Author/s
05 Mar 2015


As cities worldwide are competing as engines of economic growth their attractiveness is being increasingly redefined to include ‘diversity’ as a quality that urban planners must strive to achieve apart from growth, sustainability and equity. Liveability of cities is not only restricted to having low pollution or low cost of living but also depends on the inherent fabric of the city that constitutes its experiential pulse. Urban policy makers in post modernism are now concerned with fostering an environment that is enlivened by diversity not only in physical infrastructure but also in the social sphere. In a thought proving talk on ‘Urban Diversity in Theory and Practice’, Susan S. Fainstein and Norman Fainstein outline the meaning of diversity and its implications for society, especially in Singapore.

Urban renewal and reconstruction in post war modernism, characterised by homogeneity and massive urban infrastructure projects, was believed to have created an inhospitable living environment. On the contrary, present day urban renewal is focused on creating physical, social and economic heterogeneity, some of the varied facets of urban diversity in theory and practice. For instance, Singapore’s approach to public housing which rests on an ethnicity based quota system is an example of urban policy fostering the ossification of pluralism in society. Also, the practice of race based classification of national identities has engendered the concept of ethnic identity as a crucial component of citizenry in Singapore.

While racial profiling of citizenship in Singapore fosters respect, it also reifies ethnic groups. Does it obstruct the creation of a singular Singapore identity? As an emerging civil society, Singapore may need to ponder on the differentiation between identity cards and chosen identity as there may come a time when Singapore’s future generations may not identify with race based identities.

Many, however, question the actual practice of diversity and its many implications for society. Can clustering based on ethnicities or class actually create greater tolerance? On one hand, it may reduce area based conflicts and ghettoisation, but it may also contribute to the lack of community based social support and political representation for stifled ethnic groups. For instance, it is widely held that African Americans had representation because they were clustered. While racial profiling of citizenship in Singapore fosters respect, it also reifies ethnic groups. Does it obstruct the creation of a singular Singapore identity? As an emerging civil society, Singapore may need to ponder on the differentiation between identity cards and chosen identity as there may come a time when Singapore’s future generations may not identify with race based identities.

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Credit: Getty Images

Diversity in practice may also be difficult to achieve when governments strive to create inclusive societies without class based borders in urban design. The implementation of ‘Right to Housing’ may be problematic when the rich oppose sharing space with lower income classes. Also, the ‘highest and best use’ criterion of allocating public space blocks diversity in practice.

according to Norman Fainstein, Singapore’s dependency on foreign workers cannot be eliminated… Therefore, it is imperative that to avoid social conflicts such as the Little India riot of 2013, foreign workers must not be stigmatised and treated as ‘others’. Instead society must humanise them to create a hospitable environment for their survival.

One of the many issues highlighted during the stimulating talk was that of the treatment meted out to a million strong unskilled and low paid foreign workforce in Singapore. A thorny issue related to foreign workers is that of public housing. Foreign workers live in some of the poorest conditions in Singapore in dorms or by way of illegal renting as the state does not provide for systematic housing but leaves this responsibility to employers.

As the rhetoric to reduce dependence on foreign workers is gaining support, according to Norman Fainstein, Singapore’s dependency on foreign workers cannot be eliminated for three reasons. Neither will fertility rates or productivity gains change dramatically for Singapore. Productivity will not change dramatically because the composition of industry is moving more towards services where there isn’t much scope for productivity gains. Lastly, Singapore like many developed nations has an ageing population. Therefore, it is imperative that to avoid social conflicts such as the Little India riot of 2013, foreign workers must not be stigmatised and treated as ‘others’. Instead society must humanise them to create a hospitable environment for their survival.

While diversity is an important goal of urban policy, can policymakers actually plan for it? Examples of planned diversity that include the Battery Park City in Manhattan and West Palm Beach in Florida are known to be ‘an illustration of life rather than life itself’ or a model of ‘staged authenticity’. One of the dangers of creating diversity in simulacrums is that neither market nor planning may actually create genuine diversity as planned out. On the other hand there are various cities with unplanned, spontaneous and organic diversity where urban spaces pulsate with vibrant energy. Achieving diversity may then be easier in theory than in practice.


On 3 March 2015, the talk “Urban Diversity in Theory and Practice” was held at the LKY School featuring Profs Norman Fainstein and Susan S. Fainstein, both Visiting Professors, LKY School and Visiting Fellow, Singapore Centre for Liveable Cities. For upcoming events by the LKY School, please visit our website.

Karishma Mutreja is an MPP Student at the LKY School. Her email is decb64_a2FyaXNobWFtdXRyZWphQGdtYWlsLmNvbQ==_decb64