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What Lies Behind Successful, Livable Cities?
by Cho Im Sik

he United Nations estimates that by 2030, five billion people will live in cities, up from 3.6 billion in 2011. The challenge of accommodating thousands that move to cities daily is acute to avoid cities from becoming hotbeds for social inequality and fragmentation, dis-economies of scale and environmental degradation. Urban challenges are often complex and seem insurmountable. Yet some cities are, incrementally but surely, overcoming them and turning their cities around. How did they do it?

Based on its research into Singapore's extraordinary development experience, the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC) developed the CLC Liveability Framework. This suggests the conceptual foundation that permeated Singapore's leadership, institutions and governance structures, which enabled the effective management of Singapore's complex challenges and rapid growth. We used this framework to analyze successful cities around the world, and found three underlying parallels. One, these cities have a vision of what they would like to achieve; second, there is a comprehensive plan on how to achieve them; and last, there is institutional support to carry out these plans.

Aim High and Wide

In a 2011 interview with CLC, the then-CEO of JTC Corporation Mr Manohar Khiatani said, "Dare to dream... One day we want to make aircraft engines, man-on-the-moon statement[s], but we don't know when we will get there. Even if we don't get there, maybe we'll get a consolation prize – it's still very good... Sometimes they say, "This fellow is damn naive!" But it is okay because what is naive today, 20 years down the road, it might still happen because technology changes." This characterizes many of Singapore's policies.

Bilbao's leaders, too, had the audacity to dream. In the 1980s, delocalization of the heavy steel and shipbuilding industries led to the loss of half of the industrial jobs; unemployment reached a record 25% by 1985. Long years of industrial action, sometimes violent, ensued, followed by population decline and intense physical decay. Against this backdrop, the Spanish city of Bilbao launched its urban revolution that led to one of the most miraculous transformation stories in recent history. A holistic and integrated approach was devised to deliver 25 interventions over 25 years covering high environmental, cultural, social and economic goals, including the regeneration of contaminated river, regeneration of derelict inner city space, improving neighborhood spaces, and introducing new architecture highlighting Bilbao as a center for arts and culture.

While Suzhou, a south-eastern city located in the Jiangsu Province of China, has experienced 2,500 years of successive rise and devastation culminating with rapid industrialization, it has conserved its historic city and gardens, and become a first mover in inclusive social policies and environmental restoration. Over the last two decades, residents have enjoyed a nearly twenty-fold increase in annual per capita disposable household income to 41,143 yuan (US$6,600 in 2013), and the city has achieved 42.3% city green coverage. It has introduced free compulsory education and increased social welfare benefits, thus improving the quality of life for residents and non-native residents alike. Suzhou's transformation is remarkable for the wide-ranging and ambitious standards it has worked to achieve.

Copenhagen is audaciously planning its future by committing to be the world's first Carbon Neutral Capital by 2025. By adopting the Copenhagen Climate Plan in 2009, the city has committed to a comprehensive set of 50 initiatives that would reduce motorized transport, replace fossil fuel energy/ heat generation with alternatives and adopt green building standards.

Plan Comprehensively

Without planning, visions remain on paper, and agencies lack clarity to move forward, resources are not allocated adequately, and development is imbalanced. Planning must be strategic, tangible, realistic and dynamic. To create livable cities, it must integrate all aspects and sectors of society. A city's challenges are often complex; a coordinating body is thus important to keep in view the various cross-dimensional initiatives, arbitrate across agencies, and monitor goals.

In the early 1800s, needing to address poor street layout and air circulation, New York's Common Council concurred that a long-term framework was indispensable to manage growth. It produced the 1811 Commissioner's Plan which has defined Manhattan until today. Two centuries later in 2007, the city released PlaNYC to again address the complex needs and raise its urban vitality. PlaNYC considers a 30-year time frame, and is to be updated every four years, coordinated by the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability.

PlaNYC's goal of achieving a greener and greater New York City, structured in 10 categories from waterways and transportation to energy and climate change, contains metrics to assess progress. Over 97% of the 127 initiatives were launched within one year of the commencement of the plan and almost two-thirds of the milestones in 2009 were achieved or mostly achieved, according to the PlaNYC Progress Report 2012. For example, planning regulations have been adopted for over 20 transit-oriented schemes with the aim of making 87% of new housing units 400 meters from a public transport stop by 2030. Another target is that 85% of New Yorkers would live within 400 meters from a park. To meet this target, more than 200 acres (0.8 square kilometer) of parkland were created, ensuring that over 74% of residents now live within a 10-minute walk from the park.

Plans have to be adaptive and contextualized to meet local needs. While it is less risky to adopt tried and tested policies, innovation not only keeps cities competitive and vibrant, it also dynamically addresses challenges.

