Rethinking Sustainable Urban Governance

In conversation with ETHOS, Anupam Yog argues for a reframing of how we define, measure and pursue the way we build our cities to ensure the long term, whole-of-life wellbeing of our people.

Rethinking Sustainable UG_banner-teaser

Date Posted

24 Nov 2022


Digital Issue 9, 24 Nov 2022

The Relationship between Sustainability and Urbanisation

My two decades of work in the field has led me to believe that urbanisation, along with globalisation, is one of the two major forces of our time, and one that hasn’t really been investigated as much as it perhaps ought to be. While globalisation can appear to be waning, the reality is that we are an interconnected species, through our cities, in which more than half of humanity lives. Sustainability is not something that can be looked at independent of cities, and we need to look at the relationship between the two. So, we really must understand the idea of the city, and the way a city is governed, which decides the arrangements that influence our day-to-day behaviours. I see several driving forces that will become important.

First the interaction between urbanisation and financialisation will be a critical one in the next two decades, as we try and establish some sort of sense on how to pay for the creation of complex urban systems, which traditional finance doesn’t address meaningfully. Many urban projects, such as transport systems, tend to operate or be created over decades, so you need to really have much greater innovation in the way we are thinking about financing development.

Another factor is politicisation, which is ultimately a force that we must reckon with and not think of it as something that we would rather not concern ourselves with. We will need newer forms of arrangements between different stakeholders, institutions, communities within human society in an urban context.

The scientification of cities is also an important current trend. Data is becoming more pervasive. We observe, we measure, we define, we hypothesise, we create some theories that become the basis of work that we then carry out.

The final element that I hope will rapidly take hold is humanisation, because ultimately all this work in urban development is about us humans as a species. This is a force that must be the glue bringing everything together, so that ultimately all these systems are in service of humanity.

Sustainability is not something that can be looked at independent of cities, and we need to look at the relationship between the two.

Measuring and Tracking Urban Sustainability

Sustainability and urban governance are intrinsically linked. And the rise of urban indices and rankings in the past 30 to 40 years is in response to demand from a variety of stakeholders, particularly governments, to better understand our day-to-day life in our cities, and offer insight into issues that governments must respond to in a more coordinated way.

One strength and limitation of such measures is that they frame issues to numerical terms, which can make them easier to digest but can also be reductive. There is also a lack of standards, although the scientific community has been working on this. Another challenge is that many of these rankings are based on other rankings. Many are published by media or consulting organisations. We may therefore be consuming stories based on data which may not be well-informed, or that may be biased.

What we therefore need is an informed consumer base that can absorb, critically analyse, and respond to these measures. And this is where the government can concern itself with helping to educate the community and create appropriate standards to work from.

As an urban species, we need to have that capacity to recognise that the way our cities are designed, built, and operated has a very dramatic impact on our lives.

As an urban species, we need to recognise that the way our cities are designed, built, and operated has a very dramatic impact on our lives.

Singapore as a Knowledge Leader and Hub

One of the reasons why Singapore is a benchmark city for the world is because it is very familiar with scarcity and the need to think carefully about resource utilisation, innovation and creativity as a result. What is also interesting about Singapore is its own appreciation of the interdependency, interdisciplinary nature of all these issues.

I think Singapore perhaps needs to push itself further in this regard. It can become the benchmark for sustainability in the world, recognising its potential role in an interdependent global community of cities. The reality is that we must be pragmatic about pursuing goals such as Net Zero, based on well-founded scientific agreement, and as an interconnected urban species we can do better in this regard.

Singapore could contribute to developing credible measures, founded on scientific agreement, to look at sustainable urban development, not just for itself but for other cities around the world—because ultimately we live in an interconnected system. This will require cooperative mechanisms, connections and exchanges, and networks. And any continuous inquiry of this scale can only be undertaken through a larger investment.

Singapore’s own university system offers a tactical opportunity to do so, but it would require its combined capacity and be set up in a way that allows the whole city to become a lab. As a national framework evolves, it can help other nations begin to think about national policies and frameworks in term. Just because other cities have a different context or more complex system doesn’t mean they can’t learn from one another. There are only a few places in the world that could agglomerate scholarship, thinking and practice in this regard, and Singapore is one of them.

Singapore’s Green Plan for example, is a very important signalling of intentions. I compare it to the re-envisioning of urban transport in the 1970s, or even the creation of the Housing & Development Board (HDB), which were important long-term investments in strategy or policy. Singapore is obviously at a very different stage of its own development now, and operates within an Asian context, which is a unique position.

The next decade would be well spent in generously and intentionally funding and empowering a diversity of both traditional and non-traditional stakeholders, both within and beyond academia, to concern themselves with definitions, standards and unique experiments, and hypothesis to do with sustainable urban development and governance: to dramatically step up the effort of what is currently happening in Asia right now.

