Planning and Innovation for City Success

In this interview, Professor Alan Altshuler of Harvard University discusses the attributes of a successful city and compares the city success of Singapore with US cities.

Date Posted

1 Jun 2008


World Cities Summit Issue, 14 Jun 2008

What makes a city successful?

The first step toward answering this question must be to specify what we mean by success for a city. My own starting point is that cities are for their residents, and consequently that a successful city is one in which the great majority of residents feel very fortunate to live, and in which they would happily think of their descendants continuing to live for generations to come.

In comparing cities with reference to this definition of success, I find it most useful to focus on seven criteria. In no particular order, these are Prosperity, Personal Security, Sustainability, Equity, Liveability, Liberty and Democracy (see box story for elaboration).

Cities vary in the challenges that they find particularly hard. Singapore is notable for the rationality and long-term vision that has guided its policy- making since its independence, enabling it to make remarkable gains in terms of prosperity, health, safety, liveability and sustainability. Cities in the United States (US), by contrast, tend to be plagued by short-term perspectives and policies driven by narrow interest groups. On the other hand, US cities are remarkable for the liberty and democracy they afford their citizens, their overall prosperity-although with wide variations-and their liveability.

Master planning of land use and public investment has played a large role in Singapore's development. You have commented elsewhere on tensions that may exist between key attributes of Planning, Democracy and Capitalism. Can you elaborate on this?

First, let me emphasise that Singapore's planning has been truly exemplary in terms of its comprehensive, well-conceived vision, its integration of the parts, its analytic rationality, and its actual impact on the ground. Nonetheless, intrinsic tensions exist between the imperatives of planning, democracy and capitalism. Planning, for example, is most centrally about rational analysis and long-term, integrated perspectives. Democracy is about responsiveness to constituencies and tends toward a multiplicity of discrete, short-term perspectives. Capitalism is about private property rights, business competition and consumer sovereignty. Quite a few countries have reconciled two of these three themes at a very high level, but very few indeed have managed to do so for all three.

Singapore, for example, has been highly successful in reconciling the tension between planning and capitalism, primarily by making the attraction of international capital the highest priority-along with national security-of its planning. The US has been highly successful in reconciling capitalism with democracy, mainly because Americans are so committed to private property rights and business is so influential in US politics.

Singapore's planning success has been significantly attributable, on the other hand, to its political continuity and unitary structure (just a single level of government), which has enabled a highly stable leadership to develop and pursue its long-term vision without interruption for nearly half a century. In the US, by contrast, broad governmental planning is generally impossible because electoral competition is so intense, leadership turnover is so frequent, and public authority is distributed among a vast array of governments-not just federal, state, and local, but also within each metropolitan area.

It is similarly interesting to compare the nature of business power in the US versus Singapore. In the US, business has traditionally had enormous direct influence on the political process-via its financing of political campaigns, its lobbying prowess, and its great public communications resources. In Singapore, by contrast, business seems to have little direct capacity to influence policy decisions, but since the central thrust of government policy is to attract and retain capital, the effect is similar. And indeed we see the same trend in the US. The great majority of local businesses that used to influence city politics have now been absorbed into national and international corporations. These corporations have little interest in the details of local politics, but they make clear that their investments will go where they deem conditions most favourable for their pursuit of profit. So, while they are far less visible than before in day-to-day local politics, they are in some respects more influential than ever.

Are there countries that are terrific in all three?

There are a few, I believe, most notably small countries in north-western Europe, such as the Netherlands, Sweden and Finland. Of these, I am most familiar with the history of planning in the Netherlands. Like Singapore, it is a small trading country without natural resources, mainly capitalist in its economic organisation, and very open to the world. It has a tradition of strong, very thoughtful planning, though, which goes back hundreds of years, primarily because it is a land reclaimed from and constantly threatened by the sea. So its people have always understood the imperatives of collective action and have never become imbued with the extreme reverence for private property and individualism that developed in the wide open spaces of early America.

