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Building Liveable Cities, Creating Conducive Living Environments

  Published: 10 July 2018
  Theme: Planning

With the world’s urban population slated to increase by nearly 60 percent between now and 2050, more cities will be challenged to provide good and affordable homes and vibrant neighbourhoods for their residents. Here’s a look at how four cities that are named Special Mentions in the 2018 Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize – Hamburg, Surabaya, Kazan and Tokyo – developed brownfields, improved informal settlements, updated estates and invested in infrastructure to stay ahead of their residents’ needs.


Hamburg's inner city densification strategy led to a more diversified neighbourhood. (Photo: Thomas Hampel / EBBE&FLUT)

By 2050, about 6.7 billion people will live in cities, up from 4.2 billion people now, according to the latest world urbanisation report by the United Nations (UN). In fact, one in eight people already lives in a megacity with more than 10 million inhabitants1.

“Many countries will face challenges in meeting the needs of their growing urban populations, including for housing, transportation, energy systems and other infrastructure […] To ensure that the benefits of urbanisation are fully shared and inclusive, policies to manage urban growth need to ensure access to infrastructure and social services for all,” said the UN.

In March 2018, four cities were honoured with a Special Mention2 in the latest edition of the biennial Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize for their efforts in these areas. The cities are Hamburg in Germany, Kazan in the Russian Federation, Surabaya in Indonesia and Tokyo in Japan.

While the cities are located in different parts of the world, they faced the same issues, including how to provide adequate and affordable housing for their growing population and vulnerable residents, and keep their neighbourhoods vibrant and liveable. Their success in meeting these challenges offers lessons for other cities.

Making the most of brownfields

In the early 1990s, the government of Hamburg saw an opportunity to provide more homes and facilities for the city’s growing population. While the port area south of the central River Elbe was built up, the areas on the north bank of the river were unused or underused because they were not suitable for container operations3.

In 1997, the government presented a plan to build a new city centre district on these areas, which spanned 157 hectares. The ongoing project, called HafenCity, will expand Hamburg’s city area by 40 percent, provide homes for more than 13,000 people and create up to 45,000 jobs when it is completed by 20254.

Beyond the scope of the project, the planners of HafenCity have been lauded for their policies to ensure that the district is sustainable, vibrant and socially equitable. For example, its buildings are being constructed at 7.5 metres to 8 metres above the mean sea level to prepare for climate change and higher flooding risks5.

The buildings’ ground floors are also mandated to be 5 metre-high to accommodate not only retailers but also exhibition areas, museums, theatres, cinemas, schools and universities6. “Building plots are not sold to the highest bidder. Prices are fixed… and the most convincing concept wins,” Ms Susanne Bühler, the project’s communications director, told The Financial Times7.

Furthermore, one-third of HafenCity’s homes will be subsidised housing8. This is in keeping with the government's policy9 that housing on state-owned land consists of one-third social housing, one-third rental apartments and one-third privately-funded housing.

“HafenCity has been honed through urban design competitions, open space competitions, zoning plans and architectural competitions. It is Europe’s largest innercity development project, and can serve as a blueprint for the development of a European city on the waterfront,” said the Hamburg government10.


A clean and green kampong neighbourhood in Surabaya. (Photo: City of Surabaya)

Improving on existing homes

While HafenCity is being built from scratch, the government of Surabaya in Indonesia took a different route to improve the lives of its citizens. In Surabaya, many people live in kampungs, which are informal, low-income housing areas. From the 1970s to 1990s, the government undertook an extensive Kampung Improvement Programme (KIP)11 to enhance the areas' basic infrastructure.

It built or improved 150 km of footpaths and 70 km of access roads while keeping vehicular roads to a minimum to deter middle-income households from moving into the kampungs and displacing the low-income residents. It also constructed 93 km of drains and 56 km of water pipes, including water standpipes that each serve 25 to 35 families, and 86 public bathing, washing and toilet facilities.

“The most immediate impression in walking into an improved kampung is its cleanliness and the abundance of planting. Trees, bushes and flowering plants line the street and adorn the front of houses… cooling the hot dry climate in these high-density settlements and cleaning dust and debris from the air,” said World Habitat, a British charity that promotes good housing practices, when it awarded the KIP a prize in 199211.

To improve the quality of life in the kampungs, the Surabaya government has also built about 1,500 public libraries, as well as sporting facilities, across the city. There are now also 1,900 free Wi-Fi spots where the residents can get access to the Internet and use online government services12. More recently, the government has started building more low-cost apartments13 for the city’s slum dwellers. It completed one block in 2017 and plans to add five blocks in 2018.


Tokyo's continuous investment in its public transportation system helped ensure the city's contemporary efficiency and success. (Photo: Tokyo Metropolitan Government)

Encouraging housing densification

In Tokyo, one of the keys to managing the impact of population growth has been an extensive and well-planned public transport system. In most parts of central Tokyo, it takes only five to 10 minutes on foot to reach the nearest train station, and the city’s train modal share within its 23 Special Wards is 48 percent, the highest in the world.

