The High Density Livability Question

Suzanne H. Crowhurst Lennard, Ph.D. (Arch.)

This diagram, suggesting that Singapore is one of the densest and one of the most livable cities in the world, has put the cat among the pigeons and stirred up a frenzied debate. But what does it really show? Firstly, what are they measuring along the “liveability” scale? Is it standard of living, or quality of life? How are the comparable city densities measured, and over what area? Density and high-rise are not the same. Are we supposed to deduce that Singapore, with its tight clusters of inter-connected 50+story high-rise residential towers, should be the model for all future cities desirous of livability? Should Singapore be awarded the crown as the most livable dense city in the world?

Photo: Singapore’s 50+ story Pinnacle at Duxton, the biggest public housing complex in the world, looms above earlier development.


In evaluating city livability, it is essential to distinguish between quality of life and standard of living. The report in which this graph appears - “10 Principles for Liveable High-rise Cities. Lessons from Singapore”  - conflates these concepts. Their “Liveability” index is based on Mercer’s 2012 “Quality of Living Survey”, produced for the benefit of multinational firms. It compares standard of living metrics such as “internal stability, law enforcement effectiveness, education, crime levels and the quality of health care”.   There is no doubt that standard of living for expats with multinational firms and most residents is extremely high in Singapore. Economic growth is the nation’s most important goal, and it has one of the highest per capita GDP in the world.

Quality of life, on the other hand, has to do with experienced sense of well-being. According to Argyle, it is the “immaterial aspects of the living situation like health, social relations or the quality of the natural environment.”[i] In Europe, quality of life would also include “the extent to which social cohesion is deepened, social exclusion is diminished, and social capital is grown.”[ii] While the European Commission has not abandoned the goal of increasing GDP, it also “wants an economy that is sustainable.”[iii]

IMCL’s definition of livability emphasizes factors that improve quality of everyday life for all, especially the more vulnerable. If a city is livable for children and elders, it is livable for all. Pedestrian and bike networks, safe streets, human scale mixed-use, 10-minute neighborhoods, and places to foster community are all important characteristics that improve health and well-being. Smart Growth and CNU planning and urban design principles are based on similar livability values.


Density is a very slippery concept. When density is measured over a very large metropolitan area (as for the purposes of this graph) that varies in size from city to city, it does not provide very meaningful data.

This graph compares Singapore’s metropolitan area of 710 square kilometers against Paris’ metropolitan area of 17,174 square kilometers, an area 24 times larger. In this way, Singapore’s population of 5 million+ yields a density of 7,130 inhabitants per square kilometer, while Paris’ density yields a mere 704 inhabitants per square kilometer.  However, if you compare the inner ring of Paris,  which has an area similar in size (657 km2) to Singapore, the density is 6,647 inhabitants per square kilometer (almost the same density). Within the 105 km2 of the City of Paris itself, density is 20,169 inhabitants per square kilometer.

Photo: Paris: human scale mixed-use generates safe, lively streets and a density of 20,169 inhabitants per square kilometer.

High-rise or human scale urban fabric

The real difference between Singapore and the European cities is that Singapore has embraced high-rise, 50+ story buildings with large footprint shopping malls, while European cities, for the most part, have maintained a human scale continuous urban fabric of 6-8 stories with a very fine textured street grid, and mix of uses.

These different planning principles reflect different value systems. High-rise provides investors and developers with the biggest return on investment when the economy is strong. Shopping malls and big box retail stores similarly offer large returns. These profits (demonstrating high GDP) go to wealthy investors, banks or multi-national corporations, often offshore.

Small footprint shops and apartments in a fine textured urban fabric yield smaller profits, spread out among many individuals and businesses in the community. Over centuries, this human scale urban fabric has proved to be adaptable to changing political and economic times, making the community resilient, and durable. The City of Paris, with buildings no taller than 100’, supports continuous retail along the street, making every neighborhood walkable.

As Patrick Condon explains, high-rise buildings are not the most ecologically sustainable form of construction. They are subject to the effects of too much sun and too much wind. All-glass skin high-rise buildings are inherently inefficient because glass provides minimal insulation.  Moreover, steel and concrete construction produces a lot of greenhouse gases. Michael Mehaffy explains more fully why high-rise seldom meets the high sustainability goals it's proponents claim.

Gifford’s comprehensive literature review of the impact of different forms of housing on social and mental health, which can be downloaded here  shows that high-rise living also has numerous negative health consequences, especially for children, stay-at-home mothers, and elders. “…the literature suggests that high-rises are less satisfactory than other housing forms for most people, that they are not optimal for children, that social relations are more impersonal and helping behavior is less than in other housing forms, that crime and fear of crime are greater, and that they may independently account for some suicides.”


Bateson pointed out that you cannot understand any action (or in this case, graph) if you do not understand the context. The diagram appears in the report “10 Principles for Liveable High-rise Cities. Lessons from Singapore” by the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC), an arm of the Singapore government, created in 2008. CLC’s purview is to conduct research, training and promotion. In this last capacity, they organize the extraordinarily well-funded biennial World Cities Summit in Singapore, to which I, as founder and director of the International Making Cities Livable Conferences (an independent organization founded in 1985) was invited to speak in 2010, along with Jan Gehl and many others.

The report, which can be downloaded from the Urban Land Institute’s Singapore website  shows how Singapore has developed. The graph justifies the high-rise route Singapore has taken.

It is also important to recognize the global political context of this report. Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister for 30 years and widely recognized as the founding father of modern Singapore, is desperate to have Singapore proclaimed the most livable city in the world. Singaporeans are acutely aware of the economic advantages this would bring, and the country is so small that they do not have many options for economic growth other than to increase their population, and hence their density. Thirty years ago, they chose to achieve high density using Modern planning principles and high-rise housing. Today, Singapore represents to the Asian world the high standard of living of the Western world.


