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Be it Singapore or Wakanda, the world’s best cities embrace and build on their past

Culture is more than physical buildings. Traditional communities and neighbourhoods should also be nurtured. In Singapore and around the region, urban planners and developers can do more to embrace a city’s heritage, culture and environment to create a unique sense of place and identity.

The region's rampant urbanisation has come at the expense of it's architectural richness and cultural fabric.

The region's rampant urbanisation has come at the expense of it's architectural richness and cultural fabric.

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By many measures, Singapore is a showcase of what future cities can be, and the city state's dazzling skyline and infrastructure were well on display during the recent summit of United States and North Korean leaders.

Yet, even in Singapore as well as across Asia, there could well be a lesson to be taken to heart from a Hollywood film that has taken Asia by storm.

Black Panther, Marvel’s blockbuster 2018 entry in its cinematic universe, has grossed more than US$1.3 billion (S$1.76 billion) since its release, including more than US$105 million in China, and some US$50 million in South-east Asia. Those box office numbers make Black Panther the highest ever grossing film based on a single superhero.

But more than setting a new standard for comic-book inspired projects, the film, set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has caught the attention of urbanists in its presentation of city life.

Indeed, whether on well-established Orchard Road in Singapore or the relatively new Bonifacio Global City in Manila, the Philippines, South-east Asia’s property developers and urban planners should take note of how urban life in the film is depicted.

A good part of the film takes place in Birnin Zana, the capital of Wakanda, a fictional African nation protected from outside influences by the Black Panther, whose real identity is T’Challa, the king of the technologically advanced, but isolationist country. 

What is striking about Wakandan citylife is how different it is from what we have become accustomed to see in movies offering a view of modernity, as well as in our own travels through the rapidly growing urban areas of much of the Association of South-east Asian Nations, including Singapore.

As noted by Architectural Digest’s Marc Malkin, rather than the ubiquitous glass-and-steel towers and sterile street life that we have come to expect in the cities of tomorrow, Black Panther shows a colourful cityscape infused with African textures, designs, and colours, organized to emphasise human interaction.

All this contributes to the fictional capital’s unique, memorable “vibe” – one where skyscrapers rise from vibrant communities below.

Sadly, the same cannot be always said about South-east Asia’s cities. Singapore too has long struggled with balancing the past and the future, with founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, having said in March 1995, "We have made our share of mistakes in Singapore," acknowledging that many signature buildings were demolished as the nation was built.

"We realised we were destroying a valuable part of our cultural heritage, that we were demolishing what tourists found attractive and unique about Singapore."

Culture though is more than physical buildings. Traditional communities and neighbourhoods should also be nurtured.

Well-intentioned zoning rules separating commercial and residential districts may well unintentionally reduce a city’s vibrancy. 

And, what is clear in a journey through the region’s megacities is that the scale and direction of urbanisation has led too often to reduced livability and burgeoning inequality between those who can and those who cannot afford the best that a city has to offer.

This challenge is likely to only grow, as more people move from rural to urban areas and inequality increases across the region.

A recent United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ annual World Urbanization Prospects report projects that many of Southeast Asia’s cities will experience double-digit growth between 2015 and 2025.

Manila is projected to grow 17.4 per cent, from 12.9 to 15.2 million people; Jakarta, in Indonesia, 22 per cent, from 10.3 to 12.6 million; and Bangkok, Thailand, 11.2 percent, from 9.3 to 11.0 million.

This rampant urbanisation has come at the expense of the region’s architectural richness and cultural fabric.

Gone are the traditional forms of architecture such as the wooden homes with their gabled roofs, built on stilts to evade the seasonal floods.

Street vendors have been banished in parts of some cities as urban planners seek to impose a new, cleaner, but perhaps more sterile, vision of the modern city. And, as street life has disappeared, the longstanding, vibrant communities that made these cities unique have also come under threat if not vanished.

What replaces many a cityscape is a generic blandness. This “mallification,” punctuated by the existence of a generic mega mall that is transplanted from country to country, too often draws little or no design influence from a country’s legacy.

This is all too sadly evident even in a region that is home to many Unesco world heritage sites, such as Thailand’s ancient capital Ayutthaya. These sites draw thousands of visitor each year for inspiration, but seem to have been relegated to the past.

 This harsh division of past and present has not always existed in the region. One need only to look to Cambodia’s “Golden Age” of the 1960s as an example, when Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann fused building features of the Angkor Empire with modern design elements to help launch the “New Khmer Architecture” movement. His works were hailed for its synthesis of style and tradition.

By looking back, Molyvann’s forward-looking designs remained authentically Khmer. Sadly, many of his works have succumbed to Phnom Penh’s breakneck development and to a vision of urbanisation that seemingly emphasises size over authenticity.

It is this authenticity, however, that is among the critical ingredients in what goes into designing a healthy city. That’s according to The Philips Center for Health and Well-being, a Netherlands-based think tank focused on improving the lives of people around the world.

In Singapore and around the region, urban planners and developers can do more to embrace a city’s heritage, culture and environment to create a unique sense of place and identity.

This uniqueness, of seeing something we have never seen before and that exists nowhere else, is what we also react to when we see the vibrant streets of Wakanda on screen.

Spoiler alert! As the movie Black Panther draws to a close, Wakanda’s leader, T’Challa, informs the United Nations of his decision to reveal the true state of his country’s advancements and development.

The scene concludes with a foreign official responding by asking what Wakanda has to offer the world. 

Here is one clear answer. Wakanda shows that there need not be a default setting for what urbanisation looks and feels like.

This need not simply be Hollywood make-believe. Cities everywhere will continue to grow, but they can also do so by embracing their rich pasts while building a vibrant, unique and inclusive future. 

Our hope is that Singapore and all of South-east Asia can show the way as the region finds its own path forward in navigating a world in transition from the rural to urban.

 ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Curtis S Chin, a former US Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group. Jose B Collazo, a South-east Asia analyst, is an associate at RiverPeak Group. 

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