This case study provides an overview of how the urban renewal process worked through a series of legislative, policy and government organizational reforms. It highlights three developments along Singapore’s urban waterfront carried out during different periods. Unlike most other cities in the world, Singapore is both a city and a state, requiring effective governance and integrated long-term planning to strike a balance between economic, social and environmental goals in its urban-national territory.
When Singapore achieved self-governance in 1959, the housing shortage in the overcrowded city center was severe because of the post-war population boom, an influx of immigrants, and the destruction of housing stock during the war. Despite the problems, the government did not create an urban renewal program, but instead worked to establish an effective system of urban governance. This began by reorganizing the planning and housing development agencies. This created a centralized, single tier government, which helped expedite decision-making. Two new authorities – the Planning Department and the Housing and Development Board (HDB) – were set up in 1960 to take over the Singapore Improvement Trust’s (SIT) land-use planning and public housing provision responsibilities, respectively.
Additionally, several legislative changes were implemented in these years that contributed to subsequent urban renewal efforts. The Land Acquisition Act (1966) streamlined land acquisition, allowing the state to secure private land for public benefit without excessive financial cost. The 1964 Planning Bill amendment also supported urban renewal, as it introduced a development charge system, requiring developers to pay to the State a part of the benefit arising from the grant of development permission.
Having established supporting legislative mechanisms, development strategies based on action programs and an effective public housing program by the mid-1960s (including a HDB 5-year building program), the government started to focus on urban renewal. The Urban Renewal Unit was created in 1964 under the Building Department of HDB to take charge of the urban renewal program in the Central Area of the city.
One of the first major urban renewal projects took place in the Golden Shoe area, which was envisioned as the new commercial heart of Singapore’s finance sector. Prior to redevelopment, the area consisted of low-rise but densely laid out commercial and retail establishments, as well as overcrowded shop-houses sitting on highly fragmented land parcels. The rapid modernization of Singapore’s economy created significant demand for commercial development by the late 1960s. This was largely due to the establishment of the Asian Dollar Market in 1968. To fuel growth in the commercial sector, the government started the redevelopment of the commercial heart of Singapore in the Golden Shoe district with the objective of creating revitalized Central Business District (CBD). Although the earlier urban renewal efforts saw significant state involvement, the private sector took a leading role in the renewal of the Golden Shoe area.
With the completion of the Golden Shoe District development, the government turned attention to transforming the Singapore River, which began with an environmental clean up. The government recognized the negative impact of poor environmental conditions on the city-state’s image, as well as the Singapore River’s historical importance and potential for redevelopment. It also saw the need to scope new uses for such urban areas which relied on shrinking economic sectors.
The rejuvenation of Singapore’s urban waterfront extends beyond the original shoreline where the financial district of the Golden Shoe and the historic Singapore River area are situated. In recent years, the vision for Marina Bay as the icon of Singapore’s ambitions as a global city has placed the country on the world map for international investors and tourists alike. With about 360 hectares of prime waterfront real estate reclaimed from the sea, Marina Bay allows for the seamless expansion of the existing Golden Shoe district.
Since 1959, the government recognized the need for a comprehensive planning framework to guide urban redevelopment. However, the planning framework at that time was based on the conservative 1958 Master Plan, which inhibited urban growth and development. As a result, Singapore sought urban planning technical assistance from the United Nations (UN), which resulted in the division of the city into 21 planning precincts and initiated the idea of private participation through the sale of development sites by the government, with appropriate incentives and guidance from the public sector. UN experts advocated a strategy of urban renewal, which paved the way for the first such initiatives in the City in 1966.
The 1958 Master Plan and the subsequent master plan reviews up until the 1990s served only to update developments that existed or had already been approved. The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) sought to address this soon after the completion of the 1991 Concept Plan, widely regarded as Singapore’s watershed plan. Development Guide Plans (DGPs) translated the broad intentions of the Concept Plan to detailed Local Plans with the whole island divided into 55 DGP areas. Future land use, development control and road network information was shown for each of the DGP areas, together with supporting public amenities. This brought about a more systematic and transparent means of communicating future planning intentions to the public.
During the 1960s, the government recognized that Singapore lacked a focused financial center to support a burgeoning finance industry. The government decided to redevelop the Golden Shoe area for this purpose. Plot ratios were established in view of the road capacity in the area. The Urban Renewal Department (URD) also drafted urban design guidelines for the area, generally specifying a podium and tower configuration to maintain visual uniformity and human scale.
