The imperative for urban sustainability

Urbanisation is the new reality for the world’s increasing population, but effective leadership, good governance and integrated solutions will ensure a sustainable way forward

Andrew Tan
Director, Centre for Liveable Cities
National Environment Agency

The world is experiencing unprecedented urban growth, with half the world’s inhabitants living in cities. This is projected to increase to 70 per cent by 2050. Over the coming decades, the pace of urbanisation will hasten in many parts of the developing world, particularly in Asia.

Smaller and medium-sized cities are growing bigger, while mega-cities are transforming into mega-regions. If the last century was known as the age of globalisation, this century will be known as the age of the global city. A new narrative on the rise of Asian cities is waiting to be written, reflecting the shift in economic balance from the West to the East.

The challenges confronting cities are numerous. Small, highly compact cities like Singapore face space constraints, but bigger cities also face their own issues, such as managing urban sprawl. Slums are common in many cities in the developing world, but developed countries are not without problems, such as ageing public infrastructure and the regeneration of inner cities.

Their unique challenges aside, all cities want to attract good investments, create employment opportunities, ensure high standards of living, as well as promote social cohesion. With growing concerns over climate change and the move toward a low carbon economy, many cities are also repositioning themselves to capitalise on opportunities presented by global stimulus packages, investments in green growth, as well as the international flow of talent and capital.

At the same time, a new generation of mayors and governors who are more receptive to new ideas has taken over the helm of many of these cities. The timing is therefore opportune for a global dialogue on cities.

Fostering a global dialogue on cities - Singapore’s unique role

Singapore can play a unique role in the emerging global discourse on cities. Our unique position in Asia, our familiarity with East and West, and our network of international linkages, allows us to provide a meeting place for all stakeholders keen to develop solutions for sustainable cities. Singapore itself has been a test bed of urban transformation. As a small city lacking natural resources, innovative solutions have always formed a part of our efforts to ensure that this city-state can thrive as a cohesive nation and a vibrant economy.

We have much to share in terms of our expertise over the 40 years of our development in areas such as public housing, urban greenery, water management, and pollution control. We have also much to learn from cities at the forefront of the current urban revolution, such as Seoul, London, New York, Shanghai, or Sydney.

A growing cluster of leading institutions, think tanks, businesses, and NGOs have established themselves in Singapore, including the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and the World Bank Knowledge Hub, and industry players such as IBM, Keppel, Sembcorp, Siemens, Veolia, McKinsey & Company with their city solutions, and NGOs such as the Singapore Environmental Council and Conservation International.

Singapore’s agencies are working closely with such partners under the new ‘urban solutions’ thrust to identify and develop solutions to the problems confronting cities. They range from urban master-planning, public housing, water and waste management, to preserving biodiversity and infrastructure financing. Comprehensive solutions are needed for many of the complex urban problems involving cross-cutting issues like water, energy and food security.

Galvanising leadership from public, private and people sectors

While the path to building a sustainable future for our cities is complex and hinges on numerous factors which require holistic and integrated solutions, good governance and leadership are essential.

Dealing with the complex challenges of urbanisation will require a great deal of government effort, involving the public, private and people sectors.

Partnerships between government and industry players which tap on the dynamism and expertise of the private sector will help drive the development and adoption of urban solutions, leading to mutually beneficial outcomes for both industry and the urban environment. Likewise the community at large must also play their part in fostering liveable, vibrant, and distinctive cities.

It is in this context that Singapore is hosting the second World Cities Summit this month. Currently, there is no single strategic platform where leaders, policymakers and solution providers can converge to discuss the challenges facing cities in a holistic manner.

With a high-level gathering of more than 25 ministers and 40 mayors and governors from all over the world making their way to Singapore to discuss practical, replicable, and scaleable solutions for urban sustainability, the World Cities Summit aims to provide such a platform.

Key highlights include a series of high-level plenaries and expert panel sessions, the inaugural World Mayors’ Forum, and the award of the inaugural Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize to Bilbao City Hall.

This is an exciting era for cities such as Singapore. As we see the global economy picking up, we know that the massive urbanisation seen in recent years is only going to accelerate. The opportunity is here for governments, industries, and communities to make cities more liveable and sustainable.

The consequences of not doing so are immense but the rewards of our efforts to improve the livelihoods of millions promise to be even greater.

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