Singapore: Do It Once. Did It Right. Doing It Better.


By Chris Isles, Place Design Group's Executive Director of Planning 

I have just wrapped up the second of my four days here at the World Cities Summit 2016 and Young Leaders Symposium in Singapore. And, it has been an amazing and inspiring few days so far.  But more on my learnings and takeaways from the summit itself when I am afforded the time to reflect on my major project works kick started started here, post event. 

Today, I thought I would take the opportunity of conveying my observations, not of the summit but of the precinct where the summit is being held, being the Marina Bay precinct.

This precinct is a brilliant example of a 30 year overnight success story, and recognised as one of those truly exceptional places in the world that you rarely come across.  But far from being an accident, this place is an example of long term vision, and sticking with a plan well beyond typical short, political cycles to deliver a world class space and precinct.  With the first reclamation works commencing in 1970, and concluding in 1992, this precinct has literally risen out of the Bay. Here, they have created 360 hectares of (arguably) the best tourism and city building outcomes achieved anywhere in the world.

In my opinion, they have gotten this right for the simple fact that more than 50% of the precinct has been retained as public space or open space, on which 100ha alone is in the incredible 'Gardens by The Bay' precinct.  This says a lot about the long term vision of the Singaporean government to transform Singapore from a "Garden City" to a "City in a Garden".

This precinct is first and foremost about people, with generous public boulevards to the water edges and these incredible parklands set aside.

Aerial view of SingaporeThis is one of the first master planned precincts I have ever experienced, that has all of the pieces, AND also in the right order of priority.  To start with, they have a range of complementary and destination locations within the precinct.  From the signature Marina Bay Sands Hotel, through to the convention and exhibition centre, and one of Singapore’s larger retail centres, to the casino, public open space and gardens, and social and cultural assets such as the Museum, the space is well connected with a public transport and numerous bridges and connections back to the old part of Singapore.

I think Brisbane might have an insight here, relative to some of the potential of our Queens Wharf project, with a casino buried in the complex, but quite discretely and far from being a screaming focal point of the precinct.  But the same building houses a five storey retail extravaganza and five level convention and exhibition space that any city would be pleased to call their own.  It shows that collocated facilities such as this can be complementary.  I am careful to not ignore the fact that one of the world's newest, most iconic buildings, is the Marina Bay Sands hotel, which is three, 57 storey tower buildings containing 2500 hotel rooms, crowned with a 340-metre-long SkyPark and a 150m infinity swimming pool.

But let's move on from the obvious and glamorous buildings that would occupy most peoples thoughts, and do what I love to do, which is reverse engineer the precinct to understand what and why it works and what doesn’t work, which by the way is very little. So, let's start underground and talk about the fact that the whole precinct sits atop a metro line and metro station, which links underground straight into both the hotel and shopping precinct. Here, you kind of get the feeling it was actually the metro that drove the design of the precinct, and not vice versa.

There are a number of major arterial roads that cut through the precinct and whilst these have limited pedestrian permeability at street level (which is admittedly quite annoying), the reality is that three sets of underground tunnels link from inside the shops to inside the hotel, not to mention an aerial link six storeys in the air.  But the benefit of not having to deal with pedestrians crossing this road, is a fast and efficient road link to-and-from the precinct.


What I find clever about the whole precinct, are the small things that to the untrained eye, would render most people completely unaware they were even there.  But to someone who hunts out the obscure, I can assure you that they have this place dialed in.  District cooling plants are an example of such, providing chilled water to run the air-conditioning for much of the precinct, meaning that roof areas can be left available for people and plants.

Not to be one to let a functional and utilitarian thing like a district cooling plant to ruin aesthetics, it is all neatly housed inside a clever piece of moving public art and the constant ‘waterfall’ of water from the cooling adds an interesting, aural element to this building. Almost like it is part of the show.

Another subtle feature of clever functionality is that the whole precinct is surrounded by a harbour which is now in-fact a fresh water reservoir for the city. In 2008, the installation of a barrage stopped the exchange of sea water, which has since provided the added benefit of helping to alleviate flooding in low-lying areas of the city.  As the water in the Marina Basin is unaffected by the tides, the water level will be kept constant, making it ideal for all kinds of recreational activities and just adding to the tourist and local water experience, whilst having an entirely unseen municipal function.

The focus of the precinct is clearly on the edges, which is where the amenity and value lies, and this is where the lift and activity occurs from nighttime light and laser shows through to sailing and active recreation activities around all parts of the precinct.  From wandering through the precinct, both morning and night, it is certainly not a precinct for tourists, in fact I would hazard to say that tourists are outnumbered five to one. This is first-and-foremost an asset and place for the people of Singapore. And it is clear the design has achieved this, having not pandered to the tourist and casino elements which would ultimately have disadvantaged the public realm and open space here.

I quoted Jan Gehl in a recent presentation about 'Place Making Qualities' and his quote, ‘First life, then people, then buildings - the other way around never works’.  Whilst I don’t think Jan had any input into this precinct, it is clear that his principles are most definitely alive and living here.

The Marina Bay Precinct, Singapore is a remarkable place and I strongly recommended it as a bucket list destination for any urbanist out there.

INSIGHTS, Live from The World Cities Summit and Young Leaders Symposium 2016 in Singapore, courtesy of Australian representative Chris Isles

 Chris Isles
Executive Director of Planning, Place Design Group
World Cities Summit Young Leader 2016 - 2018
Australian Planner of the Year (2015)

As Executive Director for Planning at Place Design Group, Chris Isles leads Urban Planning teams internationally Australia, China and South East Asia.

Chris works at the intersection of planning, urban design, commercial viability and data science with his driving energy being the progression and recognition of the critical role that planners have in the cities of the future.

A trusted advisor to the Australian government at all levels and private developers alike, Chris’s focus is guided by the global imperative for the planning profession to respond, and keep ahead of the global urbanisation trend to ensure that the future of cities for people is not lost during rapid urbanisation

Chris is recognised for outstanding work in his field, awarded Australian Planner of the Year for 2015; is a member of the Queensland Urban Design and Places Panel; and recently appointed to the World Cities Summit Young Leaders Program.

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