The subsequent Singapore River cleanup initiative started when a Master Plan was drawn up for river cleanup, highlighting the need to resettle squatters, farmers, backyard trades and industries, as well as street hawkers within the entire catchment area of the Singapore and Kallang Rivers. The massive cleanup involved extensive multi-agency action and coordination to relocate affected activities and people. Riverbeds were also dredged to remove debris. Additional physical infrastructure such as roads, bridges and pedestrian walkways had to be planned and constructed to support new development. The cleanup also involved heritage preservation along the River. The URA’s 1985 Singapore River Concept Plan was drafted in line with the overall conservation approach that combined economic viability with heritage preservation. The Plan formed part of the Central Area Structure Plan in 1985, which laid out the conceptual structure of the future development of the entire Central Area.
Meanwhile, plans for reclamation along the southern waterfront of the CBD were initially introduced in 1971 as part of Singapore’s first Concept Plan. It was not until 1977 that the government decided to expand the scale of reclamation works at Marina Bay to support development. As early as the 1970s, the URA established a planning strategy to maximize the potential of parks and water. The plan for Marina Bay was drafted as part of the overall Master Plan for Urban Waterfronts in 1989, which identified distinct development characters for each of the prime water front areas in Singapore. Another key master plan review for Marina Bay was conducted in 2003. A rigorous set of urban design guidelines was formulated by the URA for all the developments in Marina Bay, which allowed for the vision to be realized through private sector participation.
Being a city-state, Singapore has a centralized, single-tier government. Planning and development policies are generally made at a national level without a separate layer of local government. The Ministry of National Development (MND) is the key ministry responsible for national land use planning and development. Several autonomous government agencies or statutory boards support it, each with their own specific missions and area of purview. The key agencies under MND are the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), the national land-use planning and conservation authority, and the Housing and Development Board (HDB). The agencies also work together with other agencies from different ministries, such as the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) and the Public Utilities Board (PUB).
Financing and budgeting is done as part of a “whole-of-government” approach in Singapore. In contrast to most other city governments, urban infrastructure and development programs are not financed solely through land sales or development charges. Rather, they draw from a broader pool of operating revenues known as the Consolidated Fund that includes direct and indirect taxes, licenses and permits, as well as other user fees and charges.
Government expenditure is categorized into operating and development expenditures. The Development Fund in particular provides funding for the government’s direct development expenditures undertaken by the ministries. In addition, it provides grants and loans to public agencies or corporations for development projects. The Development Fund draws from a few sources, including the Consolidated Fund, interest and other income from investments of the Fund, and repayments of any loans made from the Fund. Statutory boards such as the URA self-finance and are excluded from the government budget, but may seek government funding for development projects.
By 1965, the government had achieved a breakthrough in its post-autonomy public housing initiative. The HDB had completed 54,430 units, exceeding the target of 51,031 units for HDB’s first 5-Year Building Program. At this time, two of Singapore’s precincts (N1 ans S1) were identified for priority redevelopment. This early urban renewal effort was characterized by extensive public construction programs, not only to resettle displaced residents but also to accommodate the affected businesses in public mixed-use complexes. However, the government recognized the need for Public-Private Partnerships and cooperation as part of urban renewal. As such, the Sale of Sites program (the Government Land Sales program) was established in 1967 to offer state land through public tender to the private sector for development. The program eventually became highly successful, and played a crucial role in the redevelopment of the Central Area and Singapore waterfront.
Resettlement activities due to urban renewal in Singapore over the last several decades generally did not face opposition from displaced communities. Many resettled families were living in dilapidated properties and the public housing offered to them was of much higher quality. The government also sent resettlement officers to areas identified for redevelopment to talk with the community, explain the process, and show them the new area where they would move.
Redevelopment of the Golden Shoe area began with the second Sale of Sites in 1968, with 14 sale sites consisting mostly of state land. After consultations with the Economic Development Board, the URA launched the 1968 land sale focusing on office developments, with a total of 163,881 m2 of office space.
Other than the issue of fragmented land ownership, the key obstacle to private sector redevelopment at that time was the Rent Control Act, which prevented rents from exceeding their 1939 levels. To address the lack of investment that resulted from rent control, the government passed the Controlled Premises (Special Provisions) Act in 1969 that phased out rent control for advertised areas. By 1974, within five years of rent decontrol, 13 projects were completed by the private sector in the Golden Shoe, with another 14 projects under construction and nine approved.
In addition to land acquisition and amalgamation for development, the public sector also facilitated the urban redevelopment process through public infrastructure works. These included road improvement projects, which involved rationalizing the street network, road widening and conversion of streets into one-way traffic pairs. Public food centers were also constructed in the district, offering inexpensive food for the working population. Environmental improvement works including construction of pocket parks and landscaping of waterfronts.
