-state the government plays a major role in planning the city for future economic growth and population change. Its Economic Development Board and Urban Redevelopment Authority play central roles in shaping the spatial economy of the state. They have attemped to combine a modern global city and the natural environment for an ideal represented by a “city within a garden.” The city is currently in the process of implementing its Concept and Master Plans for Singapore’s Central Business Ditrict, doubling its size over the next 20 years, building a new financial center, and completing Marina Bay Sands, known as an Integrated Resort. These developments have occurred as a joint partnership between the Singaporean State and private firms. Most of this new development will occur on land reclaimed from the sea. Beach Road is no longer on the coast!

This image taken in Holland Village represents one of the (re)new(ed) economic spaces of Singapore, highlighting Singapore’s drive towards a creative, service based economy. This is one of the engineered social spaces to meet the needs of a new class of worker. Also known as a “Little Bohemia” for its appeal to “alternative” lifestyles seen as conducive to those within the media, tech, and creative industries. There is a fascinating state discourse around these spaces that seems to counter another distinctive space in Singapore, the “heartlands” where most Singaporean live outside the central area. This spatial division of liberal “bohemians” from conservative “heartlanders” is a fascinating dichotomy created as Singapore attempts to balance economic and social change in the country. What can we discern from this development?

Singapore is a culture of high savings, but it is increasingly becoming a place of high consumption. In fact one can get around the entire country without ever leaving a mall or a train! It is one of the distinctive features of this Tropical city. Pictured above is Singapore’s most exclusive shopping center located on Orchard Road. Here one can buy a lunch for US$6 or a painting by Monet. These spaces are fundamental spaces of economic growth in advanced economies like Singapore, but are also sites of unintended use. Some of these unintended uses are as spaces of exhibition by individuals playing music, doing ceremonial activities, or making art for contributions by mall patrons. It is also one of the dominate hang out spaces by Singapore’s youth. Interesting discussions of public v. private space can be conducted.

This image reveals a dynamic economic landscape and four pillars of the Singaporean economy. First is the University (my dorm room), from where the photo was taken, followed by a Science and Technology Park, then the port of Singapore, and finally Jurong Island, the petrochemical hub of Southeast Asia. I was fortunate enough to get access to Jurong Island firsthand from the Singaporean government. This image reveals how much is packed into such a small space, but also is evidence of some of the dynamic industries (and the state) which shape Singapore’s economic landscape today.

Singapore’s future? Singapore has one of the most dynamic economies in the world, but it is highly dependent upon the ebbs and flows of the global economy. The building in the image above is the Marina Bay Sands, an American Casino and one of Singapore’s largest foreign investments at US$6 billion dollars. It stands as the new symbol of Singapore, but is it the right one? What does it foretell for the Singaporean economy and Society? What does it say about the focus of Singaporean Planners?

Have they achieved their “global city status”?

Check out this video featuring my friends in the Geography Department at the National University of Singapore, Kenji, Fang Yu, MunKidd, and Liang Xun. Here they tour the Marina Bay Development area, highlighting its most prominent features and discuss Singaporean planning goals.




The Economic Development  Board (EDB) is the agency responsible for orchestrating the economic development of Singapore in all major industries. It was established as a “one stop shop” for firms wishing to enter the market in Singapore, cutting down on waste. It is probably the most powerful agency in the country.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) is the agency responsible for urban planning, land use planning, and land sales. This gives it the unique power to shape the physical landscape of the country. Implements EDB goals and initiatives through land management.


These images taken by me (or a family member) over my year stay in Singapore will play a vital role in shaping the discussion of Singapore, not only as a unique place, but also as a means for understanding how the state, the economy, and the society interact on a daily basis, and how this impacts the visible landscape. These are critical ideas of interest to students stepping forth into a world changing everyday beneath our feet. Through an exploration of the economic landscape in Singapore critical contrasts and connections can be made with how other locations around the world conceive of the issues that face all of us on a daily basis and give insight into how they have attempted to solve similar issues. Perhaps then we can all learn from each other, taking the best ideas and solutions and augmenting them to fit our circumstances.





















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