People can also commute to work from outside the city by using the Shinkansen highspeed rail system, so fewer highways are needed in Tokyo’s central business district, freeing up space for homes, offces and other land uses, said Mr Aaron Davis, a lecturer at the University of South Australia who has studied Japan’s infrastructure, in The CEO Magazine14.

In 2016, the Tokyo government unveiled a four-year Action Plan 202015  to improve the city’s safety, diversity and sustainability, ahead of its hosting of the Tokyo Summer Olympics 2020. This includes making more homes and neighbourhoods resistant to fires and earthquakes, for example by developing roads to serve as firebreaks in districts with close-set wooden houses.

The government also pledged to make the city more accessible to the elderly and people with disabilities, as part of its work to prepare for the Tokyo Summer Paralympics 2020. It has started to overhaul its subway system to make it more disabled-friendly16. “In 2025, we will be a super-aged society. Through the Paralympics, we want to make Tokyo a city which is accessible to all,” said Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike at a forum in 201617.


The Kazan Arena was built for the 2013 Summer Universiade and is part of the city's strategy to improve the quality of life through adoption of sports and a healthy lifestyle. (Photo: City of Kazan)

Partnering with businesses

Over the past 10 years, Kazan has seen a dramatic improvement in its citizens’ quality of life: the average lifespan increased by 9 years, birth rates rose by 2 times, abortion rates fell by 40 percent and crime rates decreased by 2 times.

The city’s government invested heavily in sports, medicine, nutrition, housing and family life to enable these accomplishments. For example, in 2015, it redeveloped the Kaban Lake’s embankments to create new recreational spaces, including cycling routes, for its residents18. A year later, in 2016, it rehabilitated the Lebyazhye Lake for the same purpose19.

Since 2005, the government has operated a Social Mortgage Programme where it provides housing by instalments on concessional terms to public sector workers, recipients of subsidies and housing certificates, citizens in need of urgent support and some other groups of residents.

It also has other programmes to make housing more affordable, including one that uses federal funds to improve housing conditions for certain categories of citizens, such as invalids suffering from diseases and displaced people. Another programme provides better housing for World War II veterans. In 2008, it also launched a 30-year programme to repair and upgrade existing homes. By 2017, it had renovated nearly half of the city’s houses20.

The government’s leadership has also fostered harmony among the city’s resident population, which is made up of about 50 percent orthodox Christians and 50 percent Muslims. For example, Muslim and orthodox clergy are present at all official events and official buildings are blessed by representatives from both groups21. As Kazan Mayor Ilsur Metshin wrote on his official website22: “We are a city of peace and tolerance.”


By Feng Zengkun

This article was first published in June 2018 on the Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize website. All images contained within this page are used with license and shall not be copied, modified, or reproduced.



1. https://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/

2. https://www.ura.gov.sg/-/media/Corporate/Media-Room/2018/Mar/pr18-14b.pdf

3. https://www.hafencity.com/en/overview/hafencity-the-genesis-of-an-idea.html

4. https://www.hafencity.com/upload/files/listitems/Fact_Sheet.pdf

5. https://www.hafencity.com/en/concepts/innovative-infrastructure-.html

6. https://thecityateyelevel.files.wordpress.com/2016/04/6-creatinglivability.pdf

7. https://www.ft.com/content/5dc98988-bb35-11e3-948c-00144feabdc0

8. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/18/business/global/a-bold-plan-long-thought-outto-remake-hamburg.html

9. https://www.clc.gov.sg/docs/default-source/urban-solutions/urb-sol-iss-9-pdfs/viewpoint-olaf-scholz.pdf?sfvrsn=fad88b6f_2

10. https://www.hafencity.com/en/overview/the-hafencity-project.html

11. https://www.world-habitat.org/world-habitat-awards/winners-and-finalists/thekampung-improvement-programme-surabaya/#award-content

12. http://jfac.jp/en/culture/features/f-ah-icf2017-trirismaharini/

13. https://en.tempo.co/read/news/2017/08/24/057902704/Surabaya-to-Move-Slum-Dwellers-to-Low-Cost-Apartments

14.  https://www.theceomagazine.com/business/innovation-technology/liveablemetropolis-transport-design-transforming-cities/

15.  http://www.metro.tokyo.jp/english/about/plan/index.html

16. https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/tokyo-works-to-boostawareness-on-disability-before-Paralympics

17. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/10/21/national/tokyo-governor-vows-use-2020-games-tackle-demands-graying-society/#.Wxl2eKl9jVo

18. http://archsovet.msk.ru/en/competitions/kaban-lake-systemembankments

19. https://metshin.ru/en/posts/16895

20. https://metshin.ru/en/posts/18845

21. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/28/world/europe/28iht-kazan.4.18239617.html

22. https://metshin.ru/en/personal/biography