Visualizing 42 Years of Explosive Urban Growth in Singapore

Over the last half century, East Asia has seen the most rapid urban growth of any region on Earth. In Singapore, a combination of effective government policy and access to social capital has enabled the country to become one of the most urbanized and sustainable cities in the world, meanwhile expanding outward, upward, and inward.

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Singapore skyline at night

Setting the Stage for Change

The post-World War II era brought with it a number of challenges around the globe. From cities leveled by warfare to rebuilding economies, every region on Earth began a period of growth that would ultimately redefine the concept of the modern city and society itself.

In East Asia, many countries began to seek their own destinies for the first time. Colonialism by nations such as Britain, France, The Netherlands, and Japan declined resulting in more localized power granted to nations and city-states like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

Singapore, by the 1960s, faced extreme economic struggles with both high unemployment (>10%) and underdeveloped infrastructure. Singapore enjoyed no financial backing from their former colonizer, Great Britain (unlike Hong Kong). It became apparent to leaders in Singapore that the city-state’s future rested in the hands of self-initiated development.

Fixing the Labor Crisis

Upon its inception, the very economic fabric of Singapore relied upon the activity of the East India Company. The city-state was an ideal natural harbor and provided one of the most important seaports in East Asia (and still does). After the EIC’s dissolution in 1874, the next 80 years brought a rotating door occupying powers including the UK and Japan as well as a temporary merger with Malaysia.

Though the small nation was a firmly established trade hub, it’s labor market for manufacturing and production was weak. As a result, a combination of government intervention and economic advising from the UN made Singapore a hot-spot for low-cost manufacturing for foreign firms.

Over the following years, Singapore’s GDP exploded while the unemployment rate dropped to just 3.5% by the 1980s. However, the vibrant economy produced a competitive labor market unable to sustain low wages for workers and cheap manufacturing.

Government leaders turned instead to promoting technological aptitude in its labor force. Throughout much of East Asia, nations were gearing themselves toward a tech-based economy. In 1981, the National Computer Board (NCB) was established to promote greater emphasis on computer and tech education in schools as well as enhanced IT training for laborers in Singapore. Additionally, the government, via the Economic Development Board (EDB), initiated a program of tax incentives for “pioneer companies” that created and sustained high-skilled jobs.

A Truly Modern City

Singapore’s economy and population continued to soar throughout the latter half of the 20th century. GDP rose from just $0.7 billion in 1960 to over $300 billion today. During that same period, population exploded from under 1.7 million to 5.5 million. Such rapid growth demanded modern infrastructure and effective urban expansion.

Map by Jesse Howe, Andy Thies, Braden Anderson, and Kevin Wickman

In 1971, a master plan for the city was implemented, focusing largely on developing the transportation infrastructure of the small island. From the 1960s to the 1980s, Singapore increased its miles of useable roadways fourfold (800km to over 3000km). Additionally, many expressways were developed to provide quick navigation throughout the city.

However, it wasn’t long before traffic congestion became an issue. National leaders responded by increasing taxes, registration fees, and duties placed upon personal automobiles as well as developing a modern public transit system. Today, a combination of buses and light rail in Singapore represent one of the more advanced public transit networks in the world.

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Singapore’s light rail provides the backbone to a modern transit infrastructure

The final piece to the puzzle was the attraction of foreign investors to Singapore. Through the proliferation of a highly-skilled workforce as well as modern infrastructure, the nation became perhaps the most vital urban center in Southeast Asia. Investors from all over world provided capital to utilize this ultra-modern city, resulting in growth both on the inside and outside.

Not only did Singapore manage to push its own economy past the threshold set by many other developed nations in Europe and North America, it enjoyed one of the most rapid and effective periods of urban expansion ever seen. The city expanded outwards but quickly found the need to build up. As the city continues to densify, Singapore has found itself under the spotlight for urban and sustainable innovation. Through green infrastructure and socially-conscious city planning (as well as a wealth of economic capital), Singapore has truly built itself into the model city of the 21st century.

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