What Singapore has achieved since 1965 is astonishing. Almost the whole population that used to live in sociable but primitive thatched-roof kampongs (villages) were moved first into 6-8 story apartment blocks, and later into high-rise towers. Standard of living is high, and every citizen is guaranteed the opportunity to own their own dwelling. However, many aspects of city livability that we in the US and in Europe consider essential are not well accommodated in the high-rise housing developments and office skyscrapers that constitute Singapore. Think of eyes on the street from 50+ story towers.

Singapore is an extremely safe city, but there are some signs of incipient social problems, such as the fact that young Singaporeans do not want to date. What does this say about a very basic aspect of social sustainability? In order to maintain their annual increase in GDP they must increase population through in-migration. This raises troubling ethnic divides and economic inequalities.

In order to ensure safety, the society is strictly controlled, but control inhibits creativity and innovation. The school system  and universities now actively try to address this by teaching creativity.

Spontaneity has not been valued in the past but the government is trying to change this situation for economic reasons. Do they understand its importance for individual well-being?

Also troubling is the mental well-being of children and youth. A report from 2007 found that “up to 17.2% of primary school children in Singapore have symptoms of depression”[iv] In the US in 2008, there was an 8.3% prevalence of major depression among 12-17 year olds.

The website The Asian Parent reported in September 2012: “In a study of over 600 children aged between 6-12 in Singapore, researches found that 22% indicated that they wanted to kill themselves or had harboured thoughts of killing themselves”. In the US, a 1984 study[vi] showed that “about 12% of elementary school children admit to suicidal ideas, threats, or attempts”.

The way in which Singapore has developed has made it unfriendly to children. Multi-lane highways and huge volumes of traffic force pedestrians into underground commercial mazes that spread their tentacles from subway stations to office complexes and shopping malls. Many Singaporeans find the underground air conditioned world more practical and more comfortable than the hot, humid and polluted outdoor world. This is a safe, controlled and commerce-oriented environment, not a child-friendly environment.

Photo: Singapore’s protected historic mixed use at Duxton Hill

Singapore has protected some fragments of the historic urban fabric (Little India, Duxton Hill/Tanjong Pagar, Kampong Glam, Chinatown) that have become popular tourist destinations, but in the new developments there are few multi-functional public places hospitable for all ages (as there were in the kampongs). The extremely functional planning of the high-rise housing areas leaves little opportunity for children to discover hidden “left-over” corners, or intriguing, beautiful and unusual building details. It does not encourage children to develop independence, to spontaneously take possession of their environment, or to love their neighborhood.

The government energetically explores ways to make the city more livable. While in Singapore, I was interviewed for the Straits Times on the question of how to make the city more child-friendly. But not everything can be done with economic and technological solutions. The essence of childhood is play. Spontaneous play and interaction with everything we encounter (objects, words, concepts, and with other people) is how we learn about the world, how we become creative and resilient, how we experience pleasure and how we learn to love our world. As children, we must be able to explore and become independent, play with and change our built and natural world, and interact with a community of people of all ages in a safe and hospitable public realm. As mentioned above, high-rise housing, even if it is better in Singapore than in other parts of the world, does not provide a hospitable context for child development.

Values in city-making

Because of their rich heritage of medieval cities built at a pedestrian scale on principles of democratic engagement, most European cities embody quality of life. As Jeremy Rifkin observed, the European Dream “emphasizes community relationships over individual autonomy, cultural diversity over assimilation, quality of life over the accumulation of wealth, sustainable development over unlimited material growth, deep play over unrelenting toil, universal human rights and the rights of nature over property rights, and global cooperation over the unilateral exercise of power.”[vii]

Singapore’s development since 1965 embodies the principles of economic growth and standard of living. In a speech to the legislature, 19 July 2010, Singapore’s Nominated Member of Parliament Viswa Sadasivan drew a clear distinction between standard of living and quality of life:

“While one cannot dispute the correlation between economic growth and standard of living, the GDP was never meant to measure the well-being of people… social and environmental factors such as work-life balance, job satisfaction and happiness have been proved to be essential – especially in developed societies – for economic sustainability…”

Sadasivan proposed that “Economic growth and general well being must be seen as equally important societal goals.” He called for the government to develop indices to measure productivity and job-satisfaction, household consumption, income distribution, welfare, and quality of life and general well-being. This drew strong criticism from Lee Kuan Yu. While Sadasivan’s report was accepted in a watered down form by the Parliament, he unfortunately decided in 2011 not to stand for reelection, so his proposal may be short-lived. The appearance of the Singapore report would seem to indicate that quality of life may continue to receive short shrift in Singapore’s planning and rapid growth. For the sake of the Singaporeans, I hope I am wrong. No city can afford to overvalue standard of living and undervalue quality of life if they want to be socially sustainable.

[i] Argyle, M. “Subjective Well-Being.” In Offer, A. In Pursuit of the Quality of Life. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. January 1997. Pp. 18-45.

[ii] Rifkin, Jeremy. The European Dream. 2004. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin. pp. 82

[iii] ibid

[iv] Woo, et. al. "Emotional and Behavioural Problems in Singaporean Children based on Parent, Teacher and Child Reports" Singapore Med J. 2007 Dec: 48(12):1100-6. accessed Feb 9, 2013

[v] Poli, P. et al. Self-reported depressive symptoms in a school sample of Italian children and adolescents. Child Psychiatry Hum Dev. 2003 Spring;33(3):209-26.

[vi] Pfeffer CR , Zuckerman S , Plutchik R , Mizruchi MS . Suicidal behavior in normal school children: a comparison with child psychiatric inpatients. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry. 1984;23:416–423

[vii] Rifkin, op cit. p. 3