What do you consider as innovations in urban policy?

Some of those that have struck me here are Singapore’s policies for balancing car ownership and usage with road capacity, for achieving a high level of self-sufficiency in water supply, and for both liquid and solid waste disposal. In each of these domains, Singapore is either the world leader or one of two or three. Each of these policies is not just innovative but highly conducive to sustainability and environmental quality.

As an American, I am struck by the fact that many of the ideas and technologies underlying Singapore's innovations originated in the west, and often indeed in the US. But they have, in general, been far more difficult to implement in the west, and particularly in the US. The idea of congestion pricing, for example, was originated by an American, William Vickrey, who won the Nobel Prize largely for having done so. For political reasons, though, it has proven impossible to implement congestion pricing (except on a few stretches of privately managed expressway) anywhere in the US. My key point is that a fresh idea or invention becomes an innovation only when it is put into practice, and in this regard, Singapore is truly a world leader.

The US is terrific at generating ideas and private sector innovations, but generally a bit of a laggard among highly developed countries in public sector adoption. Where the US has innovated in public policy, on the other hand, it has most typically been as a result of bottom-up pressure. During the 1960s and 1970s, the US pioneered in the area of citizen participation and environmental protection. Mass motorisation was also a US (and partly urban) innovation, but like many other innovations of great importance for American cities, it was driven mainly by private business and consumer decisions. The government participated, but reactively: by investing in roads and urban renewal schemes to accommodate motorisation, and helping to finance new private housing attractive to the new auto-owning public. If we look back further, the US led the way in developing mass public education, likewise in response to strong grassroots pressures.

A fresh idea or invention becomes an innovation only when it is put into practice.

Some other important innovations in the US, not purely urban but of great urban significance, have involved a mix of public and private sector initiatives. Think, for example, of America's great non-profit universities, hospitals and cultural institutions, encouraged by the tax system and specific public grants but overwhelmingly the products of private initiative. Similarly, America led the way in the development of air transportation, with a mix of private entrepreneurship, public subsidies and infrastructure investments. More recently, it pioneered the Internet, which started as a public sector project but was later developed mainly by the private sector. We don't normally think of these as urban innovations, but they have had, and still have enormous impacts on urban development.

Does the Internet threaten the existence of cities?

Human interactions have moved into a different space where physical boundaries no longer exist. Everybody has been predicting for decades that cities would decline with the progress of telecommunications. In practice, however, cities are growing everywhere. In countries with lots of space relative to the population size, like the US, Canada and Australia, modern cities can be more spread out than those of yesteryear, but they are no less cities for that. Urbanisation is about opportunities for face-to-face interaction rather than specific spatial patterns, so as travel and communication speeds increase, land use densities can decrease significantly with little or no loss of agglomeration benefits.

As for communications specifically, the late Ithiel de Sola Pool, who was my colleague at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, discovered in the wake of the 1973 oil shock that when travel was curtailed, the volume of telecommunications fell as well. His conclusion: a great deal of telecommunications is about planning for trips and following up on them. It seems that communications and face-to-face interaction are complementary activities far more than alternatives. And this seems to be true of email as well. We phone and email most frequently those whom we also see a lot. With a falloff in face-to-face interaction, electronic communications tend to fall off as well. So there is no indication that the age of the city is passing.


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Alan Altshuler is the Ruth and Frank Stanton Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at Harvard University with a joint appointment in the John F. Kennedy School of Government. He has taught at Harvard since 1988 and was most recently Dean of the Graduate School of Design from July 2004 through December 2007. His research and teaching focus on the politics of decision-making about the built environment and transportation. His most recent book, co-authored with David Luberoff, is entitled Mega-Projects: The Changing Politics of Urban Public Investment (Brookings Institution Press, 2003).

This is an excerpt of an interview conducted on 18 February 2008 by June Gwee, Senior Researcher at the Centre for Governance and Leadership, Civil Service College Singapore, when Professor Altshuler was visiting the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

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