Melbourne managed to turn its "empty, useless city center" (as described in The Age in 1978) to the lively, 24/7 city that it is today because of its bold decision to reinvent the city to be built around strong communities and livable public spaces. Through its Places for People program devised by architect Jan Gehl, the city upgraded its promenades, laneways and meeting points, and installed public art. A 10-year goal was set to increase the city's livability and to establish benchmarks to measure its progress. Within a decade, the city reported that there were 275% more cafes (1993 - 2004) and 830% more residents in the inner city (1992 - 2002). Thousands flocked to Bourke Street and Swanston Street at all hours, improving safety as well as the vitality of the city. Melbourne is now consistently named as one of the most livable cities in the world.

The city of Cape Town, facing high crime and violence in its expansive shantytowns, introduced Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading, a public-private partnership project in Khayelitsha in 2006. Rather than using a top-down approach, the partnership chose to create safe and sustainable neighborhoods by reducing social, cultural, economic and institutional exclusions. It adopted a multi-solidarity methodology, based on the local concept of Ubuntu. Comprehensive community consultations raised novel proposals that adapted local resources and innovative design solutions. The benefits were multi-fold; not only in the physical upgrading of the environment, but also community empowerment, funding retention and local socio-economic improvement. The city's courage to undertake new approaches not only led to a better understanding of the complex issue of safety, but also surfaced new design principles which were being replicated throughout Cape Town and other South African metropolitan regions.

Let the Roots of Support Grow

The best intentions in planning amount to nothing if not supported by a sound urban governance system. Projects may remain uninitiated, be derailed, be completed shoddily, or bring long-term harm to the city. Urban governance refers to the manner in which public leadership interacts with citizens and other stakeholders to make decisions on and have oversight of how a city plans, develops and manages its physical and environmental resources to achieve outcomes.

A visionary leader is often a key catalyst for sound urban governance. Surabaya's Mayor Tri Rismaharini, is one such catalyst. Well known for her hands-on approach – she is often found picking up litter from the streets – Mayor Risma has helped to transform Surabaya, a port city of three million in East Java and Indonesia's second largest city, from a dirty city into a green and clean city, where quality of life is being visibly raised. Not only has the green cover increased to 20% (target is 30%), her e-procurement system has saved the city 13 to 24% of its budget; and the newly introduced waste management measures have formalized the income for sorters and delivered socio-economic benefits to the city's poorest.

Sound agencies are another vital ingredient for a sound urban governance system. The trustworthiness of its administration is a principal asset for a city, providing a climate for long-term value creation, investment, jobs and partnerships. In 1974, against a backdrop of rampant corruption, the Hong Kong government initiated the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). Within three years, the ICAC had eliminated all government syndicates and prosecuted 247 government officers. Hong Kong's high level of transparency continues to contribute to not only citizens' trust in its institutions, but also economic vitality as corporations choose to base offices there. New York City, too, has a long-term vision for data transparency, based on the conviction that public knowledge brings the accountability needed to empower the city's delivery-focused planning.

Creating a livable city is a huge and complex undertaking, and the city's public institutions need the support of its people and private sectors. This also ensures all have a stake in the city's growth, together contributing to the long-term good of the city.

Bogotá's Como Vamos (BCV) ("Bogotá, how are we doing") is a prime example of how governance can be supported by the grassroots. Formed in 1997 to track local election promises, BCV calls for citizens to exercise social oversight of public administration and budgeting. It analyzes public data on areas such as health care, housing and education collected throughcitizen perception surveys. Findings, along with proposed solutions, are fed back to policymakers and experts, as well as disseminated to the public via mass media. In addition, BCV works with the Bogotá district governments to monitor the development, implementation and execution of the Bogotá Development Plan through forums and roundtables.

A Framework for Development

So what lies behind successful, livable cities? History suggests that cities that have successfully overcome periods of decline have had a key tool in common — a framework for development. This allowed them to plan with purpose and develop the systems needed to implement such plans and operate accordingly.

The CLC offers its Liveability Framework as a lens through which city leaders can view their cities and analyze the actions or approaches open to them to achieve high livability and sustainability. How these principles can be applied will, naturally, depend on each city's own governance structures, priorities and resources. However, cities that are able to define their framework are best placed to undertake complex and far-reaching initiatives to be one step closer to becoming successful, livable cities.

Elyssa Ludher is a Senior Assistant Director at the Centre for Liveable Cities, involved in capability development programs for international cities as well as writing and publishing her research on urban governance, integrated planning and food security. She has worked previously on rural development at the Cambodian Organization for Research, Development and Education, urban planning with Brisbane City Council, and major infrastructure projects in Sinclair Knight Merz (SKM) Consulting.

Pablo Vaggione was the Lead Author of UN-HABITAT's guide Urban Planning for City Leaders. He has worked on projects for the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, CAF (Development Bank of Latin America), Asian Development Bank, Siemens AG and the Economist Intelligence Unit. An architect by training, he studied urban planning at Harvard and sustainable development at the United Nations University.

For more information about this article, please contact Ms Elyssa Ludher at Elyssa_Kaur_LUDHER@mnd.gov.sg

This article was first published in Urban Solutions (Issue 5, Jun 2014)

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