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Singapore: Sporting Central Planning

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Special Report:


Chapter 1:  Central planning of an emerging urban sporting culture


Singapore, a sovereign city-state located in South-East Asia, is widely known for its modernity, economic clout, rapidly growing prosperity, cleanliness and delightful local cuisine. Also, it regularly tops the lists of various city rankings, outperforming many other developed cities in business-friendliness, socio-political stability, personal safety, public transportation and education.

In recent years this island of 5.5m inhabitants has furthermore positioned itself as a credible expert on contemporary city living, with its government not shying away from boasting about its prowess in compact city planning and promoting its high-density, high-rise urban planning concept to other emerging cities.


Singapore is a high-density city: urban densities of its residential districts match the levels observed in other high-density cities in the developed world

While densely populated cities around the world typically lack sufficient recreational space and sporting amenities for public use, Singapore appears to have found the right balance between creating a high-density urban landscape and incorporating sporting and leisure facilities into its urban setting. As a result, this top-tier World City has experienced an evolution of its urban sporting culture over the past three decades. The latest available official figures on participation in sports and exercise reveal that 54 per cent of Singapore residents engage in regular physical activity (at least once a week), while 26 per cent of residents participate in sporting activities at least three times a week – compared to merely 8 per cent in 1992. Participation in competitive local events, in particular running events, has also surged in the past 5 years, implying increased societal interest in health, body image and performance assessment.

The emergence of this vibrant sporting culture in this high-density urban landscape is an extraordinary achievement, suggesting that Singapore’s progressive city-planning concepts have, to large extent, laid the foundation on the ground for the city’s noteworthy active and sporting lifestyle popularity levels. For this reason, the city’s urban development deserves a brief historical introduction.


For decades the provision of sporting facilities and recreation space has been one of the key urban planning policies in Singapore.

The origins of Singapore’s modern land-use planning can be traced back to the 1960s and 1970s periods, during which the provision of sporting facilities and green spaces for recreational purposes was instigated as one of the permanent elements of Singapore’s pivotal city planning strategy. After gaining independence in 1965 the re-elected government began tackling the city-state’s escalating socio-demographic challenges – such as rise in population and unsanitary housing conditions in over-crowded central areas – by initiating the much-needed major overhaul of its largely outdated British colonial city layout.

In the late 1960s the Singapore government and an international expert team affiliated with the United Nations eventually developed the first city plan, which recommended the creation of residential ‘satellite cities’ across the island. Judging by those past urban planning concepts and the following master plans, this urban development strategy appears to have been largely inspired by the New Town Movement – a highly fashionable urban planning concept in the 1960s and 1970s that merged the Socialist City planning model with the rather contrasting principles of Garden Cities.

And to this day, the key elements of this ‘New Town’ concept have continued to be emulated in Singapore’s urban planning strategies. For one, the city’s centralised large-scale residential development, uniformity of its urban design, abundance of egalitarian mass-produced public housing flats and the rigid standardization of living space are all features of the Socialist City model (this used to be the urban concept of choice for primarily communist-ruled Eastern European countries during the post World War II urban reconstruction period).

By contrast, Singapore’s successful decentralisation of its erstwhile over-crowded inner-city living areas, its rigid separation of residential and industrial sectors and the formation of clusters of physically separated ‘satellite cities’ encircling the city centre clearly demonstrate Ebenezer Howard’s principles of Garden Cities – an urban planning concept that originated in the United Kingdom.


Singapore’s path towards high-density, high-rise urban development began in the late 1960s.


The uniformity of urban design. The fairly recently established district of Punggol demonstrates this key aspect of the Socialist City urban planning concept.


Construction sites are permanent urban features of Singapore. Older public housing flats get demolished on regular basis, making space for either high-rise residential blocks of higher quality or commercial complexes.

In merging these two urban planning concepts, Socialist City and Garden Cities, Singapore has created largely self-sufficient population centres consisting of high-rise public housing flats. These so-called New Towns (or just Towns) follow a standardized land-use distribution formula, guaranteeing the provision of almost identical sports and recreational facilities in every Town of this city-state – again, this is a key characteristic of the Socialist City urban planning concept. And according to an academic paper by Brian Field and James Smith, published in 1986, in Singapore rigid land-use quotas for sporting amenities apply to all Towns – which account for 3% of the entire area of a Town.

Singapore’s public urban parks, on the other hand, have been developed in the tradition of the British Garden Cities planning concept. While the smaller neighbourhood parks are integrated into residential areas, the larger city parks regularly serve as buffer zones between high-rise public housing estates.

The growing popularity of this government-initiated sporting infrastructure and the provision of public green space may suggest that the top-down approach is crucial to delivering a public good and to facilitating the emergence of an urban sporting culture – as outlined in Sportify Cities – Guidelines & Strategies ‘Forming a Global Strategy for Sporting Lifestyle Cities: A Conceptual City Framework’. For this reason, the utilization of the city’s public space and its egalitarian planning concept will be analyzed and discussed throughout much of this special report on Singapore’s sporting lifestyle evolution.


Since the 1970s provision of green space has been a key urban aspect of Singapore’s urban development.


The Bukit Panjang Park is a mid-sized park area that is embedded into the high-density, high-rise residential district of Bukit Panjang.


Large-sized parkland areas, such as the Sengkang Riverside Park, typically serve as buffer zones that physically separate Singapore’s residential districts.

>> READ next chapter “Sporting the HDB-nation”

This report was first published in July 2016; latest update in December 2017.

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