Following the redevelopment of the Golden Shoe District, the government began to turn its attention toward the Singapore River area, which suffered from heavy pollution. The cleanup was completed in 1987 and featured a 6 kilometer riverfront pedestrian promenade completed in 1999, restoration of historic bridges, as well as three new pedestrian bridges constructed across the river in the Robertson Quay area. It also involved the resettlement of more than 26,000 families, the majority of which were resettled in HDB public housing. It also involved the phasing out of 610 pig and duck farms, as well as the resettlement of 2,800 backyard trades and small industries into industrial estates built by the HDB and the Jurong Town Corporation (the public agency which develops and manages industrial estates and related facilities). Finally, it required the relocation of 4,926 street hawkers into food centers built by the HDB, URA and the Ministry of the Environment. The entire cleanup process cost the government nearly S 300 million.
The implementation of the URA’s conservation program along the Singapore River was not without problems. The release of the first phase of plans for restoring the 108 shop-houses at Boat Quay was met with skepticism from the existing private owners on grounds of profitability. The URA tried various means of encouraging the owners to restore their shop-houses, including workshops, public dialogues and seminars with the owners. Eventually, the government packaged a cluster of 54 state-owned shop-houses at the adjacent Clarke Quay as a single parcel for sale. The successful tender and announcement of the redevelopment plans at Clarke Quay helped convince the Boat Quay property owners to restore their properties.
Land sales for new residential and commercial developments at the other parts of the River were also launched as catalysts to seed developments. In order to ensure successful sales and subsequent development of the sale sites, the URA incorporated feedback through consultation with the private sector. Additionally, implementation of public infrastructure such as the riverfront promenade had to be coordinated; the private developer was required, according to the land sales conditions, to build the stretch of the river promenade in front of its development, while the other stretches were to be constructed by the government.
The Marina Bay development consisted of reclaimed land belonging to the State and was initiated through government land sales to the private sector. Three of the major land sales made in Marina Bay were:
• Marina Bay Financial Center: This land sale was formulated as an options payment scheme. This allowed for the flexibility for the successful tenderer to buy and develop the site in phases. The developer was required to purchase and develop the land for the initial phase, and was offered the option to buy and develop the remaining land within specified option periods. The prices for the options were fixed by a formula, which shared the risk with the government with regard to future price fluctuations.
• Marina Bay Integrated Resort: During the Marina Bay development period, Singapore began to look into introducing integrated resorts. A fixed price method was chosen for this land sale, by which the land price was fixed during the tender and the developers would compete on the basis of their design and concept proposals.
• Collyer Quay development: This site adopted yet another tender approach for its land sale in 2006. The site comprised the historic Clifford Pier and Custom House, and allowed for new infill developments to complement the conserved buildings. The two-envelope concept and price tender method was used. It required the tenderer to submit two envelopes for evaluation, one containing the concept proposal and the other containing the land price. The concept proposals were assessed first, and only the tenderers with a good concept would move on to the second price-based stage of tender.
As part of these redevelopment projects, the URA focused on place management to generate activities within the area for public participation. The URA initiated seed funding for public events, particularly in the earlier years. Local stakeholders were also involved in creating diverse activities for the public. The reclamation works also demonstrated the long-term approach to planning and development in Singapore with an emphasis on upfront infrastructure investments by the government.
The redevelopment of Singapore’s urban waterfront as illustrated by the Golden Shoe district, the Singapore River, and Marina Bay encapsulate Singapore’s unique approach to urban development in balancing economic, social and environmental goals within a land-scarce context. While the process had evolved since the early days, fundamental principles have been consistently maintained through the years.
Think Long Term. Urban redevelopment required forward thinking and planning, and was initiated in tandem with formulating a comprehensive master plan framework for Singapore. A systematic approach to long-term planning was eventually established, involving a review of the Concept Plan every 10 years to set out development directions for the next 40-50 years. The approach also included the drafting of a Master Plan to translate the broad and long-term strategies of the Concept Plan into detailed plans for implementation over 10-15 years.
Executive Effectively. What differentiates Singapore’s integrated planning regime from other cities is that its plans do not exist merely on paper. They are coordinated, implemented and executed effectively through dedicated government agencies, with attendant expertise and resources. These action-oriented agencies include the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the Housing and Development Board, as well as the former Public Works Department.
Work with Markets. The transformation of Singapore’s urban waterfront is very much a product of the government working successfully with the markets. In many ways, this partnership is manifested in the Government Land Sales program, with the government providing upfront public infrastructure and a clear, transparent framework for the development in the form of land sale conditions and tender process. For its part, the private sector contributed the creative expertise and financial capital.
Lead with Vision and Pragmatism. Leadership has an important impact on planning and implementation. One important aspect of leadership is having the political will to push through policies or projects that are considered unpopular or politically difficult – if leaders are convinced that such policies or projects are for the long-term benefit of the city.