MORROW Insights | Urban Planning and Development in Singapore – The Economic Considerations

Planning and development are two key areas for providing not only a space for life, work, and leisure, but also a platform for both social and economic development. An indispensable part of history and culture, ecology, and environmental preservation, planning and development will have a significant impact on human lives. In light of this, one should ponder the role of planning and development in enhancing urban economics and avoiding extra costs or aggravating global warming caused by constant demolition and redevelopment.  

Since my arrival in Singapore back in 2009, I have had the opportunity to complete numerous urban planning and urban design projects in China under the guidance of MORROW’s Founding Chairman Dr Liu Thai Ker. Having gained some experience and insights from these projects in China, I would love to share some practical examples that can be applied globally. The main focus of this article will be based on how Singapore’s urban planning has boosted the country’s economy. 

The Pursuance of Long-Term Planning

Singapore’s statutory concept plan sets a time horizon of Year X — say, for example, 100 years. In this time period, long-term concept planning is first carried out based on the ultimate goal of a city, and a shorter-term master plan of 10 to 15 years is then prepared, with the latter being comparable with China’s detailed master plans.  

When planning is reverse-engineered and done with a long-term approach, a city benefits from reasonable frameworks that are set right from the beginning. They include parameters of the plan such as urbanisation limits, structure, density, and height, and also allow for the orderly development of a city with public facilities, roads, subway systems, and so on. As a result, the operation of a city is more efficient, and wastage can be reduced. However, when planning is carried out haphazardly, urban problems such as repeated construction and demolition, lack of public facilities and infrastructure, and the need for frequent renovation and upgrading can occur. 

MORROW Architect - Singapore Concept Plan 1971
MORROW Architect - Singapore Concept Plan 1991
MORROW Architect - Singapore Concept Plan 2001
MORROW Architect - Singapore Concept Plan 2011
Singapore’s 1971, 1991, 2001, and 2011 Concept Plans (Credits: Urban Redevelopment Authority)

This is different from urban planning in many other cities in the world. For instance, the time horizon for urban planning in early China was relatively short, about 10 to 15 years, with a long approval processing time. This meant that it was very likely that some planning projects almost expired after getting approved. In the meantime, urban issues, including congestion, low quality of construction, and inadequate infrastructure, in these cities would emerge very shortly after development due to the short-term vision, leading to a certain degree of wastage as a result of demolition and redevelopment.  

The good news is that China has increasingly emphasised the importance of long-term vision through its planning system reform, advocating a ‘single blueprint’ strategy, which is inarguably a meaningful move. Notably, it is more important to consider the fundamental principles of planning and act up to the scientific rigour in its establishment and implementation. This is because an inadequate blueprint can bring more long-lasting and unbearable disadvantageous impacts to cities, whereas it would be difficult to amend the blueprint if it has been confirmed and undergone implementation.  

A good blueprint not only helps reduce implementation costs, but also provides habitability for living and working, facilitates effective land use, boosts economic growth, and helps achieve sustainability through vehicle use rate reduction, energy conservation and global warming mitigation, which, when taken together, can bring invaluable benefits to cities and the globe.  

The Importance of Phasing Plan 

Phasing plans should be considered thoroughly after establishing the long-term blueprint, which plays an important role during the implementation stage. Firstly, a good phasing plan needs to accommodate the growth and needs of the population as well as meet the demands of infrastructure and public service facilities. At the same time, the plan should also take economic developments, the demands of the primary, secondary and tertiary industries, and the land sales quantum, lease duration and market operability of different types of land into consideration to set up a comprehensive implementation plan. Secondly, a high-quality phasing plan allows the most optimal and valuable land in the market to be transferred at every state to stimulate positive responses from the market. Lastly, adequate phasing planning also requires systemised modification on an annual basis within the long-term blueprint, and five-year short-term planning to ensure adaptability and feasibility.   

Detailed planning like this, coupled with a transparent, legalised system, can ensure smooth implementation and construction, which plays an important role in the virtuous economic cycle. For example, as an area with the most developed tertiary industry in the city, Singapore’s Central Business District (CBD) has been under development for decades, but with its continuous land supply and price increments, it constantly brings huge economic value at different stages of urban development. 

