Aerial View of 2015 Urban Open Space Award finalist, Marina Bay. Photo courtesy of URA.

Aerial View of 2015 Urban Open Space Award finalist, Marina Bay. Photo courtesy of URA.

Singapore’s story of transformation is well known among urban planners, historians, and others interested in how cities can successfully embrace change. Since gaining independence first from the United Kingdom, and then from Malaysia in 1965, this island nation has gone from being a crowded, impoverished former colony where race riots broke out to a free-market powerhouse and a role model for efficiency, multiculturalism, and sustainable growth. Gleaming skyscrapers attest to its status as a global financial center, and the rule of law and order ensures stability and continuity. Diverse cultures coexist thanks to a high standard of living shared widely by the country’s 5.4 million residents.

Since independence, Singapore has had to be innovative and forward-thinking about its limited land and water resources. In the 1960s, its total area was only 226 square miles (582 sq km), making developable land scarce for a growing nation. Under the leadership of long-serving Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and the establishment of the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), Singapore began an aggressive campaign to acquire and reclaim land, including filling in coastal areas near what would become Marina Bay (a nominee for the 2015 ULI Urban Open Space Award) and the central business district (CBD). Singapore now measures roughly 277 square miles (718 sq km) and is expected to grow by another 40 square miles (100 sq km) by 2030.

The land reclamation effort that created Marina Bay began during the 1970s, when the URA, which as an agency is a member of ULI, was given more autonomy and flexibility within the central government. In 1971, the URA developed Singapore’s Concept Plan, a document that still governs national housing, transportation, and infrastructure planning and serves as a template for master plans for individual neighborhoods and districts. As Prime Minister Lee once said, “There’s a definite plan, and we stuck with the plan.”

Bay Fill to Vibrant Mixed-Use District Marina Bay now refers not only to the body of Marina Baywater itself, but also to a wider mixed-use development that includes hotels, entertainment venues, pedestrian-oriented public spaces, and other amenities the URA began developing in the mid-2000s after 2.2 square miles (3.6 sq km) of the bay was filled.

A waterfront promenade opens up views of and access to the bay as well as to the many water sporting events that Singapore hosts, like the 2015 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games and the F1 Powerboat Race. The Helix and Jubilee pedestrian bridges link the promenade to other parts of the CBD, and other spaces like an art and science museum, a promontory, and a “floating” sports arena provide recreational outlets to residents.

A major focal point is the Marina Bay Sands, a dramatic 55-story luxury hotel and resort developed and opened by the Las Vegas Sands Corporation in 2010. Fine dining and luxury retailers like Louis Vuitton and Bulgari add a measure of glitz to the hotel that also offers family-friendly choices, including the ArtScience Museum, fireworks celebrations, and venues that host Broadway musicals and concerts. The Sands SkyPark, a massive cantilevered platform with an observation deck, public spaces, and an infinity swimming pool that sits atop the hotel, offers dramatic 360-degree views of the city. The district is also well served by Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system and will be home to six additional MRT stations by 2018.

“Effectively, [Marina Bay] provided a much-needed boost to give the Singapore economy a second wind and propelled us into the ranks of global cities,” said Andrew David Fassam, senior director for urban planning at the URA. “History will judge how this effort stands among urban renewal projects of the 21st century, but it was certainly a great act of leadership and vision by the founding fathers of the city when they started planning this in the 1970s.”

The next step in the plan for Marina Bay is to stimulate residential development in an area called Marina South, next to the Gardens by the Bay, a major ecological attraction known for its vertical gardens and horticulture.

Diversifying Water Resources, Increasing Self-Reliance Another goal the government accomplished through Marina Bay was to create a new freshwater reservoir and source of drinking water for Singapore, which has always had to import water from Malaysia. The current water-sharing agreement between the two countries has been a source of tension. It will expire in 2061, and in anticipation of this date, Singapore has sought to expand its water catchment areas and its capacity for water treatment, thereby increasing its self-sufficiency when it comes to potable water.

In 2008, Singapore’s Public Utilities Board (PUB) built the Marina Barrage—a dam, in other words—to keep saltwater out of Marina Bay. Until this point, the bay had been an estuary, where the freshwater of the Singapore and Kallang rivers mixed with the saltwater of the Singapore Strait. The bay has been transformed into a freshwater reservoir and now accounts for 10 percent of the country’s water supply. In addition, the barrage serves as a flood control system by pumping water to surrounding reservoirs or the sea during heavy rainstorms and high tides. Sustainability experts have credited the barrage for helping Singapore mitigate sea-level rise and other impacts of climate change.

“The double land use of the reservoir—a recreational spot that also serves to improve the nation’s various water concerns—contributes to the appeal of infrastructure, which, in turn, helps facilitate a more informed connection between people and nature, particularly water’s essential and multifarious role in everyday life,” wrote Sylvia Schmid in a research brief on Marina Bay published by the University of Pennsylvania/Wharton School’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership. “The Marina Barrage will protect the bay and other nearby low-lying areas from sea-level rise and related consequences such as saltwater intrusion, and it also will maintain a steady supply of freshwater regardless of change in rainfall patterns.”

The Marina Bay district and Marina Barrage both illustrate the ingenuity with which Singapore’s planners have had to reconcile limited land and natural resources with a growing population.  “The starting point for Singapore is that we are a city built on an island with severe resource constraints,” Fassam said. “By necessity, we need to innovate to succeed.”