Many Australian planners and politicians seem to retreat back to comfortable European examples of city form when projecting their visions for the growth of Australian cities.

Paris is atop the European list, followed closely by Barcelona, Rome, Vienna and Zurich. But it is the ‘old world’ character of these cities that attracts interest rather than their economic productivity and efficiency or the amount of growth these cities are capable of accommodating. Australian cities also need to learn from our neighbours in Asia and particularly from those that are moving fast up the economic ladder as global cities.

Singapore is the standout Asian city on many measures. In the Mercer Index of the World’s most liveable cities,  Singapore ranks 26th of 221 cities. But of those cities, it has one of the highest densities at 7,130 people per square kilometre compared to Sydney which ranks 10th on liveability with only 330 people per square kilometre. The Centre for Liveable Cities, which is based in Singapore, has developed a chart that compares the liveability ranking with urban density.


Source: Centre for Liveable Cities (2016)

They are a little biased, of course, as Singapore is the clear winner when liveability is balanced with urban density. Australian cities can learn from how Asian cities like Singapore have maintained a high ranking of liveability while adopting a denser urban form.

The key issue in Singapore, Hong Kong or Shanghai is the big shift to public transport from private cars. Singapore discourages car use by applying hefty levies just to buy a car and then adds congestion taxes to manage peak hour congestion. They have gone even further by establishing an extensive network of rapid transit metro railways as well as bus travel.

Shanghai has gone further still by building around 1,000 kilometres of metro rail over the last 25 years. And across the rest of China, metro rail and fast rail networks are being rolled out. These massive commitments to rail infrastructure are accompanied by strategic plans that increases height and density around metro stations and transport nodes to ensure maximum use and benefit from this costly infrastructure.

Singapore’s housing is generally in high-rise apartments built by the Housing Development Board and a novel approach to providing gardens in these developments has evolved in recent years. A good example is an apartment complex designed by Australian architects WOHA called Skyville@Dawson which has sky gardens taking up whole floors in the building at every tenth floor. The highest sky garden is on the 47th floor, where children happily play on grass amongst mature trees while parents watch on.

The greening of cities through parks, sky gardens, street planting and greenery over and tumbling down buildings is a feature of Singapore’s urban form. Singapore’s first leader, Lee Kuan Yew set an agenda for the city to accommodate greenery by giving floor space bonuses for green roofs and walls. This has led to buildings like WOHA’s Parkroyal on Pickering Hotel that has lush greenery hanging off every balcony right up to middle levels, or their Oasia Downtown Hotel – a tall tower with a skinny of red metal mesh that vines grow up and over the curved top to the building.

In a recent book, the architects call for buildings to have a “Green Plot Ratio” that measures the amount of greenery on a building compared to its site area with an objective of having at least the same amount of greenery as the site plot area would have had.

One area that is misunderstood by planning commentators when comparing, say, Shanghai to Barcelona is about very tall buildings. In his book Concrete Dragon, Tom Campanella states that China is reinventing the modern city and he refers particularly to the concept of the ‘city as spectacle’. It is the sweeping towers of Shanghai as seen from the Bund across the river that define the “spectacle” of Shanghai. The twisting form of the 120-storey Shanghai Tower is the centrepiece with the World Trade Centre and the smaller Jin Mao tower of only 88 floors giving vertical support to what has now become the global image of Shanghai.

In Singapore, the Marina Bay Sands plays this spectacle role along with the financial centre towers. Sydney, of course has its Opera House and Harbour Bridge to become to global image of the spectacle of the city. An emerging new spectacle could be the Barangaroo development with its free form Brancusi-like building for the Crown Resorts signature building.

One of the most respected ranking indexes for global cities, the GaWC ranking (Global and World Cities), ranked Shanghai in the year 2000 at number 42. But by 2012 had, it ranked sixth, just behind Singapore at number five and ahead of ninth-ranked Sydne. The rapid rise up world rankings of a number of Asian cities demonstrates that they are becoming serious competitors to Australian cities.

While there are many worthwhile aspects of old European cities, it will be important for Australian cities to learn from the economic strength of nearby Asian cities and the urban planning approaches they are implementing.