SINGAPORE // Singapore calls itself "the garden city", but life in the city-state has not always been a bed of roses. While the 1960s was swinging for much of the world, Singapore experienced what was probably its most turbulent period. But it was the hardship of the 1960s that spurred change in Singapore, leading it to become the fourth richest country in terms of GDP and a model for cities with similar growing pains to aspire.
The country's approach to urban planning has also become a model for emerging capitals of the Gulf including Abu Dhabi, which is investing billions of dollars in public housing schemes. The Singaporean government set up the Housing and Development Board (HDB) in 1964 to build affordable, quality homes for citizens. With mortgages provided by the government, it was the first time most of the population were able to become homeowners. Grants are also given to low-wage earners.
While it might take up to three years for buyers to move into their homes because of the huge demand (10,000 people applied for a HDB home last year) the wait is worth it. HDB neighbourhoods have swimming pools, roof gardens and a sense of community. Districts are torn down and rebuilt or upgraded to avoid them degenerating into the kinds of ghettos government-backed housing schemes in so many other parts of the world have turned into.
"We started upgrading all of the estates in the 1990s," says Tay Boon Sun, a spokesman for HDB. "Otherwise, they would have all become slums. We're very fortunate that the government has healthy finances so it can fund housing." Abu Dhabi is adopting a similar strategy. The emirate has set aside land for the development of affordable housing for Emiratis. In April Sorouh Real Estate, the emirate's second largest developer, signed a contract to develop hundreds of homes across two communities in a deal funded by the Urban Planning Council. Aldar Properties and Al Qudra have struck similar deals.
Other changes have made Singapore, with a population of 5 million, prosper. The average commute is less than an hour, with transit systems close to housing developments, and the whole city is like a botanical gardens. Much of the bottled drinking water is recycled, while rooftop gardens help to cool the city. "When you look at a place like Singapore, what you see is a viable alternative to an effective urban environment where people live richly, deeply and with a minimum impact on the environment and the land," says Peter Schwartz, the co-founder of the US consultancy Global Business Network.
But the Singapore way is unique in a region where most cities grapple with the effects of a rapidly growing population and the pressure it has on housing, infrastructure, health and water supply. In 1950, there were only two cities with more than 10 million people: New York and Tokyo. But as people migrate from rural to urban areas in countries such as China and India, the number of cities of that size has rapidly increased.
"In 2009, there were 21 mega-cities. By 2025, 15 years from now, the world can expect 29 mega-cities," Teo Chee Hean, the deputy prime minister of Singapore, said at the opening of the World Cities summit in the city-state last week. Professor Tommy Koh, an ambassador at large for Singapore's ministry of foreign affairs, says: "All our cities face challenges ? but the ambition should be to make cities liveable for the rich and poor.
"Decent housing, safe drinking water and modern sanitisation should be available for all cities." A major challenge facing Asian and African cities is poverty. Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka, the UN undersecretary general and executive director of UN-HABITAT, says there are 1 billion people still living in slums in Asia, and in sub-Saharan Africa, 70 per cent of people live in slums without water. Cities all over the world are undergoing makeovers as authorities try to make living in them safer, sustainable and more enjoyable.
The mayor of Spain's Bilbao, Inaki Azkuna, says the city's Guggenheim museum played a pivotal role in the city's rejuvenation. "We have also seen the population of Bilbao and its surroundings turn towards the cultural offerings that were already in the city, which previously did not attract their attention," says Mr Azkuna. Most major cities in the Middle East are drafting long-term plans to deal with growing populations and dwindling water supplies.
And many are looking to Singapore as a model for inspiration. Majid al Mansouri, the secretary general of the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD), says the emirate's Plan 2030 includes reducing the population on Abu Dhabi island by 30 per cent as people move to places such as Capital District, Reem Island and Saadiyat Island, which will host the capital's own Guggenheim museum. "There is a clear road map on how to make Abu Dhabi more liveable and more sustainable," Mr al Mansouri says, adding Abu Dhabi's strategy "will exceed Singapore in the future".