Why I Have An Unhealthy Obsession With The DNA Of Cities


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

I have a confession to make. I have developed an unhealthy obsession with cities. They fascinate me.

Whilst all cities around the world essentially perform the same role and function as each other - to house us and facilitate our commerce and trade - cities around the world are also very different.

Obviously local climate, weather, customs and culture play a big part in that, but that can’t be the only reason for their differences.

When I visit places, I find that I can no longer simply just enjoy a city and place for what it is: its natural beauty, history or modern elegance. My unhealthy obsession always forces me to look deeper into the city and reverse engineer it to truly try and understand how and why it ticks – and, what makes that city what it is.

Having spent the last week in Singapore for the World Cities Summit, with a few extra days afterwards spent exploring the city via an amazing local tour Guide (a big shout out to ‘CT’s Locals’ Singapore Tours), a thought has been recurring in my mind...

Why is Singapore so innovative?
Has their innovation come in response to a need, or was it opportunistic? Why and how has it successfully implemented a range of innovative - but at the same time tough - city building initiatives, when so many other cities have failed?Hands down, Singapore has been the best Asian City I have travelled through, and having had Place Design Group offices right across China for 15 years, I am fortunate enough to say I have spent some time drawing examples. So, here’s my stab at my 7 Impressions about the what, why, and how Singapore has succeeded, and why I believe that they can comfortably put their hand up for not only operating as the smartest city in the world, but also as one of the most liveable.

Impression # 1 – Leasehold equals value capture
Singapore is well known for its land reclamation activities, which began in the 1960’s. Since then the ‘land’ area of Singapore has increased by 23% or the equivalent of 130 km2.

What most people don’t know, is that the ownership of this land has been retained by the Singapore Government and then leased out on 99 year leases. Developers, vie for the right to develop sites (the Government also do a lot of their own projects) and the resultant units are then sold to the public or held by the State for subsidized housing on 99 year leases.

At the end of the 99 year period, the building and land are then taken back by the State for redevelopment.

Perhaps this is considered a weird concept for most Australians, where our home is our castle. But with the State essentially remaining as the ultimate landlord they have proven that they can achieve superior outcomes through this leasehold model, not the least of which is affordable and subsidised State Housing.

Impression # 2 - Infrastructure value capture
Now the concept of value capture on the back of government investment in public infrastructure is probably one of the most commonly used expressions in Australia right now. However, whilst we here are currently talking about it, Singapore has actually been doing it, and I think I have figured out where we are going wrong.

To start with, most of Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit Subway (MRT) is running in - and through - the city’s reclaimed land areas that now occupy the major CBD, tourism and open space functions, which means the Government is the owner of the land and they capture the value of their own expenditure when they then lease those properties out as noted above.

What they are illustrating, is that the best way for Government to capture value is to capture it from themselves. Beyond this, the minute a project is announced, the value is caught by the persons that own the property on that day.

Post announcement, when developers then pour in, they are paying inflated prices because the potential has been realised by the first land owner.

If the Government is serious about value capture, then perhaps they need to be capturing it before they announce projects and from the first land holders. Trying to capture a return on their infrastructure investment from the developers (unless they were the first land holder) only serves to drive up ultimate prices.

So the lesson here in Australia could be for our government, and that is to make greater investment decisions around their own land holdings, and then capture value that way.

Impression # 3 – The importance of stable politics
Now I will admit I am not an expert on the specifics of Singaporean politics, but what I do know is that they have retained the same Government for 51 years. And I am sure there are lots of negatives to this. However, from a city perspective, it has clearly allowed for the delivery of long term visions and plans that have not only been dreamt up, but also delivered over this enduring period of political stability.

I might add that the quality of the Singaporean politicians, based on their three senior Ministers whom I had the pleasure of meeting and hear speak whilst here, was exceptional.

Perhaps having just the one tier of government is partially attributable to this, where their talent pool of politicians becomes concentrated, compared to here in Australia where our model tends to spread our talent pool across multiple tiers of government.