It is fine if some efforts overlap. While it could create a messy situation, it can also lead to a deeper understanding of who does what best. You do want to have many different approaches, not just one super index but many indices and also stories. We can work towards having a network of urban observatories that could be funded by some of these countries or cities themselves in order to gather stories: not just successful cases, but also what has not worked.

And there are many places where we don’t naturally go to look for examples of innovation. We need to look at and understand what is happening at very local scales where communities have figured out innovative ways to operate in a meaningful way and bring these to the forefront.

The wealth of a city lies in the development, maintenance, and equitable use of its public spaces that are created for the many, not just the few.

Finding New Insights in Unexplored Connections

In my view, the best cities try to capture people-led insights. Most of the data sources these rely on are public data that people influence: things like Tripadvisor or reviews, as a qualitative view of how people feel about a place. But I haven’t seen indices that tap into the question, going beyond financial indicators, of what is the wealth of a city? I believe the wealth of a city lies in the development, maintenance, and equitable use of its public spaces that are created for the many, not just the few: a city’s parks, trees, libraries, museums, schools, hospitals, even its transport systems. The wealth of a city in this sense is something that could be defined in a measurable way: a new standard could be created, to support an entirely new dialogue about what future cities ought to look like.

Another area to look at involves the relationship between the built environment and our mental health. We know intuitively that there is a connection but I would like to be able to unpack and start to measure it. I believe we can create more responsive cities, not reactive cities, which is what most cities are at the moment. To this end, I am exploring a Conscious Cities Index. I am working with the non-profit World Urban Parks to explore the opportunity that urban parks afford people to improve or sustain their health from a preventive standpoint. More broadly, the notion of a conscious city is one in which people can live optimally. Cities should become places where people flourish, rather than the impression of being places that induce stress. We need to find a new narrative that doesn’t involve retreating from the city in order to find health. We have to be responsive enough to offer the needed retreat within a city.

Cities are after all where people do gather, which contributes to social wellbeing and close cooperation, which ultimately also leads to invention and other forms of resourcefulness. But they can also become places of stress and disease. Singapore, with a rapidly ageing population , offers an interesting opportunity to re-envision the city as a healthy, equitable place for all. We must think of this in terms of the full life cycle, from 0 to 100, and not just focus on labels such as the age when a person is economically productive, and after which they retire. We must look at human productivity from a different lens.

Cities must become places that go beyond the notion of economic productivity or talent attraction, to offer something that is whole-of-life, and which caters to different people, with multiple centres and hubs of activity and mixed uses. This is where the world needs to go.

Cities must become places that go beyond the notion of economic productivity or talent attraction, to offer something that is whole-of-life, and which caters to different people.

The Challenge for Policymakers

There are two challenges facing us in pursuing these goals of sustainability in urbanisation. One is around governance and the other is around financing, and it’s to do with the lack of options in both areas. So, we need far more creative options.

I think the notion of government needs to become more expansive. We need to involve more and more people, and communities and institutions in the business of governance. That is exactly the kind of conversation we need to be having at all levels, as active participants, holding ourselves accountable to the roles we all play. We are not just mere observers.

We need far more experimentation going, in the sense newer arrangements, which in turn comes the issue of financing. So, that’s the other challenge.

We do need to go beyond notions or value that business schools have taught us. There is value in those models and disciplines, but we need to be aware that they serve the purposes of corporate shareholders and not necessarily serve societal stakeholders. So, we need to concern ourselves with economic and financial arrangements, and we need to be more creative and innovative from an urban sustainability lens, creating new instruments, institutions, and many more banks. For example, we need community banks, neighbourhood banks, green banks that bring together both message and ability to deliver to their neighbourhoods and communities. All enterprise should concern themselves with social goals. And everybody needs to be contributing to Net Zero.

If I look at the obsession with the metaverse, I really wonder whether we are spending limited mind space on the right things. Yes, perhaps the digital realm could be more sustainable and require less physical space and materials, but on the other hand, what impact might it have on our mental, emotional, and social health? So even though it may seem like a shortcut to sustainability, I think we need to concern ourselves with real things, the real economy.

Policymakers in many ways sit on top of the social value chain, which means that all the more they need to adhere to whatever it is that we hold most dear as a human being. One of the key skills that is needed is to practise human compassion. In the design world for instance, empathy has become a well-regarded skill over the past decades.

But we must go beyond empathy to compassion. Compassion is taking action, it’s building on empathy, putting yourself in the shoes of fellow human beings, suffering along with them and taking some action to help.

Perhaps Singapore’s future brand should embrace the notion of compassion: going beyond Passion Made Possible, to realise compassion made possible.

Singapore, with a rapidly ageing population, offers an interesting opportunity to re-envision the city as a healthy, equitable place for all.


Anupam Yog is a pragmatic urbanist, researcher and creative strategist. Through his research and advocacy on placemaking for healthy cities, he seeks to develop a "Conscious Cities Index", which explores the connection between community well-being and a city's urban design. He has held leadership roles and senior management appointments in Real Estate, Consulting, Technology, Higher Education and Social Impact organisations.


Back to ETHOS homepage