Singapore's garden city could answer Vietnam's urban problems

July 5, 2023 | 03:55 pm PT
Huynh The Du Economist
Singapore is an example of true compact urban model, with gardens indoors and forests within a city.

This is a model that Deputy Prime Minister Tran Hong Ha mentioned at a recent meeting in Hanoi to review the capital's master plan through 2045, with a vision to 2065.

Singapore's development philosophy is clearly expressed in the memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew - the founder of the country who played a vital role in bringing the island nation from the third world to the first world in just one generation. Lee and his colleagues have distilled world theories and experiences to create a development model for their country. They know how to stand on the shoulders of giants.

For example, the Singapore government follows the model of a ruling talented minority, which Aristotle wrote about in "Politics" nearly 2,500 years ago. And its garden city model comes from an idea proposed by British urban planner Ebenezer Howard in 1898.

The garden city idea came up in the context that the lack of housing, especially quality living space, was a severe problem in urban areas around the world, especially crowded places like London, New York and Paris. Howard's idea was to build a urban area for every 32,000 people, with open spaces, parks, trees, and self-sufficiency.

Letchworth and Welwyn, more than 50 km and 30 km from London, were the first garden cities in England. This model was later applied in many countries around the world. Of them, Singapore is the most successful example.

The vision of Singapore's "garden city" was launched by Lee Kuan Yew in 1967, turning Singapore into a city with an abundance of trees and fresh environments.

People hang out at the Gardens by the Bay, a public park in the heart of Singapore, May 28, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Nga

People hang out at the Gardens by the Bay, a public park in the heart of Singapore, May 28, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Nga

With two million people in an area of more than 700 square kilometers, each Singaporean in 1967 had more than 350 square meters of land. The current figure is 133 m2 and by 2030 it is estimated to be only about 112 m2, equal to 1/10 of the goal set by Howard. Therefore, to be able to reserve more land for trees and shared utilities, Singapore (as well as many other successful garden cities) has developed upward, into a compressed city, with transit-oriented development (TOD), where most people live and work in high-rise buildings and use public transport.

Singapore's land use plan through 2030 includes 17% for housing, 9% for parks and natural reserves, 7% for recreational facilities, community activities, and 13% for transportation ground. In addition, the ratio of construction to total land area should not exceed 50% (usually less than a third), and building density (total floor area to total land area) can be up to 2.8 for buildings with 36 floors or less, and higher than 2.8 for houses with more than 36 floors.

Several cities in the region have similar regulations. Tokyo's construction rate is in the range of 30-80%, and the maximum building density is 13. Seoul's construction rate is 20-80% and build density rate 5.

In Vietnam’s largest city Saigon, District 4 is a typical example of a traditional urban area. This district has the smallest area (4.18 km2), but the population and housing density is the highest in the country (more than 42,000 people and nearly 11,000 houses/ Basically, almost the entire land area has been built with houses. Land for traffic is very modest (less than 10%), and land for other public facilities, especially parks and green spaces, is almost zero.

However, there are models of indoor gardens and urban forests elsewhere in the city. A complex in District 2, developed by a Singaporean company, adopted an indoor garden model. Buildings of more than 30 floors with nearly 900 apartments have a construction rate of less than 30% on the land area of nearly 4.8 hectares, and the population density is estimated at nearly 55,000 people/

Another urban area in Binh Thanh District has an area of 43.91 ha and the construction rate of only 16%, while the park area accounts for over 31% (13.8 ha). The population density in this urban area is estimated at over 60,000 people/, 1.5 times higher than District 4. But basically, people can access necessary services within 15-minute walk. This is a variation on the 15-minute city model.

The contrast between District 4 (traditional development) and the other two examples is clear. One has a remarkably high construction rate, but low construction density, lack of shared utilities and green space. On the other hand we have a successful model, like Singapore and other cities with many green spaces and shared utilities. In addition, the latter two urban areas connect with metro line No.1, a boon for TOD in HCMC.

Here we can see the solution to the urban problem of Vietnam, that is TOD within compressed urban areas. Let’s compare some numbers to more clearly see the solution. Singapore's residential land area per person in 2030 is less than 20 square meters, while the 2021 average in Hanoi was 27.3 and Ho Chi Minh City’s 28.3. Moreover, the construction rate in urban areas in Vietnam is markedly high.

With reasonable policies, people can convert and contribute land for urban development in a new form. To do this, appropriate planning policies, infrastructure development, taxes and subsidies are needed.

With the right policies in place, the transition could be essentially complete in a few decades. Learning from models that have worked well in many places will help save time, resources and limit mistakes.

*Dr. Huynh The Du is a lecturer of public policies at Fulbright University Vietnam, HCMC. His study also focuses on urban economy and infrastructure development.

The opinions expressed here are personal and do not necessarily match VnExpress's viewpoints. Send your opinions here.
go to top