Singapore’s story of transformation is well known among urban planners, historians, and others interested in how cities can successfully embrace change. Since gaining independence first from the United Kingdom, and then from Malaysia in 1965, this island nation has gone from being a crowded, impoverished former colony where race riots broke out to a free-market powerhouse and a role model for efficiency, multiculturalism, and sustainable growth. Gleaming skyscrapers attest to its status as a global financial center, and the rule of law and order ensures stability and continuity. Diverse cultures coexist thanks to a high standard of living shared widely by the country’s 5.4 million residents.
Since independence, Singapore has had to be innovative and forward-thinking about its limited land and water resources. In the 1960s, its total area was only 226 square miles (582 sq km), making developable land scarce for a growing nation. Under the leadership of long-serving Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and the establishment of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), Singapore began an aggressive campaign to acquire and reclaim land, including filling in coastal areas near what would become Marina Bay (a nominee for the 2015 ULI Urban Open Space Award) and the central business district (CBD). Singapore now measures roughly 277 square miles (718 sq km) and is expected to grow by another 40 square miles (100 sq km) by 2030.
The land reclamation effort that created Marina Bay began during the 1970s, when the URA, which as an agency is a member of ULI, was given more autonomy and flexibility within the central government. In 1971, the URA developed Singapore’s Concept Plan, a document that still governs national housing, transportation, and infrastructure planning and serves as a template for master plans for individual neighborhoods and districts. As Prime Minister Lee once said, “There’s a definite plan, and we stuck with the plan.”