“City becomes chaotic when orderliness is absent”

Foo Say Boon, 61, is a veteran architect and urban planner of Singapore. Having worked for many years with the Government of Singapore, easily the best laid-out modern global city, Boon is also working on a few projects in India. He has done his Master’s degree from Sydney University in urban planning and is known for his out of the box thinking. The first thing when you see Singapore, you are amazed by its eye-catching urban planning amidst skyscrapers and lovely gardens overlooking the sea. So here is an interview with one of those who knows why Singapore is what it is! AbhilashKhandekar, a veteran journalist and a regular columnist with Urban Update, interacts with Foo Boon during his recent visit to Delhi. Excerpts from an extensive chat.

Q. One hears a lot about Singapore’s modern urban planning. What is the unique speciality of Singapore’s planning and design?

Well, Singapore has its strengths and limitations in terms of geographical location and growth. Its composition is also unique. It’s a city, a state and a nation. That gives it some advantages but being very close to the ocean, this island city can’t grow beyond a point which is a disadvantage. And there comes the real challenge for an urban planner and designer. Of the total area of about 710 sqkms (East-West 35-40 kms; North-South 25 km approx) that Singapore is situated today on, we use every inch of the land very carefully. It’s also because it can’t expand into the sea unendingly. We can’t go on reclaiming the sea to expand the city, in spite of the pressure of population. We are likely to touch 6.50 million by 2030 therefore our futuristic planning is about intelligent use of the limited land. It’s also why we had to grow vertically. Once upon a time Singapore had the tallest 70-storey building in the world but now many other countries have bigger high-rise buildings than what we have.

Q. How do you compare with the world’s top cities, say Hong Kong or Sydney or Mumbai which are mega commercial hubs and close to sea shores.

Each city in the world has its own USPs. Yes, there used to be a sort of comparison with Hong Kong due to some common political, social and geographical features, yet Singapore has its own different character. We both have boundary issues when it comes to land use. If you ask me about our planning structure, we have two plans running simultaneously-Concept Plan and the Master Plan. Concept Plan is a guiding plan but not a legal instrument which the Master Plan is. While planning Singapore-and I must add it’s a continuous process- we keep social goals and environmental goals in mind, ours being island state. And importantly, we keep constant monitoring of the Master Plan.

Q. In India, we too have Master Plan approach to the city planning but our cities are nowhere close to Singapore. How do you see that?

Although we are small in size as a nation-state, we are very serious about the implementation aspect. As I said earlier, our Master Plan has a legal status and structure. The first plan was made in 1958 and then there were new plans every 10 years which improved upon the earlier versions without much disturbance to the core planning. Therefore you see an old Singapore as well as new Singapore. Continuous monitoring and review is our forte. I would go to the extent of saying that we do every day monitoring so that no violations take place. Singapore has superb nature reserves, metro rail that came in 1980 and it’s a strong financial hub. Our land use patterns are very strict with the aim of making citizens a happier lot. Singapore is quite habitable and efficient and thus it attracts global citizens. India’s case is much different!

Q. Could you please elaborate on the last point about Indian planning?

Let me be very frank. I have been visiting India for a few years but I have not seen many of your cities from that angle. Firstly, there cannot be many points of comparison between two countries. India is huge and complex country due to her rich historical background and social-traditional value system. It’s a great country. Because it’s densely populated, planning needs a different approach. Your land use issues are quite different from ours, your laws too are different. Your system appears to me very regulatory. But what is common between us is planning. The way we foresee development India can also see and implement. Perhaps, more than planning, implementation could be the real issue here, as I feel. When I say social issues, it’s, for example, privacy. The very short distance between two houses and their windows could be a non-issue in India but an average Singaporean values his privacy much more. He may not like these kinds of row houses. So planning has to consider that point which is social or historical. I know you have Master Plans but the challenge comes when cities are not orderly. A city becomes chaotic when orderliness is absent. Your parks are much different than ours, as also the traffic sense. What is the purpose of a public park? The reason we create an open beautiful park is for citizens to enjoy a quiet, serene atmosphere. It’s an important element in city planning. It has a social value attached to it, in our scheme of things.

Q. How do you see urbanisation trend growing in the world? And the problems arising out of it?

Indeed the speed of urbanisation is frightening. You can see it in India, China….all over. With the ever growing number of residents in cities, scientific planning assumes far more significance than what it was a few decades ago. Whether you call it a smart city, liveable city, efficient city, safe city, whateveridea is that when an urban planner like me looks at the needs of a city, he should have the common citizen at the centre of his planning process. What are the norms he adopts for designing a city depends on the available historical perspective as well as his futuristic vision. He can then put the land to best use. How do you rate a city? The moment you land at the airport and go to your hotel, you get to know what kind of the city it is or it should be….why is Tokyo better than Shanghai? Planning and managing cities is indeed a challenge for everyone in most of the developing and developed countries. This speed is making cities sick chiefly because service level cannot be maintained upto a standard in such cities. Cities are not just big cities but are becoming mega cities. But somewhere it should stop. Globally, people are thinking about that. Summits are happening….

Q. So what are the solutions to make citizens comfortable and breathe fresh air, unlike in Delhi, among the most polluted cities?

Look, managing cities requires money, and big money at that, besides time-tested ideas. Time has come to fix the ‘carrying capacity’ of a city before it’s allowed to expand. After all you cannot produce your own oxygen and consume for yourself. Carrying capacity of a city has to be considered at the planning stage. Without that, quality of life cannot be provided to the citizens. Planners have a big role to play here because infrastructure creation will always have its own limits.

Q. How do you decide the carrying capacity of a city?

There are many ways to assess the same and evolve a formula which may be different from one city to another; one nation to the other. Water, land, parks, industry needs, agriculture, local population are all indicators on which the carrying capacity is to be determined. After all it’s the justifiable distribution of (natural) resources that comes into play. We in Singapore value them so much. Natural reserves (forest, parks, lakes, etc.) must be protected. Singapore is very strict about its nature reserves. They provide quality to life. India and China have so much land; Singapore or many other countries do not have it. So you people can do a great job through planning cities beautifully and scientifically to make citizens happy and healthy.


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