In our world today, urbanisation is unstoppable and its consequences are unpreventable. Therefore, collaborative initiatives and international networks such as the World Cities Summit, which offers a platform for government leaders and industry experts to share the best practices, are critical. The Columnist talks to Mr. Larry Ng, currently serving as Managing Director of World Cities Summit, and Group Director (Architecture & Urban Design Excellence) at Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) Singapore to find out more about the current pressing urban issues and what should be done to make cities more liveable and sustainable.
The only one unifying theme for the World Cities Summit, since its inauguration in 2008, has always been “Liveable and Sustainable Cities”. So how do we define a liveable and sustainable city?
A liveable and sustainable city delivers long-term economic, environmental and social benefits to all urban stakeholders. Firstly, this means a competitive economy that provides jobs for people so that they can provide a good living for their families.
Secondly, urban developments must be environmentally sustainable, along with the protection of the natural environment or the creation of green, environmentally friendly urban spaces which people can enjoy.
Finally, a liveable and sustainable city must provide a high quality of life for its residents.
Enhancing city liveability is about making the most of a city’s inherent advantages, and often, the key is in heritage. As globalisation brings much change to cityscapes, heritage and culture will be an even more vital resource, valued by cities to remain unique and by residents to identify with their living environments.
At the same time, with technology innovations, smarter infrastructure, and integrated intelligent systems can be installed to raise the quality of life in cities, especially when applied in areas such as enhancing the use of transport and urban mobility. More importantly, public services should be made accessible to all residents along the socio-economic spectrum, as well as across all ages and minority groups. Inclusive communities and socially integrated societies have higher levels of resilience, which will contribute to the sustainability of city developments.
To achieve these three outcomes of a liveable and sustainable city, long-term vision and integrated planning is critical, along with sound governance that needs to adapt to dynamic global and local developments. Besides the political will to deliver on plans, the civic administration plays a key role in building up sound institutions to adopt a holistic approach to solving complex, systemic challenges.
What are the key challenges that cities in the world are facing now? How about the fast-growing cities in the region?
The pace of urbanisation continues unabated since 2009 when the number of people living in urban areas has surpassed the number living in rural areas, and by 2050, more than two-thirds of the world’s population, or more than six billion people will live in cities.
With this urban population surge, one of the key challenges that cities all over the world are facing is the strained infrastructure and resources to meet rapidly rising demands. This is happening against a backdrop of the growing encroachment of climate change on existing infrastructure. In addition, many cities are facing the challenge of aging infrastructure that needs to be strengthened and improved, as well as an ageing population which needs to be provided for, both economically and socially.
For many fast-growing cities in the region, there is an expanding and more afﬂuent middle class which is now more demanding of transparency, good governance and citizen participation in city planning and management.
Regardless of whether they are fast-growing or not, another key challenge which cities now face is in building up their physical, economic and social resilience, to be prepared for the increasing frequency of crises and disasters brought on by climate change effects and terror attacks.
Can we say Singapore is a liveable and sustainable city?
There are various global surveys on the liveability of cities and Singapore is consistently ranked high. In established indices like Monocle’s Top 25 Liveable Cities, which is published annually, Singapore was ranked 13th in 2015. In the same year in Mercer’s Quality of Living Survey, Singapore was top among cities in Asia, and ranked 26th out of 230 cities. Also in 2015, PwC’s study on Building Better Cities: Competitive, sustainable and liveable metropolises in APEC, 28 cities in 21 APEC economies were evaluated against 39 indicators and Singapore came up third.
We are heartened at the recognition given to the efforts that Singapore has put in to build a liveable and sustainable city, but the work is never done and there are always new and evolving challenges. That is why Singapore hosts the World Cities Summit where leaders from all over the world can share their experiences and successes so that we can learn from one another, and Singapore can adapt solutions that will help us in the journey towards higher liveability and sustainability.
As a Group Director of Architecture and Urban Design Excellence (AUDE) at URA Singapore, what do you think are the roles of architecture and urban design in making a city liveable and sustainable?
Good architecture and urban design are not just about aesthetics. It is about elevating the quality of life and physical environment to make a city attractive to its people, foreign talents, business, and investment. And nothing shapes quality life so definitely — and enduringly — as the quality of the built environment.
Architecture and urban design excellence can create places that make people proud to call “home”. Well-designed schools can encourage children to learn, well-designed offices can enhance staff productivity, well-designed parks, and town centres help to bring the community together.
