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“A city in a garden”: Singapore’s journey to becoming a biodiversity model

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This is the Marina Barrage, a space created by a landfill that overlooks a reservoir and the iconic skyline. Photo by VisualHunt

Biodiversity transformation: Preserving quality of life and urban spaces, Singapore style

You wouldn’t know it today, but in 1965 Singapore was a polluter’s paradise: mucky rivers, polluted canals and raw sewage running rampant. It was a developing country, newly split from neighbouring Malaysia, an island surrounded by waters that now they had to govern on their own.

The incredible journey of Singapore, from a struggling polluted backwater into a global green powerhouse, was not automatic or easy. How it aimed to maintain its environmental momentum, was to take the lessons of history and create a new generation of eco-warriors in its students. The engine behind this is Singapore’s national park service.

The energetic Group Director for National Biodiversity Centre at National Parks Board, Lim Liang Jim, recently shared his vision for Singapore’s future – a future dependent on its students becoming eco-activists and preserving the gains made since the city-state’s gritty early days.

“From 1965 we merely wanted to rise above the region we found ourselves in. Lee Kuan Yew had a plan. Keep us clean. Keep us green.” The city’s pioneer generation, he said, understood that if you make a city “a nice place to live, then people will come and invest. Then we moved up.” Lee Kuan Yew was often called ‘Chief Gardener’ for his belief in the power of plants and biodiversity to transform people’s overall mental well-being, as well as physical spaces.

As a city-state, Singapore had the luxury of a centralized government solely concerned with looking after its citizens’ well-being and future. Biodiversity was not just a ‘nice-to-have’ but a ‘must-have’ for Singaporeans who wanted to stay in their land and build their new country from the ground up.

The National Biodiversity Centre, for instance, recently developed a high-tech app, the SGBioAtlas. This allows all members of the public (including students) to take a photo of a plant, bird or animal. The app geotags it and uploads it into their central database. Through their smartphones, students as well as ordinary citizens become instant citizen scientists.

Walk around Singapore today, and you will not see smelly, polluted rivers, but plants that literally crawl up skyscrapers, a garden or park in virtually every corner of the city, and teams of eco-volunteers who scour the island nation looking after its wildlife of all stripes.

As Masagos Zulkifli, Singapore’s Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, stated in his recent Global Environment Outlook 6 (GEO6) opening address, “in the 1960s, Singapore was like any other developing country – dirty and polluted, lacking proper sanitation and facing high unemployment. These challenges were particularly acute, given our constraints as a small island state with limited resources; we did not even have enough drinking water.”

Singapore, since its break-off from Malaysia in 1965, had no choice but to become one big urban space where its citizens would pack into its urban centre. Less well known, is the difficult and long journey towards sustainable conservation and biodiversity.

With independence came the push to industrialize as fast as possible. According to Minister Zulkifli, “one of Singapore’s transformations involved the cleaning of the Singapore River, which was literally an open sewer in the 1960s and 1970s. The clean-up took ten years and involved thousands of Singaporeans relocating from farms, factories and street-food stalls that were polluting the river catchment. The successful clean-up also set in motion a process to create a reservoir in the heart of the city.”

So how did they manage to become an advanced economy and preserve their environment at the same time? As is the case in many countries, short-term thinking was always going to prioritize economic development over the environment. A mindset shift was needed, said Minister Zulkifli. “Our approach has been to build a liveable and sustainable city, through pragmatic policymaking based on sound economic principles and science; a focus on long-term planning and effective implementation; and the ability to mobilise popular support for the common good.” The message was clear: if Singapore could transform itself from a polluted backwater into a global green powerhouse, so can any city.

For thirty years, the city-state painstakingly cleaned up its polluted areas, created agencies like the National Parks Board, and determined that everywhere one looked, one could find greenery. A concrete jungle was never what the pioneers had in mind. From urban planning to policy inducements to zoning to public awareness campaigns, the successive governments of Singapore have followed this central vision for their nation. They now call it the ‘biophilic City in a Garden,’ and the government calls upon every Singaporean to do their part to keep their city green and clean.

Youth are the key

The current evolution of this vision, says Lim, includes a key component of the Nature Conservation Master Plan (NCMP): outreach. In this vision, they are targeting Singapore’s youth.

“We are going back to history, to ensure that we build from the ground up and ensure that the youth of Singapore don’t take our 50 years of history for granted,” Lim says. With a new generation of Singaporeans who only know clean air and green parks, the lessons of history can easily be forgotten.

“We don’t want that to happen. We want a ground up effort, to appreciate nature more, contribute to the science behind the conservation of nature so it becomes a movement.” A youth movement and a generation which has grown up educated in conservation is insurance, Lim says. “In future if someone says, ‘let’s not think about green, let’s build’, there will be a significant percentage of population” who can act as informed advocates for nature’s conservation and green spaces instead of a modern, first-world city.

