Sharing and walking to cities of tomorrow

Singapore's underground network of pedestrian walkways is an example of how city planners incorporate walkability into the urban fabric.

SINGAPORE - The future success of global cities depends on being able to maintain a competitive cluster of amenities, institutions, financial capital and human capital.

Not all cities will succeed in the 21st century. Cities without a diverse ecosystem and dependent on a single industry run the risk of being hollowed out.

A survey of high net worth individuals by Knight Frank about which cities will matter in 2023 shows a sharp increase in the expected importance of East Asian centres. While such forecasts should always be taken with a pinch of salt, no city in Latin America, Africa or South Asia is expected to join the list.

To play in the big league, large cities in these emerging regions will have to create the ecosystems that allow for mix-and-match dynamics in both social and economic spheres. As I argued in an article published on Thursday, people today mix and match work and life, working a range of hours that requires a dense network of amenities to be available round the clock and nearby.

Innovators mix and match ideas and technology. When such connections matter, cities thrive.

The mix-and-match economics of 21st century cities has important implications for the way we think of how urban centres will evolve over the next few decades.

The sharing economy

In the last century, access often meant individual ownership, but this is often not a practical solution when we are switching constantly between different things.

Not only is ownership expensive, it can also be onerous. After all, if I want to swim, I do not need to own a swimming pool, but only need access to one.

This same logic is now applied to more and more aspects of life. The oldest form of urban sharing is public goods such as parks, public transport, roads and drainage.

The idea of the "commons" now has to be expanded to include various forms of private sharing as well.

There are many manifestations of this. The rental bicycles that have proliferated in many cities are one example of this phenomenon.

Car-sharing too is gathering steam after many false starts.

Another example is peer-to-peer renting with people renting out everything from rooms to surfboards and boats.

In all these cases, information technology has been a key enabler by allowing for searching, matching, tracking, screening, payments and feedback.

Another manifestation of private sharing are closed "clubs".

This form of sharing is useful for activities where the product or service is best shared within a closed group. It shows up in social clubs, gated communities, condominiums with multiple amenities, and so on.

There has been a worldwide boom in condominium living.

Confounding tradition, young families now prefer to live in condominium apartments where children can access swimming pools, playgrounds and tennis courts within a secured environment.

Walkability

The regular cycles of 20th century life allowed us to rely heavily on one form of transport for most things (for many it was the car or a single form of public transport).

One of the consequences of today's mix-and-match way of living and working is that we need very different urban transport solutions through the day.

In the United States, we are seeing a sharp decline in the number of kilometres driven per capita every year. This is especially clear among younger people: Those between 16 and 34 years old drove 23 per cent fewer kilometres on average in 2009 than in 2001.

My recent discussions with the city managers of the world's most advanced cities (New York, London, Singapore and Hong Kong) suggest that walkability is perhaps the single most important dimension to next-generation urban planning.

Walking is the critical backbone that allows people to switch easily between other modes of transportation in a mix-and-match world.

Walkability is not merely about creating sidewalks. It requires a whole ecosystem that includes hardware such as sidewalks, over/under-bridges, signage, street lights and the clustering of amenities within walkable distances.

It also requires soft infrastructure such as safety, security and streetlife.

Moreover, walkability is not just about walking but about easy interconnections with other forms of transport such as buses, taxis, trains, bicyles and even cars.

Manhattan's High Line, Hong Kong's network of elevated walkways and Singapore's underground network are all examples of how urban planners are incorporating walkability into the urban fabric.

In the Global Walkability Index by Deutsche Bank and The Sustainable Planet Institute, a simple comparison of cities around the world found that some of the most successful cities are also very walkable.

Given the logic of mix-and-match economics, this should not be surprising because walkability is not just about transportation but about an urban landscape that allows for multi-tasking, random social interaction, urban buzz and so on.

Based on criteria such as pedestrian infrastructure, connectivity with other transport systems, the ecosystem of shops-offices-homes- streetlife, distance and safety, the Index found Zurich, Singapore and Hong Kong among the top five.

Ironically, large developing country cities like Bangalore and Johannesburg do poorly on this index even though a large proportion of their populations are too poor to own cars. This will be a major constraint to their future evolution.

But walkability is not always better in developed countries - American cities are generally less walkable than West European and developed Asian cities.

The writer is a global strategist for Deutsche Bank Markets Research in Singapore. This article is adapted from a longer analysis written for the bank.


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