Propel Studio partner, Lucas Gray, recently spent a week in Singapore, exploring this modern and beautiful metropolis in SE Asia. On our travels, we are always observing the urban environment, local architecture, and trying to learn from the differences each country and city offers. For a city-state of around 5.4 million people, Singapore acts a great example of how to build a city for people, with modern infrastructure that far surpasses any city in America in quality, affordability, and effectiveness.
Integration of Architecture and Nature
As a tropical island, located at the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula, just a short distance from Indonesia, architects in Singapore have the ability to design buildings that open up to the surroundings. There is no need for insulation to address cold temperatures, but rather the architecture is all about keeping people cool. Buildings achieved this goal through a variety of strategies. Most intriguing was the use of sky gardens, plants, and water features integrated into the facade of builds from street level up to the tops of towers.
These gardens both provide shading, preventing the heat of the sun from entering the building, but they also help fight the heat island affect and beautify the city, increasing greenery in a very urban environment.
The sky gardens have another benefit, creating spaces high up in buildings to create breezy outdoor spaces for people to enjoy. Often these carve outs incorporate pools or other water features to further offer ways to keep people cool in the tropical heat.
Modern and Affordable Transportation
Unlike America, the government and people of Singapore have built a city that is easy to navigate with public transportation. Most importantly, this network is faster, more comfortable, and more affordable than driving a car. This is imperative to creating a livable city that is sustainable and equitable. It was such a pleasure to move around the city in beautiful modern metro stations, comfortable and clean buses, and do all of this without ever having to be stuck in traffic congestion. This made the city one of the most livable and enjoyable cities I've visited.
To achieve this, the public transportation infrastructure takes priority over all other means of personal transport. It is heavily subsidized to make it affordable to all residents regardless of income levels. Most trips within the city on the metro ranged from $0.80 to $1.80 depending on distance traveled and time of day (fees go up during peak rush hour times). Further, to fund the construction of this system and to disincentive personal car use, the city has imposed incredible steep prices on registering cars and getting licenses for private vehicles. They also tax the import of cars and have a tax on vehicle miles traveled. All of this makes almost all residents rely on public transportation, regardless of their income level. Further, it increases the funds available to provide fast, reliable and convenient public transportation systems. I don't think we ever had to wait more than 5 minutes for a bus or train to arrive.
Pedestrian Street Use
One of the most refreshing experiences was observing streets all over the city be converted from car use to pedestrian use every day around 6pm. Each evening, the financial district barriers were pulled across a side street and satay stands and tables and chairs replaced the cars, creating an active street life that lasted long into the night. By the time we awoke the next morning the stands were gone and the street was back open for cars. This also happened in other areas of the city, with dozens of streets being converted into markets, food stands, and pedestrian walking areas in busy restaurant/bar areas. It became clear that this is a city that is designed for people, with a focus on livability and the pedestrian experience prioritized over the convenience of car use. It is a lesson that urban planners, traffic engineers and politicians across the USA should learn from and incorporate into our cities and towns.
Scale of Development
The sheer scale of developments across the city dwarfed most of what we experience in America outside of a few select places. There are many reasons to explain why this might be the case. Chief among them is the involvement of the government in many developments across the city. Unlike the US, where blocks are divided into smaller individual properties and separate developers build smaller scale projects over time, in Singapore the government develops a lot of projects, particularly housing, at a larger more urban scale. These projects tend to be on large areas of land and incorporate multiple towers and other buildings all as part of a single development. There are definitely benefits and weaknesses of this approach to city making. Large mega-projects don't always create the best street edge and walking experience. However, the ambition of the projects and the architectural expressions are bold, aspirational, and grand in their vision - regardless of whether they are building low-income government housing, or large commercial shopping malls, hotels and casino complexes. It is refreshing to see a place take risks with their architecture. Rather than settling on safe, simple, and cheap buildings, the government and developers in Singapore are pushing the boundaries of contemporary design which is exciting to see as a designer.
This scale and ambition of projects applied to buildings, infrastructure as well as amenities. The Gardens on The Bay for instance was a sprawling and beautiful park/garden across a protected bay from the city center. It was filled with interesting architectural follies, pavilions and large glass domed greenhouses. The scale of and ambition of this was incredible and the quality of design was incredible.
The trip was fantastic and a great break to refresh and find inspiration for future design projects. It was also an interesting opportunity to compare American cities with another world-class city across the world. My takeaway was that America can and should look further afield for inspiration and precedents on how we can improve our urban environments for people. Too often we rely on what we have done in the past, or look to other American cities for expamples, even those cities are often burdened with the same mistakes in their evolution. We should use a wider lens, and learn from other cultures, governments and architects to see how we can best design and build our cities.