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Indonesia and Egypt Full Steam Ahead on Urban Planning Relocation Strategy

NUS Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Senior Lecturer Dr Woo Jun Jie discusses Singapore’s urban planning strategies in light of the new capital cities currently under construction in Indonesia and Egypt.

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NUS Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Senior Lecturer Dr Woo Jun Jie discusses Singapore’s urban planning mitigation against congestion strategies in light of the new capital cities currently under construction in Indonesia and Egypt.

Byline Woo Jun Jie

In both Egypt and Indonesia, new cities are being built from scratch to house their respective governments’ administrative capitals. This invites the question, what were the driving factors to build new cities and relocate their capital? Why are some of our existing cities no longer functioning well?

Indonesia’s next President, the Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto has confirmed the country’s ambitious plan to relocate its capital from Jakarta to Nusantara by Q3 2024.  

Similarly, the re-election of Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi late 2023 served as a catalyst for the country’s ongoing efforts to relocate its capital from Cairo to what is known as the New Administrative Capital.

In 2011, Harvard-based urban economist Edward Glaeser wrote a provocative book entitled The Triumph of the City. The gist of his argument is encapsulated in the book’s lengthy subtitle: How our greatest invention makes us richer, smarter, greener, healthier, and happier.

Beginning with the work of Jane Jacobs in the 1960s, urban thinkers have long extolled the virtues of urban living and predicted the dominance of the city as spaces for human habitation.

Fast forward to 2024, and it is safe to say that the prevalence of the city as both concept and practice has exceeded the expectations of most urbanists. But so have the challenges associated with urban living.

According to the United Nations, about two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. But this may not necessarily mean that everyone is becoming richer, smarter, greener, healthier or perhaps most importantly, happier.

Heightened urbanisation has exacerbated traffic congestion in many major cities. To make things worse, some of these cities are also sinking, whether due to rising sea levels, excessive pumping of groundwater or the growing weight of taller and more buildings in rapidly expanding cities. In many instances, it is the combination of all three factors.

One such city is Jakarta, which is estimated to be sinking at the rate of about 10cm per year. This is due to the rapid urbanisation that it has experienced over the past few decades.

Faced with a dwindling set of flood-mitigation tools – coastal and storm walls have done little to prevent the persistent flooding that comes with a sinking city – outgoing Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced in 2019 that it would develop a new city called Nusantara in East Kalimantan, Borneo, and relocate the capital there.

Construction of the 466 trillion rupiah (USD 30 billion) Nusantara began in 2022 and the government aims to relocate up to 1.9 million people to the new city when fully completed in 2045.

The first phase, comprising the palace’s construction, a few ministries and basic infrastructures such as roads and housing, is scheduled for completion this year, and Indonesia plans to hold its 79th Independence Day celebration in Nusantara on 17 August 2024.

Importantly, Nusantara’s planners are aiming to make the 260,000-hectare city greener by primarily using renewable energy. It is expected that 75 per cent of the new capital will comprise forests and green areas.

Similarly, Egypt’s 70,000-hectare New Administrative Capital is being built on an expanse of desert located to the east of Cairo. Construction began in 2016, and government ministries have already started moving into the new city. It is expected to house 6.5 million people when fully completed in 2030.

The development of the New Administrative Capital was prompted by the congestion and pollution that Cairo had been experiencing, brought about by Egypt’s rapidly growing population.

Similar to Nusantara, the New Administrative Capital is expected to be powered by renewable energy and comprise green features throughout the city.

In both Cairo and Jakarta, it is clear that there are limits to a city’s ability to absorb growing numbers of inhabitants and infrastructure. At the same time, cities by their very nature are highly attractive to people seeking jobs, opportunities and vibrant living environments.

Paradoxically, the very thing that makes cities thrive – urban density – is also the very same thing that will eventually endanger it. How can cities square this circle?

In both Indonesia and Egypt, the authorities have chosen to build new cities in response to the saturation of their existing capital cities’ capacity to absorb more people and house more urban infrastructure.

But what about cities that do not enjoy the luxury of space? Cities such as island-state Singapore?

With 5.9 million inhabitants living, working and playing within a land area of approximately 734 sq km, Singapore ranks among the world’s most densely populated cities.

Yet Singapore has managed to avoid the traffic congestion or severe space crunch that have plagued many other densely populated cities. To be sure, Singapore also faces pressures such as heightened density in its city centre, and peak hour congestion on its various modes of transport.

Unlike Indonesia and Egypt however, the island nation of Singapore is not able to relocate its city centre or administrative centre to a brand-new site. Rather, Singapore has had to find innovative ways to (re)create new spaces to cater to our growing land-use needs.

This began with efforts to decentralise the central business district by creating satellite commercial hubs such as Changi Business Park, Jurong Lake District and the upcoming Woodlands Regional Centre. By distributing businesses across the island, the plan was to reduce traffic congestion in and around the city by bringing jobs closer to homes.

Complementing these efforts is a deliberate shift towards mixed-use developments that integrate homes, offices and retail spaces within the same building, often situated above an MRT station. These developments help maximise land use by incorporating a commercial and residential spaces within the same plot of land.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority is taking this concept a step further by introducing the concept of ‘vertical zoning’, which involves creating buildings that house clean industrial activities on lower floors, co-working spaces on middle floors and residential apartments on higher floors.

Hence rather than relocating entire urban ecosystems and networks, we have chosen to distribute these more evenly across our island through intentional efforts to redesign, redevelop and intensify our towns and neighbourhoods. This will ideally help us to reimagine how the needs of residents, businesses and the government can be integrated within the same urban confines.

Yet even as Singapore continues to redesign and renew its urban spaces to deal with emerging land-use needs, observers have also pointed out a need to redevelop neighbourhoods in a manner that is sensitive to our history as well as the needs of our elderly population. 

After all, a city is not just a combination of steel and concrete. It is an amalgamation of the memories, hopes and dreams of its inhabitants. Even as we continue to make space for future needs, we will also need to set aside space to commemorate our history as well as provide citizens with recognisable landmarks that are infused with their memories.

Our efforts to redevelop and redesign our city may at times yield a seamless tapestry of well-designed mixed-use urban spaces that weave in the needs of residents, businesses and other stakeholders. In other instances, these efforts may resemble a quilt comprising a patchwork of old and new spaces that serve both our functional and emotional needs.

Whether through building brand new cities or renewing existing urban spaces, cities across the world will need to find new ways to cater to an increasingly urban future. Whether these new or renewed spaces work will depend ultimately on whether they resonate with the people and businesses who will inhabit these spaces.

Notes from the Editor: This feature from the National University of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy Senior Lecturer Dr Woo Jun Jie has been edited from its original publication here.

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