Urban Planning in Southeast Asia: Perspective from Singapore

By Yuen, Belinda | The Town Planning Review, March 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Urban Planning in Southeast Asia: Perspective from Singapore


Yuen, Belinda, The Town Planning Review


Southeast Asia is one of the world's fastest-growing regions in terms of population and urban growth. The economic and physical landscapes of its cities continue to change with globalisation and transnationalism, requiring update and development of new urban and spatial practices. The aim of this paper is to reflect and review the state of urban planning and policy in Southeast Asia, focusing in particular on the roots of urban planning from European colonial planning, their inherent ideas and principles. Using the case study of Singapore, the intention is to drill down and examine the products of the first modernity represented by British colonial modernist planning, and discuss how largely Eurocentric planning models have shaped and impacted on the present urban structure and development, and are intersecting with the second wave of modernity brought on by globalisation and the new economic growth of the twenty-first century, especially in terms of addressing urban liveability and sustainability.

Geopolitically, Southeast Asia occupies a land area of 5 million sq km that is located south of China and east of India, extending more than 3,300 km from north to south and 5,600 km from east to west. There are 11 countries in Southeast Asia. All with the exception of Timor-Leste are members of the regional economic organization, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Economically, most of Southeast Asia is low income despite economic growth in recent decades. Only two countries, Brunei Darussalam and Singapore, are high-income economies. A third (38.6%) of the Southeast Asian population lives with less than US$2 a day. Southeast Asia has some of the world's poorest countries - Myanmar and Lao PDR. Demographically, Southeast Asia's population has more than trebled from 178 million in 1950 to 590 million in 2009. According to a United Nations estimate, 38% of this population lives in urban areas and expanding fast (UN-HABITAT, 2009). How these cities are planned and developed has major implications for poverty reduction, urban problems and their solutions.

To put this in perspective, while Southeast Asia is one of the world's least urbanised regions, its urban population is growing at an unprecedented rate: 1.75 times faster than the world's urban population. Its urban population is anticipated to increase to 56.5% by 2030 (United Nations, 2004). In some countries, for example Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, the urban proportion may rise beyond 60%. Singapore is 100% urbanised. Southeast Asian countries, in general, are experiencing a shift from traditional agriculture-based economies to urban economies where income from agricultural activities contributes decreasingly to overall gross domestic product as the non-agricultural sector growth strengthens.

In the process, villages have become towns, and in some cases mega-cities, the size of which will 'take us, in planning terms, far beyond anything the world has yet seen and hence into realms of great uncertainty' (Jones, 1983, 3). The populations of Jakarta, Manila and Bangkok each exceed 10 million are growing. Jones (2002) has estimated that about 11% of Southeast Asian population lives in mega-urban regions. Based on population projections, these mega-urban regions are likely to grow demographically until 2030 (McGee and Robinson, 1995). The coming decades will be years of immense challenge for Southeast Asia as it becomes a critical site of unprecedented urbanism. There are profound questions about the planning needs, future growth and development patterns of its cities.

Yet, despite the growing importance of Asian urbanisation, there is fragmented research on its urban development planning (Webster, 2004). As Roberts and Kanaley (2006, 3) state, 'Managing the urbanisation process and its consequences has not, to date, gained a central position in national policy debate in Asian countries'. Increasingly, the policy advocacy of international organisations has been to re-examine urban planning and reinforce the need for more effective urban planning and management to ensure that urbanisation supports economic development and poverty reduction (Asian Development Bank, 2008; UN-HABITAT, 2009; World Bank, 2009a). …

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