The next generation will hopefully buy-in to the vision, he says, that “‘we treasure Singapore’s unique status as a green and biodiverse city and we should work to keep it this way.’” To him, this is the legacy of Singapore’s founding generation he and his team are working to retain and enhance. “We want to ensure the sustainability of our green vision.”

Environmental conservation “has to be something that is driven by the grassroots movement, it has to become in a sense political. You can’t easily turn a nature reserve into buildings, it would require some reasoned discussion with the public. We have to make sure that the younger generation appreciate our nature and biodiversity and not take them for granted.”

UN Environment

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Urban Development

WEF Launches Toolbox of Solutions to Accelerate Decarbonization in Cities

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With the percentage of people living in cities projected to rise to 68% by 2050, resulting in high energy consumption, greater infrastructure needs and, carbon emissions, cities have a critical role to play in the race to reach net zero. To help address this challenge, the World Economic Forum, is releasing today the first iteration of its Toolbox of Solutions, designed and built in collaboration with Accenture.

The toolbox is an interactive digital platform containing more than 200 practical solutions to help city leaders, national governments and businesses evaluate and identify optimal solutions for near-term implementation, kick-starting their decarbonization journey. The first-of-its-kind toolbox draws on input and case studies from more than 110 cities, businesses, academics, civil society leaders and other urban stakeholders around the world and across sectors to capture best practices and case studies for urban transformation and decarbonization.

The solutions include policy, business and finance models that result in reduced emissions and other valuable outcomes such as job creation and improved air quality. These solutions are also tailored to specific city attributes including the electricity grid’s health, local population density and income level.

“Decarbonization solutions already exist – we don’t need to wait for the next big innovation. This platform provides examples of policies and business models that have been used successfully around the world. We are starting with 200 solutions and expect to have many more over the course of the next year,” said Kristen Panerali, Head of Energy, Materials and Infrastructure Programme, Net-Zero Carbon Cities, World Economic Forum.

“Urban ecosystems are pivotal in our global journey to net zero, driven by clean and smart electrification. These sustainability initiatives can help accelerate efforts to address climate change with practical and integrated energy solutions for urban transformation for cities of any size around the world,” said Jean-Marc Ollagnier, Chief Executive Officer, Europe, Accenture.

Achieving net-zero emissions at city scale will require a transformation in how energy is produced, distributed, and consumed. A related report shows how the built environment and mobility can serve as a catalyst for urban transformation and decarbonization anywhere in the world.

The Toolbox of Solutions is part of the Forum’s Net-Zero Carbon Cities programme, which brings together businesses with city, regional and national government leaders to accelerate urban transitions to a net-zero future. The programme’s objective is to align and scale efforts across businesses, cities and national-level governments to deliver urban ecosystems that are sustainable, resilient and equitable. The programme aims to enable transformation towards clean electrification and circularity, using integrated energy solutions to address energy, buildings and mobility. The Net-Zero Carbon Cities programme is co-chaired by Jean-Pascal Tricoire, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Schneider Electric, and Francesco Starace, Chief Executive Officer, Enel.

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Urban Development

As cities fill tech gaps, power of smart cities unleashes

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Governing Smart Cities, a report released today by the World Economic Forum, provides a benchmark for the ethical and responsible use of smart city technologies by looking into the inner workings of 36 Pioneer Cities. The authors of the report seek to help city leaders identify gaps, protect long-term interests and keep up with the pace of technology.

According to the report, cities of all sizes, geographies and levels of development have serious governance gaps, such as the failure to designate a person accountable for cybersecurity or to assess privacy risks when procuring new technology systems. However, leaders can close these gaps and protect long-term interests by acting now.

Written in partnership with Deloitte, the report follows the call to action from G20 ministers in 2019 that resulted in the creation of the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance. The Alliance and its partners represent over 200,000 cities, local governments, leading companies, start-ups, research institutions and civil society communities. It acts as a platform to help cities strengthen their knowledge, expertise and governance of smart city technologies. The Forum is its secretariat.

The 36 Pioneer Cities surveyed span six continents and 22 countries, and have populations ranging from 70,000 to over 15 million. Policy experts and government officials were interviewed from January to March 2021 to assess the implementation of a set of five essential policies identified by the G20 Alliance last year.

Key findings

Nearly all the cities surveyed – including those that are generally regarded as leading global cities – have critical policy gaps related to their governance of smart city technologies

Despite an unprecedented increase in global cybersecurity attacks, most cities have not designated a specific government official as ultimately accountable for cybersecurity.

While the majority of cities recognize the importance of protecting the privacy of their citizens, only 17% of cities surveyed carry out privacy impact assessments before deploying new technologies.

Less than half of the cities surveyed have processes in place to ensure that technologies they procure are accessible to elderly residents or individuals with limited physical abilities.