It is also clear that Singapore certainly values their politicians by paying them exceptionally well. Yet here in Australia we have constantly debated whether what we pay politicians is too much, and whether it’s fair.

I would pose the question that maybe there should be more of a focus on the critical role those people play in the future of our cities and country. And, that we should pay them what is required to perform this critical role, and ensure that the right people are attracted.

In my mind, a more fitting and relevant remuneration model for our government leaders is required, so that we can then also make them more legitimately accountable.

Impression # 4 – What happens when State Housing is better than Private Housing?
Singapore is interesting, because historically they have always had a strong ‘State Housing’ program through their Housing Development Board (HDB). And they continue to.

Singapore’s public housing has housed the equivalent of an entire nation with more than 1 million flats completed over time. State Housing flats are home to over 80% of Singapore's resident population, with 90% of these resident households proudly owning their home.

HDB flats were built primarily to provide affordable housing for the poor and their purchase can be financially aided by the Central Provident Fund. In recent years and in response to changing demands, HDB has evolved their products to deliver more up-market public housing developments.

This is very different to the Australian model which has really been designed to be a true housing safety net. Singapore has a tiered system where people can even buy housing - albeit subsidised - whilst other housing is more akin to our social housing model with rental arrangements.

What is interesting, is that they are often in the same building, which the State retains ownership off. Equally the Government has worked hard, even from the first iterations to put these flats into the right places, with access to public transport, and on top of shops and public spaces.

Now in their 5th generation of design, the latest HDB towers are truly amazing and comfortably sit next to high end private developments. One such example, is the Pinnacle project, which boasts the world's tallest, public residential building featuring the world's two longest sky gardens at 500 metres each, located on the 26th and 50th floors.

The complex has shared spaces, running and walking tracks in the sky gardens and blends social housing, rent-to-own flats and flats that have been bought (leased for 99 years) by residents.

From my discussions with a number of locals, there is a real fight and conscious choice by people to access and live in projects such as the Pinnacle. Weirdly, public housing is better and more accessible than private developments. It is an interesting point to reach were State owned and funded developments are both playing in the market with private developers, but perhaps doing it better than the private developers.

This is something I would love to see more of in Australia.

Impression # 5 - Recognition of the importance of the little guy
Singapore is certainly a city of juxtapositions.

It is perhaps one of the more expensive cities to live in, but equally, it provides some of the cheapest and easily accessed food through their numerous hawker markets.

For the unacquainted, these are giant food halls often over multiple levels of buildings with simple local food options, where getting a meal for under $5AUD is entirely possible.

These hawkers markets are an interesting social phenomenon because you have everyone, from business people in suits, through to the less fortunate. All sitting and eating as equals in a shared dining environment.

Whilst originally hawkers’ centres were considered to be a venue for the less affluent and had a reputation for unhygienic food, this has changed with development of three main hawkers’ centres in Singapore which are owned and run by the Government.

What I love about this initiative, is that the Government gets to regulate food quality, but more importantly they play a catalytic role for new food enterprises, by consciously allowing these hawker traders to not pay tax on their income and also to have varied rental arrangements.

So, in this instance the Government presents as the owner and operator of food halls providing spaces for small business and low income earners to earn a living, but also provide food for a broad range of the community’s incomes and backgrounds. And it’s done well.

As a side note, one of the stalls I visited that specialised in fish balls and seafood broth had earnt a note from the Michelin Star Guide. Note bad for a 2x2m food stall! 
Impression # 6 – Busting Congestion
Wary of the fact that uncontrolled growth in the number of vehicles could result in problematic traffic jams in already scarce land and road areas across Singapore, the Government has implemented a range of measures to manage car ownership and usage.

These include the Certificate of Entitlement (COE) Scheme; a Vehicle Quota System; road taxes; and Electronic Road Pricing (or congestion tolling).

