Highlights from NUS Libraries’ collection – Singapore’s landscape transformation and urban planning

For anyone who has lived in Singapore for any number of years, it is difficult not to have an opinion of the relentless change in the physical landscape. There are 3 ‘must-read’ books if you want to understand the rationale that lies behind Singapore’s landscape transformation and urban planning. The first two books are Urban Planning in Singapore: Transformation of a City (1999) by Ole Dale, and The Politics of Urban Development in Singapore by Robert Gamer (1972). Both books will give you a historical perspective of the early days of urban planning during the ‘self-rule’ years (1958–63) and the period immediately after Independence (1963–80).

Ole Dale traces the work of urban planners in Singapore from the colonial period to post independence. A newly-elected government of an aspiring new nation faced pressing and complex issues as there were a large number of squatters in the city because jobs and employment opportunities were concentrated along the Singapore River. Living conditions in Chinatown and central areas such as Beach Road and along the Kallang River were overcrowded and unsanitary. In addition, these places were fertile for vice activities involving drugs, robbery and gambling. Not surprisingly, public housing and building infrastructure to connect the ‘New Towns’ dominated the planner’s agenda for more than 25 years.

There was also the difficult job of convincing society of the government’s intentions to improve living and working conditions in the effort to ‘modernise’ Singapore, as demonstrated in Gamer’s case study of Kallang River Basin in the second book. Resettlement of a significant number of people is never popular or easy thing to do at any time, and on more than one occasion, the government had to backtrack or slow certain plans in order to deal with the citizenry’s accusation of the government’s discrimination and hidden agenda.


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The third book, Singapore: an atlas of perpetual territorial transformation by Rodolphe de Koninck, Julie Drolet and Marc Girard (2008) provides a visual view of the effect of state planning from the self-rule years until 2006. Despite the slim volume, the geographer’s perspective of land use and landscape transformation due to human activity is profound and goes beyond the physical boundary of the Singapore city state.

From the 1960s, urban planning was primarily used by governments around the world to control and regulate the land use in its cities and urban areas. In Singapore, an island-nation of 720 km2 (increasing every year due to reclamation), urban planning was employed extensively during the nation-building years to expedite the singular goal of modernising the city, promote the nation’s economic competitiveness and international image to attract investment capital. And it succeeded beyond all expectations.

Urban Planning in Singapore: Transformation of a city [call no. HT169.12 Dal], The Politics of Urban Development in Singapore [call no. HT175.12 Gam], and Singapore: an atlas of perpetual territorial transformation [call no. G8040 Kon 2008] can be found in the Singapore-Malaysia collection in Central Library.


Winnifred Wong

SDE Resource Librarian

NUS Libraries 110C team

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