Can the Singapore experience help cities achieve the SDGs?

"The First Generation", the famed sculpture by Singaporean artist Chong Fah Cheong along the Singapore River. A new joint project with the United Nations will work to bring liveability lessons from the city-state's urbanization process to secondary cities around the world. (Drriss & Marrionn/Flickr/cc)

NAIROBI — The death last month of Lee Kuan Yew, the founding prime minister of Singapore, was not only a loss for the Southeast Asian country but also for worldwide advocates for liveable cities. Lee’s leadership transformed a mid-20th-century postcolonial city of 1.6 million, two-thirds of the residents of which had been living as squatters in informal settlements, into a 21st-century city-state of 5.5 million with no homeless, no slums and 90 percent homeownership.

That was the message from Julian Goh, acting director of the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC), a Singapore-based think tank founded in 2008 whose goal is to share the city-state’s story with the world. The CLC’s lessons will now reach another 100 cities as a result of a partnership with UN-Habitat announced on 14 April at PrepCom 2 called Planning and Leading Change in Cities: A Capacity Development Programme to Support Achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

The government of Singapore has put up several million dollars to support the initiative. It also will provide a five-day residential executive development programme hosted by CLC in the Garden City, coupled with a year-long joint follow-up by CLC and UN-Habitat.

Aiming to reach 100 secondary cities by 2021, the capacity-building programme will support urban areas as they plan, innovate and implement projects that catalyze change. Mindful of the ongoing international discussions that aim to end in September, the programme will particularly try to provide clarity on the Sustainable Development Goals — and how to achieve them. That includes Goal 11, the proposed urban SDG.

Planning and Leading Change in Cities will assist city administrators in their understanding of financing sources and models for project execution. It will also provide ongoing monitoring and feedback with an eye to future improvements.

Aisa Kirabo Kacyira, UN-Habitat’s deputy executive director and an ex-mayor of Kigali, Rwanda, praised the initiative. “I am a former mayor but still a student,” she said. “Habitat II was the foundation for connecting the U. N. system with local government,” she added, referring to the 1996 City Summit and the precursor to next year’s Habitat III conference.

The new project completes something of a full circle for Singapore, which benefitted greatly from international capacity-building during its formative years. As Goh noted, the United Nations Development Programme’s economic advisers stayed on in the country for 20 years.

Bilateral assistance also played a key role. Japanese consultants, for instance, provided important input on quality control as Singapore industrialized. And the German government assisted the country’s Urban Redevelopment Authority in drafting a 1971 plan that laid out the blueprint for modern Singapore.

The CLC anticipates rolling out the new programme’s pilot projects later this year in 20 secondary cities throughout Asia. Four training programmes will follow from 2016 to 2018, targeting secondary cities in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa, as well as Asia. The remaining five training programs will take place from 2018 to 2021, with priority going to cities undergoing rapid urbanization and facing challenges related to the soon-to-be adopted SDGs.

This year will be a busy one for the CLC as it hosts the World Cities Summit Mayors Forum in New York City on 8-10 June and then the World Cities Summit in Singapore on 14-16 July of 2016. The organization also recently began accepting nominations for the fourth Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize, which it administers. In the past, the prize has been given to the Bilbao City Hall (2010), the City of New York (2012) and the City of Suzhou, in China’s Jiangsu province (2014).

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