The COE scheme fascinated me, as it has been one of the most controversial and hotly debated public policies ever implemented in Singapore, but they did it and have stuck to it. In short, anyone wishing to buy a car or motorcycle has to bid for a COE. Via this scheme, the Government aims to peg long-term vehicle population growth at 3 per cent a year.

Each month, a certain number of COE's are released for bidding and if successful, the vehicle entitlement is valid for 10 years from the vehicles date of registration. When demand is high, the cost of a COE can exceed the value of the car itself. So whilst unpopular, it has worked to slow and cap car ownership within the City state. It works because this scheme is coupled with the existence of alternative, adequate and high quality public transport options in the city.

To me this decision made by Singapore’s Government is typical of the tough actions they readily seem to recognise - and must make. And beyond simply recognising this need, they have actually executed it, and also made the tough decision to stick to it.

I fear these type of brave political decisions on tough issues such as traffic, congestion and development will remain a long way off for us here in Australia.

Impression # 7 - Cultural assimilation and acceptance
Again, I am by no means an expert on the complicated racial, religious and cultural history of Singapore. I also understand the dangers of writing about something I am not an expert on. However, the few things shared by various tour guides and my readings, really drew me to want to explore this one further…The system of meritocracy in Singapore ensures that the best and brightest, regardless of race, religion and socio-economic background, are encouraged to develop to their fullest potential.

Singapore is also a secular, immigrant country. The main religions in Singapore are Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. These are obviously closely linked to the three core ethnic groups being Chinese, Indian and Malay.

What interested me, was the way that these groups not only cohabitate the city so effectively, but also within State owned housing and the hawkers markets. Respect for different religions and personal beliefs is heavily emphasised by the Government and this is perhaps why acceptance and respect is embodied so well in the residents themselves. Something we could learn a lot from here in Australia.

At a deeper level, I learnt that the Government in the early 1990s was concerned about a growing issue of communal ethnic clustering within Singapore. In response the Government adopted policies to maintain the ethnic balance as a means to foster social and racial cohesion.

To ensure a racial mix the Government established ethic quotas for State Housing neighbourhoods and unit blocks. The permissible proportion of flats in each neighbourhood for Malays was 22 % while the permissible proportion of flats in each block was 25 %. For Chinese, the permissible proportions were 84 % and 87 % respectively, and for Indians and other minority groups, the figures were reduced to 10 % and 13 % respectively.

To me, as an outsider this seemed (and probably was) an extreme degree of government intervention in the ethnic life of a city. Again, a brave and potentially controversial decision for any government to get this involved in the social and ethnic fabric of a city.

However, on face value as a tourist it seemed to have worked in the approximate 30 years since this intervention has been in place, with a very rich and diverse culture prevalent at street level – and also within the flat projects.

Obviously this isn’t a concept that would readily transfer to Australia, as our Government has no mechanism to enforce such quotas, and it clearly works in Singapore because of the large volume of State Housing. But I think taking the core principles of acceptance and importance of racial and ethnic diversity and acceptance, which is a core tenant of the Singaporean Government is something that we can certainly take back to Australia.

It is at this point in this piece, that I realise that my trademark ‘7 Impressions’ work has become unstuck, because there are far more than just 7 things about Singapore I feel I still need to highlight.

So I will cheat. And in a bold attempt to provide further insights into my time is this great city, here are a further ‘7 lessons’ for Australia.

So what can Australia learn from Singapore?
Lesson # 1 - Tough decisions around our Strata Legislation.

This is topical in Australia at the moment and whilst it seems New South Wales has made a tough decision on this topic already, it is also a current topic of debate in Queensland.

Singapore has an 80% acceptance rule for property sales. So if 80% of owners agree to a sale, then the balancing 20% get dragged along in a deal. This ‘drag along’ provision allows older buildings with new development opportunities to be sold and redeveloped.

This is something that has allowed value to be captured from new public transport by the sale and redevelopment of older properties positioned along new infrastructure routes without a fear of a single owner blocking a sale and redevelopment opportunity.