Model of Singapore’s CBD (Credits: Singapore City Gallery)

Currently, China is still undergoing urbanisation, and the CBD – an important district where most of the tertiary industry is located – of many cities continues to develop and grow. However, looking back at China’s CBD developments in recent years, not many CBDs were enduring enough in terms of being able to manipulate land use across different phases and reserve development in the long run. Some Chinese counterparts have pointed out that Singapore’s phase development strategy is not feasible in China, and that there are many other contextualised problems such as the difficulty of land reservation. Across the world, China has great potential to carry out a phased implementation under long-term planning. This is because, unlike private ownership in western countries, the land is owned by the state in China as is the same in Singapore. Again, phased development requires rational planning, land policies and regulations as well as feasible implementation. Singapore has crafted its own practical methods through experimentation and China is progressing well on this front. 

The above-mentioned CBDs of various cities often face continuous relocation, which is only one aspect of urban development. Other development aspects, such as commercial centres, industrial districts, residential buildings, roads and infrastructure, may encounter similar problems. Adequate planning combined with reasonable phasing plans would make a great contribution to urban development and economic growth. 

MORROW Architects - Singapore's CBD
Singapore’s CBD and its surroundings (Credits: MORROW Architects & Planners)

Adherence to World-Class Comprehensive Development  

We are often impressed by the old towns in European cities where the towns themselves are like a piece of artwork where we can easily see classic architecture from hundreds of years ago when walking along the streets. As a modernised, urbanised city-state that has been founded for only more than 50 years, although Singapore does not have many such classic old buildings, it maintains a high level of integrity and world-class standards in its urban landscape, which is an exceptional case across the globe as it is not an easy endeavour.  

When Singapore gained its independence in 1965, three-quarters of its population were living in slums, with only $516 GDP per capita compared to $1,873 in the UK and $3,827 in the US. With so much needed to be done, 80% of Singapore’s residents were able to move into affordable public housing, also known as HDB flats, within 25 years under the Home Ownership Program. More importantly, the focus of the program has been on the ‘public’ rather than ‘economical’, which is key to developing green, clean, liveable and employment-friendly HDB neighbourhoods equipped with adequate facilities and amenities.  

Public housing units built during the founding period of Singapore still remain in good conditions even today. Up until today, the demolition rate of HDB flats is less than 0.5%, with most of them being partially upgraded rather than demolished completely. We should note that Singapore’s “Garden City” status was achieved through good decision-making and on-the-ground practice under underdeveloped economic conditions. This achievement cannot be measured based on economic indicators alone, but it is the invaluable benefits it has generated in various aspects that should be considered. 

MORROW Architects - Queenstown-Commonwealth Estate 1964 Ballot Ceremony
MORROW Architects - Queenstown-Commonwealth Estate 1964 Ballot Ceremony
The balloting ceremony for Queenstown-Commonwealth Estate in 1964, when Singapore implemented the Home Ownership Scheme for the first time (Credits: Housing Development Board, Singapore)

Additionally, one-off high-quality developments equate to a higher investment cost, which can be a financial challenge for developing countries because adequate operations require substantial and continuous allowances from the government. It is worth noting, however, that Singapore was not as wealthy in its early stages of urban development. On one hand, by adopting various methods based on the economics of scale and under high-quality standards, such as using simple and utilitarian design, economical but high-quality materials as well as unified development models, one can actively control the investment cost. On the other hand, the price increased steadily as a result of the strict control of the number of public housing units in the market and maintaining the supply and demand ratio according to the real-time demand of the housing market.  

Currently, the average rental of HDB flats in Singapore is US$4,000 per square metre, with the ownership rate reaching over 90%. Compared to its per capita GDP of US$61,000, the housing cost burden is not too high for its population. It is worth mentioning that although Singapore is one of the densest cities in the world, liveability is considered as no-compromise, with the HDB residential area per capita reaching 32 square metres, ranking among the top in the world. 

MORROW Architects - Singapore's Toa Payoh New Town in 1960
MORROW Architects - Singapore's Toa Payoh New Town in 2020
Singapore’s Toa Payoh New Town in 1960 and 2020 (Credits: National Heritage Board, Singapore & Google Street View)

Just like public housing, the construction of roads, public infrastructure, commercial and industrial buildings, and even the redevelopment of old districts, are also of high quality, long-standing and one-off so that the overall urban condition can be maintained at a high level. 