Open data policy is perhaps the only area in which most cities in the sample have achieved a level of basic implementation. Even here, only 15% of the Pioneer Cities have integrated their open data portals with their wider city data infrastructure, which is a necessary step towards making a city “open by default”.

“Cities are continuing to invest heavily in new technologies to automate and improve city services and urban life. Yet our findings validate our fears that most cities are falling behind when it comes to ensuring effective oversight and governance of these technologies,” said Jeff Merritt, Head of Internet of Things and Urban Transformation, World Economic Forum. “The G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance is working with cities across the globe to address this gap, beginning with more than 15 policy workshops with city officials this summer.”

“Cities have an array of opportunities to become more resilient and sustainable. Technology is an enabler but, to fulfill its full potential, Cities need to revise their governance, operational, and financing models. Here lies the biggest challenge Cities face. Deloitte is proud to have worked with the Forum in this initiative. It is fundamental for us all to gain consciousness of the complexity of the issues and focus on how the moment we are all living can be a key opportunity”, said Miguel Eiras Antunes, Global Smart Cities Leader, Deloitte Global. “Now is the moment for a great urban transformation. Addressing urban challenges through the lenses of sustainability, inclusion, and technology is critical to develop and implement a roadmap to guide cities with their governance of smart technology and make an impact that matters.”

How to take action

The report concludes that city leaders and officials need to take action before these governance gaps become material risk and affect residents. The report’s authors also call for national policymakers, civil society and the business community to help support local governments in overcoming these challenges. Inclusion, data privacy and cybersecurity attacks are top concerns and the G20 Global Smart Cities Alliance has a mandate to help cities close the governance gaps that this report has uncovered. Cities looking for assistance in identifying and addressing their policy gaps are encouraged to contact the Alliance via their website.

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Urban Development

New Report Shows Shape of Urban Growth Underpins Livability and Sustainable Growth

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A first-of-its-kind World Bank analysis, of the shape and growth of nearly 10,000 cities between 1990 and 2015, finds that the most successful urban areas are those that connect their growth to economic demand and then support this with comprehensive plans, policies and investments that help avoid uncontrolled sprawl.

The new report, Pancakes to Pyramids – City Form for Sustainable Growth, analyzes the dynamic, two-way relationship between a city’s economic growth and the floor space available to residents and businesses. It finds that a city is most likely to be its best version when its shape is driven by economic fundamentals and a conducive policy environment – namely, a robust job market, flexible building regulations, dependable public transit and access to essential services, public spaces, and cultural amenities.

Ultimately, getting livable space right, hinges on how a city manages its growth as populations and incomes increase, factoring in three dimensions of expansion – horizontal, vertical or within existing spaces (known as infill), the report finds. This will be key as cities, on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis, begin planning for a long-term, resilient, and inclusive recovery.

“Cities are at the frontier of development; they are where people go to chase their dreams of a better life for themselves and their families,” said Juergen Voegele, Vice President for Sustainable Development, World Bank. “This report helps us understand why a city grows outward, inward or up. As we support countries with their COVID-19 recovery efforts, this will also help us reflect on what makes a city livable and remind us that well-planned urban growth is good for both people and planet.”

In the average Sub-Saharan African city, 60 percent of the population lives in slums—a much larger share than the 34 percent average in cities in developing countries. The lack of floor space takes a severe toll on livability—with major consequences in times of pandemics like COVID-19. Many South Asian cities face similar issues.

Horizontal growth is inevitable for most cities. People will continue to migrate to urban areas for opportunities and a better quality of life, so it is crucial for cities to plan for this trend. As urban populations grow, one way to create more space per inhabitant is by building up instead of out. This could also help reduce crowding, discourage long commutes, draw more people to public transit and drive down greenhouse gas emissions. But building tall, or accommodating more people in a city, is dependent on economic demand and the business environment as it requires better technology, large investments, and higher returns on capital.

“Understanding the multiple drivers of city growth—a precondition for livable density in cities—can help city leaders focus on the right policy actions,” said Somik Lall, co-author of the report. “If managed well, cities that take a more pyramid-like shape can provide an impetus to accelerate sustainable development by getting people out of cars, cutting commute times, and limiting greenhouse gas emissions.”

Today, around 55 percent of the world lives in urban areas. By 2050, this number is projected to surpass two-thirds of the global population, with much of the new urbanization happening in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. While such growth signals opportunities and better livelihoods for millions of people, it also puts immense strain on cities, especially in countries that contend with low incomes and weak institutional and fiscal capabilities.

By describing how economic productivity shapes decisions by households and firms to locate in cities, and how the quantity and spatial distribution of urban floor space respond to these changes in demand, the report aims to help decision makers sort through competing legal and regulatory approaches, evaluate their investments in infrastructure, and mobilize finance for durable urban investments, particularly for essential services such as transport, water provision, solid waste management, and sewage removal and treatment.

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