Taking Back the Waterfront; Shorelines Have Always Constituted Prime Real Estate in Asia. Now the Region's City Planners-Led by Singapore-Are Seeing the Value in Being Green

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Byline: George Wehrfritz and Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop (With B. J. Lee in Seoul and Jonathan Adams in Taipei)

When America's Lucasfilm Animation wanted to open its first foreign studio in 2004, a handful of countries tried to lure them. All touted their efficiency, deep labor pools and low costs, yet Singapore--a city somewhat infamous for its lack of creativity--won the contest hands down, thanks in part to an attribute entirely off the spreadsheet: trees. "You can hike above the tropical rain forest in the morning, kayak in the warm ocean waters at lunch and walk through the botanical gardens at midnight without having to be afraid you will get mugged," says Christian Kubsch, general manager of the Singapore studio.

Casting itself as Asia's model suburbia has long been part of Singapore's plan. Since independence, in fact, the city-state has sought to fashion itself into something other than a concrete jungle, on the logic that bougainvillea-festooned parks and banyan-lined thoroughfares would be "far more impressive and convincing than any sales pitch by a minister," as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong once put it. Next week the city will further advance its goal when it officially unveils its own version of New York's Central Park, a massive green belt called Marina Bay. The master plan features a botanical garden, a beach and a giant conservatory--all linked by a grand promenade. "It will seamlessly extend the Central Business District, making the most of our assets as a lush tropical island," says urban-development chief Cheong-Chua Koon Hean.

Singapore's neighbors are turning green, too--and not just with envy. From Busan to Bangalore, urban planners are beginning to rethink cityscapes that have grown haphazardly to the point of dysfunction. The aim isn't solely to attract foreign investors; homegrown opposition to unchecked construction, environmental degradation and destruction of historical waterfronts is welling up from the grass roots. Politicians like Seoul Mayor Lee Myung Bak, who successfully championed the rehabilitation of an ancient downtown stream, have won accolades; thanks to his clean-up efforts, Lee is now a strong presidential contender. In contrast, Hong Kong's unchecked harbor development has triggered a powerful backlash against Chief Executive Donald Tsang. "In Asia, we're seeing a growing understanding that waterfronts are the most highly exposed development sites and provide opportunities for cities to showcase what their ambitions are," says Richard Marshall, regional director for the urban-design and planning firm EDAW.

Singapore was the first Asian city to brand itself by its outward appearance. In the 1960s, founding leader Lee Kuan Yew set about making the former British trading post into a "garden city" replete with flowering trees and manicured parks. He dispatched officials to import hundreds of plant species from as far away as Africa and the Caribbean, fertilized public lands and imposed building codes that limited skyscraper construction and promoted development of tree-lined residential areas. The unabashedly paternalistic model once earned Singapore the reputation as a "nanny state" in a region known for its all-night neon. Yet with many Asian cities now gridlocked and mired in pollution, the costs of laissez-faire development are more and more apparent--making Singapore's centralized approach increasingly appealing. "It has a top-down policy, and it has been very effective," says Russell Arthur Smith, an urban-planning expert who has advised governments across Asia. …