How do you solve a problem like Singapore?



David Whitley steps back from his computer games to find out how Singapore deals with its lack of space.

For those of us who spent abnormal amounts of time playing SimCity and other such playing god-esque computer games, Singapore is a fascinating test scenario.

The Asian city state is unique in planning terms. It’s a proper country (sorry, we’re not counting Monaco and the Vatican here), that’s also a city, crammed into an extremely limited piece of land. There’s probably nowhere else in the world where use of space is such a delicate balancing act, and every planning decision truly counts.

And it is this tightrope walk that makes the Singapore City Gallery far, far more interesting than it should be. It is basically a museum about how the city is planned, and anywhere else that could be dustbowl dry and nerdy. Here, though, you’re invited to play the game.

It kicks off with big sweeping stats about urbanisation – by 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in cities; every week a new city the size of Kyoto or Barcelona springs up etc etc. But then it goes into Singapore’s specific challenges.

Despite extensive land reclamation, Singapore only has 710 square kilometres to play with. And the initial bank of touch screens strike home just how much has to fit in that space. Other cities have the luxury of placing some needs outside the city. Singapore can’t do that – defence installations, cemeteries, reservoirs, green areas, ports, airports, sewage works, expressways, commerce, housing and industry all have to be found a spot within the borders.

For comparison, Melbourne has a slightly smaller population than Singapore, but is 10.8 times bigger. London has just under three times the population and is 11.8 times bigger. Then you’ve got to consider that Singapore is also the broadcasting hub of Asia, has the world’s busiest port, and there are massive electronics, petrochemical and aerospace repair industries. Wrangling all that while keeping people happy and the environment liveable is an enormous task.



It’s also a task you get to try your hand at time and time again. Where the Singapore City Gallery excels is in making you have a go yourself, with a series of games aimed at balancing the competing demands. What would you put where? How would you break the zones down? What building designs would you put in a prime redevelopment slot? And do you preserve heritage or knock down to create more space?

Getting such things laughably wrong several times succeeds in its aim of giving you serious respect for the planners who draw up the ideas for Singapore’s future. But you can look at the plans too. The masterplan for the next ten to 15 years has been computerised, and you can scroll through maps of Singapore, painstakingly colour-coded into zones on a block by block basis. It’s enormously detailed and complex, and it’s difficult not to leave awestruck.

Especially when, on SimCity, you can ignore people complaining about traffic or lack of parks. In SingCity, they’re real human beings and need to be kept onboard in arguably the trickiest town planning puzzle on earth.



You can get Singapore included as a stopover on your round the world here