Suzhou wins with clear skies, integrated population

Suzhou city Vice Mayor Xu Ming at a media conference held at URA Centre at Maxwell Road on 24 March 2014

Despite rapid industrialisation, the Chinese city of Suzhou has emerged with clear skies and an integrated migrant population.

Its municipal government's efforts have earned it the third Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize, which is awarded by Singapore's Urban Redevelopment Authority and the Centre for Liveable Cities.

Vice-Mayor Xu Ming said an influx of migrant workers - the result of Suzhou's move from an agrarian society to a technological and economic hub - has not put a strain on the city.

"The biggest problem in Suzhou is not space but whether we can assimilate non-native workers into modern life," he told a press conference on monday

Such workers are given the same benefits as locals - insurance and a minimum wage - resulting in better integration and greater social stability.

And while some Chinese cities suffocate in smog, Suzhou, located in Jiangsu province, boasts clean air and plenty of greenery.

"My predecessors envisioned a train system 20 years ago - we have two lines now, another three to come, reducing the need for cars," Mr Xu said.

"We've also restored paddy fields and ponds at Stone Lake, creating a popular waterfront that's free from factories. The air quality there is second to none."

The Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize honours outstanding contributions to the creation of vibrant, liveable and sustainable urban communities. Awarded every two years, the 2012 prize went to New York City while the Spanish city of Bilbao won in 2010.

Suzhou beat 35 other cities this year after two rounds of reviews by 12 high-profile panel members. They included dean for Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Kishore Mahbubani and Centre for Liveable Cities chairman Liu Thai Ker.

Suzhou's citation noted the remarkable transformation it has made over the last two decades.

Though the 2,500-year-old city benefited initially from Singapore's experience in the 1990s, when it set up the Suzhou Industrial Park, it has since put in place many initiatives independently to propel the city forward.

Its achievements include its successful transition to a service-oriented economy that has attracted many international businesses. It has also preserved Unesco-designated regions, like the Pingjiang Historic District, while continuing to let them serve as neighbourhoods.

The nominating committee chairman, Professor Mahbubani, described the city of 6.5 million people as "an inspiration for the many rapidly urbanising cities in China".

Dr Liu added that Singapore can learn from it.

"Suzhou has learnt to enhance her natural assets," he said. "Like her, Singapore has managed to preserve buildings relatively well, but we may want to look closely at how she manages her natural environment."

The prize - to be awarded in June - includes $300,000 in cash, which is sponsored by Keppel Corporation. On monday, the marine and property company announced it would extend its sponsorship until 2028. It pledged another $1.75 million, bringing its total input to $3.5 million.

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