MORROW Architects - Singapore's new and old districts, built to world-class standards (Credits: MORROW Architects & Planners)
Singapore’s new and old districts, built to world-class standards (Credits: MORROW Architects & Planners)

In China, many individual and important buildings, and functional urban areas (FUA) have reached or even surpassed the international standard, but not much for holistic urban development if we consider the city as a unit. Hence, it is necessary to continue to pay attention to the development standards, urban environments, and the best interests of different income groups when it comes to urban planning and development.  

The contribution of reserve lands 

Another topic that is worthy of attention and research is reserve lands, a concept that has been considered as early as the initial development of Singapore. Reserve lands can be roughly classified into two categories: one is small and medium-sized land that must be reserved in the developed areas, and the other is larger land reserved based on phasing plans to cope with the unpredictable development process and ensure sustainability in long-term urban planning. Furthermore, different measures should be taken to reserve lands based on the different sections, functionalities and sizes of land. It is also important to consider the actual development needs from functional, environmental and economic perspectives in both short and long terms. 

MORROW Architects - Singapore's Toa Payoh New Town in 1973
MORROW Architects - Singapore's Toa Payoh New Town in 2015
Singapore’s Toa Payoh New Town in 1960 and 2020 (Credits: National Heritage Board, Singapore & The Straits Times)

Reserve lands as a concept is still new in China. While in recent years the concept has gradually been integrated into planning documents and carried out in some planning projects, the methods and methodology for reserving lands still remain under-explored. It is hoped that this concept can be delved deeper into by urban planning and governance professionals so that lands can be reserved practically with a scientific basis under reasonable land use planning.  

MORROW Architects - Green spaces in Singapore
Some of Singapore’s existing green spaces are actually reserved land (Credits: Google Street View)

A long-term vision in decision-making 

As an example, the construction of MRT was proposed as early as 1967, two years after Singapore gained its independence, and was incorporated into the statutory concept plan in 1971. At the time, MRT seemed to be an unnecessary and economically unfeasible infrastructure project for Singapore as it only had a population of nearly 2.1 million and a per capita GDP of US$1,000. From a longer-term perspective, however, the government took this as an inevitable decision to make and started early to purchase suitable land for future MRT construction at a lower price and wait for the right opportunity.  

In 1982, Singapore began to build MRT lines and it was implemented in different phases according to its long-term blueprint. As of 2020, Singapore has a 5.6 million population with a per capita GDP of US$61,000. MRT has become an important tool for people to travel every day as there is high connectivity across the whole island. It is very likely that the MRT lines will continue to expand in the future with the ongoing urban development and increasing population demand.  

MORROW Architects - First batch of MRT trains at Bishan MRT in July 1986
The ceremony for the delivery and operation of the first batch of MRT trains at Bishan MRT Station in Singapore, July 8, 1986 (Credits: National Archives of Singapore)

The right decision-making that the government made early on has not only helped reduce the development costs greatly but more importantly, ensured that the selection of MRT lines was scientific, reasonable and efficient, rather than having to bypass existing development or taking less efficient measures due to the unreasonable MRT network planning earlier. This is also one of the reasons why Singapore’s MRT is built and operated without a loss, which can be learned by other rapidly developing countries. Some Western scholars have criticised that it is not a thing to boast about that the MRT does not lose money, because they believe that the government should instead get used to loss-making when it comes to bringing welfare to its citizens. Having that said, wouldn’t it be wiser to have a successful project that is at no loss, without government subsidies, and with high-quality services? 

Singapore’s latest MRT train map (Credits: Land Transport Authority, Singapore)

In China’s political system, its leadership changes relatively frequently, whereas planning is a long-term matter for the benefit of future generations where many results will not be seen in the short term. This balance needs to be addressed by policymakers by considering long-term planning while focusing on their 5-year development plan. Currently, the ‘one blueprint’ strategy and establishment of natural resources institutions have provided an effective policy guarantee for long-term implementation. With recent developments, we need to pay attention to both the long-term and short-term strategies according to the actual situation, and firmly believe that good planning can help achieve both short-term and long-term benefits. 


Many people compare Singapore’s governance to company management in its accuracy and efficiency, from the early years of the country’s struggle for survival to today’s outstanding performance in all aspects — including a developed economy, environmental excellence, high liveability, low tax, and reasonable cost of living. It is also expected that Singapore’s excellence in urban planning and development can act as an inspiration and reference for more cities around the world. 

Author’s remarks:  

Sincere thanks to Dr. Liu Thai Ker who thrice provided corrections and advice during the course of writing this article.  

More about Kenan in her profile here.
Other MORROW Insights here.