Guest Blog: Harry Hiller is an urban sociologist professor at the University of Calgary. He has travelled the world studying and speaking about city building from various perspectives. He wrote the book “Urban Canada” in 2010, which is one of my go to reference books.
A recent visit to Singapore shocked even this seasoned urbanist.
Singapore has been on our list for a long time because of its stellar reputation as a unique urban place so it was a must-see place to visit for me. It has been said Singapore has been transformed completely from a third world city to a first world city in one generation and must be seen to be believed.
We are now believers.
So, what’s not to like? Singapore is the safest country in the world; the cleanest country in the world; the most expensive country in the world and the shiny newest country in the world with spectacular high rise architecture.
It has also been called smartest city in the world because it has attracted such a highly creative labor force; is a hub for technology and research and has the third highest per capita GDP in the world. It is home the best airline in the world and the best airport in the world. Need I go on!
It is also a huge tourist destination and now we can see why. This place has lived up to all our expectations and more. It is the most English language friendly city in all of Asia.
And, probably the most expensive.
Singapore is the most spectacular post-modern city in the entire world with visitor opportunities that are unique and unparalleled.
As we have often said, you never really know a place until you have visited it. We really did not know much about Singapore and what we knew were vague generalizations.
As most of you probably know, Singapore is a city-state island that is only 26 miles wide and 14 miles long. It is one-quarter the size of Vancouver Island (which has about 750,000 people) whereas Singapore has 5.6 million people.
It is bigger than Manhattan, but smaller than all five boroughs of NYC. There is an incredible amount happening a small space.
It is mesmerizing.
Unique Civil Servants
Our host from the National University of Singapore (just so you know I gave a couple of talks there) is a guy who is not only a sociologist but is also a Member of Parliament so he was able to give us many great insights into how this country works (both good and bad) as it is virtually a single party state and he is one of the few in opposition.
One of the secrets according to him is the country has exceptional civil servants who work hard at being ahead of the curve when it comes to change, especially with commerce and technology. They have attracted head offices or regional head offices of hundreds of global corporations and the number of new impressive buildings to house them is not just impressive.
It is stunning!
Can you imagine that 90% of the population are home-owners (Calgary at about 72% is one of the highest in North America)? Most of them are flats in high rises where residents own their own unit (my friend’s place is 3 bedroom with 1500 sq. feet) but the land is owned by the government.
Another spectacular thing I was interested in was a new experimental housing development called Pinnacle@Duxton that has been very successful and is being viewed as one answer to affordable housing issues in places where land is not readily available. It is a series of seven 50 storey towers connected by skybridges and is home to about 10,000 people. It may look gross to some but we visited it and it is aesthetically pleasing and very clean – as everything is in Singapore.
The government’s attitude to religion is also very interesting as they apparently go out of their way to ensure that all religions have suitable places to worship, as long as they don’t threaten the government in any way.
We were particularly struck by the three Christian mega-churches that are based here, one of which is called New Creation with 40,000 members and the pastor is Joseph Prince who apparently is televised in North America now. Their services are held in a performing arts center jointly constructed with the government since they need so much space and it is spectacular. Their cell group organization is apparently highly complex and efficient.
One of the almost unbelievable achievements of Singapore has been the ability to reclaim land from the sea to add 130 square kilometers of more territory to the city-state. They have used this land for all kinds of purposes but one of the most stunning has been the construction of what is called Gardens by the Bay.
Words cannot describe it because it is so creative and post-modern that it knocks your socks off. My jaw dropped to the ground.
It includes Supertrees, a Flower Dome so unusual in layout and design that even a non-botanist like me can be impressed and a Cloud Forest is totally unique. But that is not all.
Remember earlier I had mentioned Singapore is a small territory with a densely settled population. Well we had two experiences with green spaces that were an unbelievable paradox. First, the Botanical Garden and Park is the biggest park in Asia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
One of its biggest attractions is the 300-acre National Orchid Gardens. In contrast to our previous experiences with botanical gardens that are indoors, Singapore’s is all outdoors and extremely elaborate.
The other green space that blew us away was the nocturnal Zoo - it is unlike any zoo I had ever been to. We went on a night safari where we rode on a tram into the darkness for 40 minutes and observed everything from lions to elephants all in a natural unfenced environment. It is only open from 7pm to midnight, but thousands of people show up every night.
One of the highlights is a show called “Creatures of the Night” with a variety of animals taking part and a river safari.
There is a new hotel there that is unlike anything you have ever seen before (and deliberately designed with a wow factor) including an infinity pool on the rooftop of Skypark hotel that looks like a surfboard perched above three 57 storey towers.
You can only use the infinity pool if you stay there, but we were allowed to go up to the observation deck if you promised to buy an outrageously expensive Singapore Sling.
Last Word: Hiller
Singapore is leading the way when it comes to urban innovation.
It is hard for us to think of Asian countries and cities leading the world when it comes to city building as we are so accustomed to thinking North America is the leader in everything. For me, Singapore brought home the point “the world is indeed changing, like we have never experienced before.”
Last Word: Everyday Tourist
It should be pointed out that as a City State, Singapore is in a unique position when it comes to urban planning and economic development. They don’t have to deal with three levels of government, nor the extensive community consultation that Calgary and other cities have to deal with.
However, it is reminder Calgary must compete with places like Singapore for economic development, tourists etc. It means we must be more innovative than imitative when it comes to city building. Should we be imitating what other North American cities like Edmonton, Nashville, Denver or Columbus has or is doing, or should we DARE TO BE DIFFERENT!
How entrepreneurial is Calgary?
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