SINGAPORE – A HIGH-DENSITY CITY WITH SPORTING CHARACTERS
Chapter 14: Towards creating a distinctive sporting lifestyle city identity
Singapore is a top-tier World City with a high marketability and recognisability factor. Thanks to its wealth creation, systematic city planning, educated labour force and excellent public transportation system, among other factors, the city has over the years consolidated its top position in a number of popularized international city rankings.
But business-minded Singapore is also an aspiring city, displaying an insatiable ambition of becoming a global model for almost every aspect of modern city living; hence, it frequently invites urban policymakers from all around the globe to its symposia addressing topics such as future-city-living, urban technology, compact city and quality of life.
Besides, Singapore has been zealously capitalizing on its domestic urban practices and technological systems by replicating its own city planning concepts in other parts of the world and by expanding its sphere of economic influence (Singapore always eyes global business and consultancy opportunities for its local ‘Smart City’ industries). Visitors to Chinese cities, in particular, could therefore be forgiven for thinking that Singapore very much resembles the modern cities in China. In fact, however, for decades now Singapore has been exporting its own established urban planning concepts to this emerging superpower, as outlined in numerous articles published in academic journals on urban planning – the ‘master planner‘ of Singapore himself, Lue Thai Ker, has been advising 30 Chinese cities.
There is no doubt that Singapore is proud of its own city evolution. And since boosting levels of liveability in densely populated cities is likely to emerge globally as one of the key city themes in the 21st century, Singapore is eager to position itself as a household name for city liveability, too. Yet given the rapidly growing global inter-city competition for urban innovation, prosperity and soft power reflection, creating a distinctive, recognisable and memorable city image will therefore be critical to the success of any city that aspires to be at the forefront of future-city-living.
Gardens By The Bay and Marina Bay Sands have become the ultimate icons of Singapore’s city branding.
As societies across the urbanized world are becoming wealthier, more knowledgeable and more attracted to physical achievements, health aspects and provision of sporting options could eventually play an ever more important role in the growing rivalry between cities over the best city living environment and urban leisure experience. For some unknown reasons, however, Singapore has failed to embrace the potential value of its own emerging urban sporting culture, which is largely absent from its city self-image and its future-city-liveability equation. This is regrettable.
Given the growing interest in individual health, leisure activities and sporting options among city dwellers worldwide, Singapore’s emerging sporting culture deserves to be established as a permanent component of its own future-city-living strategy. With the rise of its waterfront running culture, for instance, Singapore could seize the moment by manifesting itself as a sporting lifestyle hub that could become the envy of Asian cities. By publicizing the free-choice characteristic of its waterfront or CBD-running culture, Singapore could, at the same time, shrug off its paternalistic city image (especially in the Western world Singapore still carries the stigma of being an overregulated nanny state). (For more information on Singapore’s running culture, please read ‘Urban running cultivation’).
To be clear, Singapore is well-positioned to be at the forefront of defining sporting lifestyle in high-density city settings. The time has thus come for Singapore to sharpen its city profile and forge a new role by redefining its place branding. It should take advantage of the uniqueness of its sporting lifestyle evolution, which can be largely attributed to the long-term confluence of political decisions making, socio-economic development, cultural acceptance of sports activities and favourable meteorological aspects – as described in previous chapters. By incorporating these inseparably intertwined factors into its novel sporting lifestyle identity, Singapore could create an impressive city image that is unique in its core and a compelling city brand that could capture the world’s imagination.
This will require a long-term strategy that outlines a coherent and consistent vision of what a Singapore sporting culture city image should look like. To raise its profile, however, the city can not rest on its laurels – that is, its current provision of sports facilities and recreation space should merely be regarded as a solid base from which further diversification and expansion plans could be worked out. As suggested in the previous chapter ‘City Parks’, a handful of larger parks could, for instance, be selected and transformed into so-called Sporting City Parks. By concentrating various smaller outdoor sports grounds and sports facilities in designated sections of those nominated parks, the integrated sporting zones would give the rather monostructural city parks more of a multi-functional character.
Located along the south-eastern coast the large and multifunctional East Coast Park could potentially serve as a model for other cities.
But most importantly, a potential sporting culture city image would need to consist of features that are uniquely Singaporean. By incorporating culinary and tropical aspects into its urban sporting culture, for instance, such concept would reflect Singapore’s civic life and present a compelling narrative. In this way, its novel sporting lifestyle city brand could easily distinguish itself from other cities. These two truly Singaporean qualities of its city living could eventually become the most recognisable elements of Singapore’s sporting lifestyle identity, adding a distinctly Singaporean flavour to its emerging sporting culture and providing the tropical city with an edge in the international city competition for city liveability.
Like many other cities around the world, Singapore, too, has over the years gone to great lengths to rebrand itself. Although its chosen phrases and mottos have helped to strengthen its position in the city competition, they are barely original. For instance, fairly recently Singapore decided to ditch its 40-years-old (borrowed) tag of ‘Garden City’ for a new motto called ‘(A) City in a Garden’ (for nearly a century Garden City has been associated with the popular British urban planning concept of the same label, while the City in a Garden motto appears to have been copied from the City of Chicago). Of late Singapore has also implied that it seeks to become the first ‘Smart Nation’ – unfortunately, ‘smart’ has become a largely overused global catchword that typically refers to the implementation of new technology into city living. In contrast to all these labels, a novel sporting lifestyle identity would boost Singapore’s existing city image with the vital aspect of distinction.