The work undertaken by architects and urban planners also has long-term effects on the natural surrounding environment. They should be far-sighted and accord careful consideration to every decision to ensure that the future well-being of the environment is not compromised, as potential drawbacks may not be immediately apparent.
Architecture and urban planning also have profound influences on the social sphere; the people build memories based on the environment they live, work and play in. Collectively and over time, these memories become precious and form part of the community identity.
As our city develops and expands, it is important to continually raise awareness about exemplary architecture among property owners, developers and the public. To promote professional development and further inspire good practices, URA organises and encourages professional and international exchanges through various platforms such as the World Cities Summit, Mayors Forum, and the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize. Collaboration and the exchange of architectural, urban design and planning ideas not only help to maintain professional standards but also constantly improve the knowledge and skills of the professional community.
What is the biggest achievement of World Cities Summit since its inauguration in 2008? What does this mean to you personally?
This year marks the 5th edition of the biennial World Cities Summit and the 7th edition of the annual Mayors Forum which started in 2010. Both the Summit and the Forum have seen increases in attendance from the highest level in government as well as top business leaders. To me, this means that there are more decision makers who recognise the importance of building up liveable and sustainable cities for people, not just for the sake of economic growth at the expense of the environment, and the World Cities Summit has helped to build up the awareness and proclivity for action. It has been an important platform for outcome-oriented discussions on critical challenges cities face and innovative urban solutions that have been successfully implemented.
A major highlight of the World Cities Summit is the biennial Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize, which started in 2010. This is an international award that honours outstanding achievements and contributions to the creation of liveable, vibrant and sustainable urban communities around the world. I head the Prize secretariat and on both professional and personal levels, I’m very satisfied with what the Prize has achieved in terms of motivating cities to strive to be better. For the Prize in 2016, we received many more applications than before, and many of them have done remarkable work in tackling the urban challenges faced, to bring about social, economic and environmental benefits in a holistic way to their communities. That’s why besides the Prize Laureate, we have four Special Mention cities this year. I’m certain the Prize Lecture by the Laureate at the World Cities Summit, followed by the Forum which comprises the Special Mention cities, will provide valuable insights and learning lessons for city leaders and practitioners in the urban space.
In addition, the World Cities Summit as a platform has facilitated the forging of significant public-private partnerships. In 2014, the Housing and Development Board of Singapore signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Singapore’s Energy Market Authority and Panasonic to study the feasibility of establishing a Smart Home Energy pilot to provide households with more energy choices and solutions. Also in 2014, Singapore’s EZ-Link and Taipei’s EasyCard Corporation also inked an MOU for the use of a single card to facilitate seamless travel and retail transactions in both countries. I think this is another major achievement of the World Cities Summit, to enable such partnerships that will use Singapore as a test-bed for innovative solutions and in the process, bring about the development of an urban solutions hub here.
What are your expectations towards the Summit this year in July?
As challenges facing cities become more complex, the solutions developed to tackle them have to be increasingly integrated. Just as it was for the past two editions, the World Cities Summit will be co-located with the Singapore International Water Week and the CleanEnviro Summit Singapore – an extended platform that reflects the need for an integrated approach towards developing solutions aimed at urban sustainability.
More importantly, our focus for World Cities Summit has evolved through the editions:
- In 2012, with the theme ‘Integrated Urban Solutions’, we focused on the urgent need to take a helicopter view in tackling challenges facing cities around the world.
- In 2014, with the Summit focusing on ‘Common Challenges, Shared Solutions’, an emphasis was placed on the sharing of best practices across all stakeholders — from government to industry leaders, academia and international organisations.
- This year, we put citizens in the centre of all urban and social innovations with the theme ‘Innovative Cities of Opportunity’ — with more than 66 percent of the world’s population estimated to live in cities by 2050, sustainable growth can only be achieved when all citizens have access to and are committed to this growth. The game changer on the path towards inclusive growth is an opportunity, and cities have a duty to pave the way towards better access to opportunity.
This year’s Summit will explore how active engagement can facilitate more opportunities for the public, private and people sectors to co-create innovative and integrated urban solutions for a more liveable and sustainable future.
And as always, we are expecting great support from mayors all around the world, and at present, we have almost 90 mayors and city leaders from 40 countries confirmed for World Cities Summit 2016.
Thank you very much for joining us.
This interview was conducted for The Columnist, a newsletter by Consulus that offers ideas on business, design and world affairs. The views expressed in this article are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of Consulus.