Commentary

Inclusive, cooler cities: A different take on liveability

Inclusive, cooler cities: A different take on liveability
One way of combating heat in cities is enhancing urban infrastructure such as planting trees to increase shaded areas. TODAY file photo
Published: 4:02 AM, May 30, 2013
Updated: 6:50 PM, May 30, 2013
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In a discussion following the announcement here of the Green City Index Asia two years ago, it was suggested that Singapore could possibly top the list because it is very wealthy.

The response by Mr Khoo Teng Chye, Executive Director of the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC), impressed me greatly — after a slight pause, he answered: “I think it is the other way around. Singapore is wealthy because it is environmentally conscious.” In this regard, I think Singapore has solved the chicken and egg conundrum in a rather convincing manner.

Planners have successfully ensured that Singapore is one of the world’s most liveable cities. Still, apart from achieving liveability, it is equally important to ensure that this liveability is sustainable.

PRINCIPLES FOR LIVEABLE CITIES

I teach a course on Future Cities by the Singapore-ETH Centre for Global Environmental Sustainability; students who attend this open online course are from several countries. For one of the assignments, they had to identify three cities they felt were most liveable — independent of the existing rankings. They also had to provide their definitions of liveability.

The result was astounding: Safety, mobility, openness and quality educational institutes were at the top of the list. More than 80 per cent of the cities students chose happened to be in countries with a low Gini coefficient.

The CLC recently partnered the Urban Land Institute to introduce 10 principles for liveable, high-density cities. A lot of the factors listed coincide with the criteria stated by the students of the Future Cities course.

However, there is more than one way to look at some of these criteria.

GOOD GOVERNANCE

All reports point to the importance of good governance for the liveability of the city. The interaction between the citizens and the individuals that work for the progress of the urban community is decisive in the success of an urban system as a liveable city. Good governance must also be inclusive.

In their book Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson describe Venice during the 13th century as perhaps the richest and most attractive city in the world. However, they also state that the switch from an inclusive to an extractive system marked the start of decline for the city.

They go on to show, with various examples such as London, New York and Vienna, that the opening up of the system to include citizens in decision-making processes has led to an increase in wealth, liveability and attractiveness of the cities. It is good to see that Singapore is taking this approach to involve its citizens in the planning of the city.

AWARENESS

Awareness of best practices is another important precondition for a liveable city. The city’s governing bodies have to be aware of what works and what does not work in cities around the world.

However, it is also important to understand the contextual differences that affect policies — what functions well in one city may not perform the same way in another.

While cities are studying from one another to deal with certain challenges, there is no “one size fits all” solution. Solutions have to be custom-developed for cities, taking into consideration the local context and the behaviour of its people.

In Zurich, for example, one of the top-ranked cities for liveability, it is vital for the population to be aware of what is being planned for the city, so that citizens are able to take part actively in its transformation and in developing solutions that work well for their city.

RESEARCH INSTITUTIONS

Almost all of the top most liveable cities in the world have excellent universities. However, the role that the university plays is more than merely to attract people to the city in pursuit of educational opportunities.

Often, the relationship between the university and the city is a historic and fruitful one. Geneva, Zurich, Vancouver and Vienna are good examples where the universities play an important role in the development of the city. These universities contribute in providing solutions for its intellectual and material growth, and where most of the value creation originates.

In Switzerland, I had the privilege to lead the participatory development process of the Science City ETH Zurich, in collaboration with the City and the Canton of Zurich. ETH Zurich, or known as the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, is the leading university in Continental Europe.

Working on the Science City design process, I witnessed first-hand how the university was valued by the population and, more importantly, the people were well aware of the long-term investment required in the quality of the educational system. Similarly, in western Switzerland, near Lausanne, ETH Lausanne is contributing greatly to the development and well-being of surrounding cities.

In Singapore, the universities are taking on the same role; the highly-ranked National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, and new institutions like the Singapore University of Technology and Design have been increasingly involved in plans to develop the city.

COOLER, CALMER SINGAPORE

Singapore is a vibrant city full of energy — literally. Over the last few years, three topics have emerged repeatedly and have taken over many conversations between residents, citizens, politicians, diplomats, students, public servants and taxi drivers. These topics are, not surprisingly, transportation, the economy, and the growing population.

On the other hand, people are also increasingly concerned about the rising heat in the city. Anecdotally, people feel like Singapore is getting hotter, but no one quite knows the reason why. Some feel that it is due to climate change on a global level.

In fact, cities are traditionally warmer than their surrounding countryside due to the phenomenon known as Urban Heat Island effect, and Singapore is no different. The main cause of this phenomenon is the modification of land surface through urban development using materials that retain heat. As a second contributor, heat is generated by energy usage within the city. Both effects increase its temperature.

Cooling down a city goes beyond merely blasting cold air into warm indoor spaces. Furthermore, in conventional urban design, if we blast cold air into a space to cool it down, we will inevitably meet with a trade-off — not only will more energy be required, the heat will also be channelled into an area which will then be artificially warmer than it is supposed to be.

That is why cities are on the hunt for sustainable ways to mitigate the Urban Heat Island effect. These include enhancing urban infrastructure such as growing greenery on rooftops, planting trees to increase shaded areas, or using bright street surfaces to increase reflection. Some of the above have already been successfully implemented in Singapore.

However, these measures only serve to ease the effects of the phenomenon and do not address the issue at its roots. This is a good time for Singapore to think out of the box in tackling the above-mentioned issues alongside allaying the Urban Heat Island effect.

A study of the largest sources of heat and their interconnections — industry, transportation and buildings — also points to intensifying possible mixed-use solutions based on Singapore’s concept plan and master plans for urban development.

Some approaches that have proven very successful in Switzerland include higher industrial value creation with less energy used, and thus less heat released, or advancing transportation efficiency towards electric vehicles with less heat and noise generated.

If some of these strategies are applied in Singapore, it would automatically reduce the need for air conditioning — and, in turn, start a virtuous cycle that would further improve walkability and air quality, with all its positive effects on health. It might even reduce the intensity of downpours leading to flooding.

Cities like Tokyo are trying to lower the temperature in downtown areas by enhancing natural wind-flow. That, however, might not be feasible for a small island like Singapore. Instead, the country can explore strategies to increase ventilation through enhancing vertical airflow. This reduces ambient temperature as heat is drawn vertically upwards and released into unoccupied space.

Singapore has an advantageous attitude towards innovative measures; this city is one of the boldest in testing new strategies and technology. With the island’s density slated to grow, we must develop convincing solutions which ensure it remains cool and calm.

Singapore could be the first city that improves its climatic conditions with rational and natural means — and this will contribute greatly to its liveability and attractiveness through to 2030 and beyond.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Professor Dr Gerhard Schmitt is Director of the Singapore-ETH Centre, established by ETH Zurich and Singapore’s National Research Foundation and Module Leader of the Simulation Platform research module at the Future Cities Laboratory.

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