Singapore is in an admirable position to create such distinctive and unique city identity or brand; for instance, thanks to its geographic location the city’s residents can virtually enjoy doing outdoor exercises all-year-round – with average after-sunset air temperatures of around 28°C the early and late evening hours are considered the best time for sporting activities (for more information on climate conditions in Singapore, please read ‘ “No choice” – Sporting in tropical climate’). Hence, this outdoor sports-facilitating aspect – that is, Singapore’s warm tropical climate – should be factored in when establishing Singapore’s novel sporting lifestyle city image. By incorporating tropical-style outdoor sporting options into its urban sporting culture, such as beach soccer, outdoor table tennis or beach volleyball, to name a few, the marketing element of ‘locality’ could also be applied. Such exploration of a new sporting terrain and the provision of diverse sporting choices that reflect its geographical, cultural and socio-economic characteristics would make this tropical World City more unique and competitive.
To some surprise, the word ‘tropical’ has never found its way into the city’s marketing jargon. Nor has the term ‘food’ been incorporated into its slogans – despite the fact that Singapore’s world-renowned food culture is a defining feature of the city’s social life (one could even argue that it is the main glue that binds all Singaporeans together).
“Makan” (“to eat”) at open-air hawker centres and air-conditioned food courts is the core societal activity in Singapore.
Providing a variety of food places across the entire city has long been an integral part of Singapore’s urban planning strategy, and they are usually open until late at night. Outdoors hawker centres – the open-air complexes consisting of many small food stalls – offer delicious, inexpensive Chinese-, Malay-, and Indian-Singaporean dishes: Hainanese Chicken Rice, Char Kway Teow, Nasi Lemak, Mee Siam, Rojak or Roti Prata certainly make the heart of any Singaporean beat faster. At social gatherings food is, by far, the most important topic of conversations, with locals regularly displaying their excitement in form of a compulsive and passionate communication style. And one of the most common phrases in Singlish, the colloquial Singaporean English, is “Makan already?” (“Have you eaten yet?”).
Clearly, food matters in Singapore. Thus it is important to acknowledge this crucial aspect of the city’s social life. It is therefore worth playing with the intriguing idea of introducing outdoor food places near sports complexes as well as on the edges of larger city parks (however, persuading the purists and horticulturists of the National Park Board of such park revitalisation plans would surely be a challenging task) (for more recommendations on Singapore’s parks, please read ‘City Parks’).
Another important element of Singapore’s high-quality city living is its extremely low crime rate: Singapore continuously leads the international city rankings in crime and safety criteria. According to the latest surveys conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit and by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Singapore is one of the safest places to live. With one of the lowest homicide rates per capita (0.2 per 100.000 population) in the world, bar the tiny state of Monaco in Europe, Singaporeans can, safely and without hesitation, utilize their city parks even after dark. And so they do. Thanks to the extensive lighting of the park trails after sunset, it is not unusual to see city dwellers jogging late at night. Given its excellent safety record (and warm temperatures at night), boosting the popularisation of a ‘Twilight Sporting Lifestyle’ could, too, be a prospective feature of Singapore’s new sporting lifestyle city identity.
Extremely low crime rate, tropical warm temperatures and long working hours are the main reasons why exercising after sunset in popular with local residents. Although a number of international sustainability groups are opposed to ’light pollution’ in cities, it needs to be emphasized that lighting up trails, parks and outdoor game courts is the key to boosting after-work sporting participation numbers in Singapore (and any other city in the world).
Again, Singapore must offer much more than just conventional urban planning development and provision of traditional sports facilities, if it aspires to make its emerging sporting culture recognizable beyond Singapore’s borders. It must not end up just repackaging existing ideas but looking out for genuinely new ones. One such urban vision and marketing strategy could be, as suggested above, a fusion of the three key local elements – tropical climate, excellent crime-safety record and popular outdoor food culture. By incorporating the city’s locality factor and by implementing these elements into the already existent tropical-style park design, for instance, the city parks could become unique identifiers of Singapore’s sporting culture.
For such vision to succeed, however, the government would need to demonstrate political will by setting out a defining, long-term strategy. And due to the complexity of creating a distinctive and unique sporting lifestyle city brand it would require a more concentrated collaboration among the various statutory boards of the Singapore Government – such as, the Housing and Development Board, Health Promotion Board, Land Transport Authority, National Park Board, Public Transport Council, Singapore Land Authority, Singapore Sports Council and Urban Redevelopment Authority.
The recognisability factor. Given its panoramic skyline, improved accessibility and growing status as an urban running hub, Singapore’s Marina Bay, for instance, has a great potential of being transformed into a unique sporting waterfront zone of global recognition and envy.
In all, Singapore has vast potential to become a global household name, point of reference as well as the world’s laboratory for sporting lifestyle in high-density urban settings. Its maturing urban sporting culture could inspire other cities; and subsequently, those cities would start incorporating the most suitable ideas and concepts into their own urban environments. That is, Singapore could be transformed into a Sportified World City, potentially projecting its features and policies across large parts of Asia. In the world of fierce city competition regarding urban liveability and in the rapidly emerging global era of personal investment in physical health and fitness, this City Sportification concept is an intriguing idea that could create yet another huge untapped potential for Singapore’s city image (for more information on Sportified World Cities, please read ‘The sporting clout of prime World Cities’).
But perhaps most importantly, at least for policymakers and investors in Singapore, an instantly recognisable sporting lifestyle hub could help outperform other Asian competitors in any future contest for one of the most significant trophies: human capital. After all, a powerful image of an outstanding urban sporting culture could give this top-tier World city a competitive edge over other cities in terms of potentially attracting globally-minded and highly-skilled residents (the magnetism factor). Thus it is imaginable that Singapore could, in the not-too-distant future, become the most desirable place in which to live, work, eat and exercise.
The growing popularity of recreational running events in Singapore may suggest that by offering local competitions in other sporting activities Singapore could raise its profile as a top sporting lifestyle city.
This report was first published in July 2016; updated in February 2017.
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