Personally I think Queensland would be wise to recognise that uplift and capture of redevelopment opportunities, and the benefits of increased density and new developments made possible by the 80% acceptance drag along provision is not only wise, but essential so that whole projects are not held to ransom by single people. From a city building perspective, when you see the projects made possible as a result of this 80% drag along rule, compared to what was there beforehand.

Lesson # 2 – Short-termism is a killer.

One of my favourite quotes from my time here at the World Cities Summit came from the Deputy Prime-Minister of Singapore, where we said that “short-termism is the enemy of social mobility and it’s the enemy of efforts to create the most liveable cities”.

I loved this. It says so much about the struggles here in Australian at all 3 levels of our government. Here, I believe are cities are struggling because of challenges of planning for political cycles, rather than for city building and long term outcomes.

Unfortunately, some tough decisions, such as those made 30 years ago in Singapore need to be made in Australian soon. And yes, the first few years of any such change will be tough, until the rewards are perhaps recognised and with our current short-termism of planning and politics, I can’t see any political party taking on such tough decisions for fear they will lose the next election before people can see the benefits.

I think our best chance is to try to pick some things that could have bipartisan support (such as the New Federal Cities Agenda) and try to run some things that regardless of any political changes will have a chance to run as continued policy for a while.

Make no mistake, ‘short-termism’ in political policy, as it relates to our cities is slowing leaving Australia behind.

Lesson # 3 – To capture value, Government needs to get in the game.

Whilst value capture is a hot expression in Australia at the moment, I think everyone would agree it is not a topic or concept we have exactly nailed.

As outlined earlier, it’s my view that if we want to capture value, then the Government needs to get in the game, not try to control it from the sideline.

Singapore has proven that ‘self-capture’ is the best method of capturing value and then returning this value to the citizens, is through the retention of ownership of land or creation of infrastructure in and around government land.

I think our government, perhaps particularly here in Queensland, should use its Transport Associated Development powers to resume properties in and around new transport corridors, before the transport arrives and then proudly put those properties back out to market (or hold onto them) post infrastructure delivery. Whilst there will be those that call this an abuse of government resumption powers, I disagree. I see this Government getting in the game and self-benefiting from uplift and then returning that uplift into the infrastructure funding pot to fund the next project for the greater good of our community.

It’s time to get off the bench and into the game.

Lesson # 4 - Overcome fear of density by doing it well: Subsidized & State Housing.

Again, this topic has been the current cause of much debate and vigour, particularly here in South East Queensland, where we have seen a recent apartment boom that has ostracised some local communities - the destination of much of this new unit growth.

Many have argued in recent articles (including myself), that the industry is to blame for much of the community angst, because we really aren’t doing a great job of delivering superior quality built form or precinct outcomes.

I have previously argued that to convert the wider community to the benefits of increased density, we need to take them on the journey and undertake a better communication program. But delivering density better than we have been has got to be high up the list.

Singapore seems to have grasped the density done well concept from the get go, and perhaps that is why its residents have no problem with it. Equally perhaps it is a sheer necessity given the size of their population and their small land area.

However they have moved from two and three storey terrace housing to multi-rise units, in much the same way we are moving away from one to two storey housing options, towards more low-medium rise units in our suburbs. So the scale of change when it happened was similar.

Singapore have done it well. And they continue to do it well, with examples such as their Pinnacle project (previously noted) which is arguably better than private development.

Whilst some will argue that with Government money so scarce, the Government themselves should play a far lesser role in non-core areas such as development. However to me, it should be the opposite. I would love to see Economic Development Queensland, get in and do what the Singapore Government has done (and continues to do) and deliver affordable and high quality housing that can be rented, rent-to-own or bought outright to fill the gap between social housing and private developments.

Government can play a key role to demonstrate that affordable housing doesn’t need to be cheap housing.

Lesson # 5 - Clean, Green and Friendly
There is a lot to be said for the way a city’s image is conveyed as a ‘clean and green city’ through both its people and also its physical presence.

Singapore really does epitomise a clean, green and friendly city. There is no doubt being a tropical country helps, where pretty much anything will grow - and grow fast, and big.

But there are lessons in the value of significant street tree and landscape coverage. In walking around one day, I took the opportunity to walk along the edge of what was a six lane arterial road. In Australia this would have been a concrete and asphalt nightmare, yet here it was a fully landscaped verge with significant tree and groundcover - and you almost didn’t know you were actually next to a traffic sewer.

Over and above street level, Singapore is well known for its progressive vertical garden landscaping requirements, which essentially link development form and massing with green space. It is not unusual to see major green walls, sky gardens and roof top gardens in and around the city.

So we could take several lessons here. The first being that planting the smallest tube stock that will be 20 years to provide any real value in term of shade and amenity does no one any benefit. We should be looking to plant far more advanced trees in our developments. Secondly, more green spaces in our cities are needed to provide respite and sanctuary from city living.

Lesson # 6 - Life and Activation
Perhaps it is a by-product of having 6 million people squeezed into 700 km2, but Singapore was certainly a city alive both day and night.

This night activity provided real interest. Whether it was the hustle and bustle of the hawker markets, or just people out walking and running in the evening, people seemed to be out and about everywhere, and the majority were locals, not tourists.

To me the number of residents that are out and about at night says a lot about a city, as does the number of things there are for those people to do.

Singapore had plenty of night time activities, from a nightly light and laser show, through to music, and dancing in the parks.

I was fortunate enough to have been in Singapore for two consecutive weekends, and on both weekends there were large, organised fun runs and adventure activities in and around the city. I was amazed to see what is in fact a fresh water drinking supply reservoir also being extensively used for dragon boat racing, and casual kayaking, again a great use of what would otherwise be a static and utilitarian asset.

Whilst we have a number of amazing public assets here in Australia and sporadic curated activities, events and festivals, I think we need more. I mean if you can drag people out of air-conditioning into 30 degree heat with 90% humidity to particular in public live and activity, surely we can get more of our residents out and about, for reasons other than ‘Pokemon Go’.

Lesson # 7 – ‘White Sites’
I have left what I know will be the most controversial lesson for Australia to last: This is the Singaporean idea of White Sites.

White Sites are designated when undertaking planning and development work around new infrastructure, and again through reclaimed land so they are 100% in Government control.

The Singapore Government creates and leaves White Sites. These are sites are deliberately left as parks in the short term but with long term development intent, which are then progressively brought to market as the precinct around it matures.

Rather than prescribing what must occur in these spaces; a typically prescriptive, Australian manner, White Sites are put out to the market, for the market to then put forward whatever development idea, use, or mix they believe is needed or commercially viable. The Government then assesses those bids on a merits basis.

But the flexibility of the White Sites gives the industry room to innovate and experiment and provide a development responsive to the market, rather than just colour and zoning on a plan.

Now this would be controversial here in Australia, because there is a strong sentiment in the community about them being ambushed by developments that didn’t know were possible or at least didn’t know could be that big or that tall, and that is the entire concept of White Sites.

But, I do like the idea of consciously holding back development sites. Again, it assumes government ownership and control in the first instance, and then those sites being released when the demand is there is a great means to maximising overall uplift for the site.

To me this is a smart way of providing flexibility for innovation, maximum uplift and value capture for government expenditure on infrastructure.

I consider myself fortunate that my recent appointment to the World Cities, ‘Young Leaders Program’, will see me return to Singapore in the next two years for the next World Cities Summit. However, I think I will need to make the effort of heading back sooner.

There is still so much of Singapore to see, having felt as though I have only just scrapped the surface of this brilliant world city.

I think so many cities around the world have so such that they can learn from Singapore. This city definitely deserves another visit, but perhaps that is my unhealthy, ‘city x-ray’ obsession speaking, beckoning me to return and continue the dissection of it’s many facets, to figure out what else makes it tick. And it is ticking loudly.


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