New urban areas and city development projects are being built across Southeast Asia to accommodate a rapidly urbanising population. As the editor-in-chief of this urban development website, I’ve been keeping track of these new projects over the years.
As I travel around Southeast Asia I’ve visited many of these new urban areas, and I’m seeing what works and what doesn’t. Unfortunately, some of these new developments are making mistakes that have been made in other new cities around the world.
These are my thoughts and observations on what makes a good new city/urban development. It’s an ongoing list that includes bad urban design, and what could be done instead.
Single developers designing and building urban areas
A recurring trait of new urban areas are projects that are designed and built by a single developer. Not only is there a street layout that is not integrated into the surrounding city, but the development is then filled with cookie-cutter villas and identical tower blocks.
This is a case of developers riding roughshod over any kind of sensible urban planning. It’s cheaper for developers to crank out 100 identical villas rather than allow the new area to develop over time with different building styles.
High-rise projects are also doing this, with clusters of up to 20 identical towers that look like Soviet-era housing blocks.
[Emerald Bay, Yangon, Myanmar.]
If developers are to be given large chunks of land, then there should be some governance on building style. Rows of identical villas might be ok for a small resort, but not for a new suburb. There should be a variety of styles, and land released as demand requires.
For apartment towers, there should be no more than two identical towers, and if it’s going to be three towers then it better be iconic.
[The iconic Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.]
Stick to the grid
A hallmark of a badly designed urban project is a street layout that resembles a post-war American suburb. These new suburbs feature roads with illogical patterns that make it hard to walk.
While these street patterns look great from the air, they seem to have been designed by someone who has never had to walk a day in their life. These were built for cars, so walking wasn’t part of the plan.
[Levittown, America’s first cookie-cutter suburb (EWING GALLOWAY/ALAMY).]
These suburbs are not places you would want to visit, so why design such streets in a new city. Rather than letting developers design roads, the city should pre-grid an area and let the city grow from there.
A good example of a big city that has developed using a grid format is Gangnam District in Seoul. Gangnam is on the south side of the Han River, and it was mostly undeveloped until the 1960s. The streets were planned out ahead of time, and over the decades the empty spaces were filled in.
[Development progress of Gangnam (via seoulsolution.kr).
While the streets aren’t a rigid Manhattan-style grid, there is a basic grid pattern here that makes the city easy to navigate.
[Map of Gangnam, Seoul.]
Today the main roads of Gangnam are Manhattanesque in their stature, and Gangnam District is a place where people want to live in and be seen at (as Gangnam Style attested).
Unplanned urban sprawl
One of the problems with cities in Southeast Asia is unplanned urban growth. This is evident in some of the biggest cities in Southeast Asia just by looking at Google satellite view. Looking at Saigon, you can see how the old city area is gridded out. Then as the city grew outwards there was no plan to continue gridding the streets. Instead, the streets are remnants of old farming lanes where landowners have gradually converted their farmland into housing.
[Street map of Ho Chi Minh City.]
It’s the same story in Bangkok, where there are few gridded crossroads. It’s hard to imagine central Saigon or Bangkok once having open green space so close to the city centre. If you want to see lack of planning happening in real-time, then visit Canggu in Bali. Canggu is a coastal village that is now being consumed by the urban sprawl of the southern beaches of Bali. Here you can see ricefields being converted, one field at a time, into new housing or commercial areas.
As the urban area eats its way along the coast, more farmers sell their plots of land to be developed. Buildings are then constructed on these skinny plots of land, serviced by roads that were not designed for city use.
How to stop unplanned urban sprawl
While it’s too late to fix what has already been built (unless there is a future Haussmann in the house), there’s a city in India that’s an example of what every growing city should be doing from here on forward.
Ahmedabad, in the state of Gujarat, is planning for future growth by gridding out farmland in advance.
Obviously, it’s not going to be as easy as drawing some lines on the map and asking the property owners to move on. Landowners need to be fairly compensated, and some landowners may not want to move or hold out for more money. The alternative though is to have an even more dysfunctional road system in the future. You only have to visit the Canggu shortcut to see what dysfunctional urban planning looks like.
[The infamous Canggu shortcut.]
Future cities where everyone can live (and want to live in)
An obsession with new urban developments is for enclaves of exclusive villas and luxury apartment towers. Apart from the fact that there isn’t a market for the number of luxury properties being built, it’s not a good way to build a vibrant living area.
The island of Phu Quoc in Vietnam is a good example of this lopsided development approach. Building so many luxury resorts, holiday villas, and theme parks, there is no consideration for where local workers would live. Some places build special worker accommodation, which is separate from any township or place of interest. It’s like living in an army barrack, where all you do is work and sleep.
[Great place for a holiday, but what are the workers supposed to do after hours?]
As a result, Phu Quoc has had a hard time finding and keeping workers. I know some Vietnamese in the hospitality industry who were recruited from Saigon to work in hotels in Phu Quoc. They ended up returning sooner than planned, as there is not much else to do on Phu Quoc beyond being a holiday destination. In the linked article, hotels are talking about building more dormitories for workers, but that isn’t the way to fix the problem.
Phu Quoc has proposed building a new city at the site of the old airport in the main township of Duong Dong.
[Site of the old Phu Quoc Airport – a future liveable city?]
This would be a good opportunity to build a new liveable city and not another mega project of luxury apartments. It should be a place that’s so appealing to live in that people are lining up to find work there. A place where workers would want to hang out in the cafes and restaurants after work, rather than being confined to a dormitory complex. A place that would make people consider Phu Quoc as a place to live instead of just being a weekend getaway destination.
[A proposed redevelopment plan for the Phu Quoc old airport.]
Artificial islands and land reclamation
I’m not sold on artificial islands or land reclamation. If Dubai can’t get it right, then why would it be any different in Southeast Asia.
Malaysia has three island projects that provide examples of why governments should be skeptical of the proposed benefits of man-made islands.
Forest City is an artificial island project located in the Johor strait, opposite Singapore. Some of the renders make it look like a solarpunk wonderland. This Chinese-led development is being sold as a luxury island for 700,000 residents. It has since run into trouble with the local government and is starting to look like a boondoggle.
Melaka Gateway was a proposed new island development off the coast of Melaka. The plan was to make future Melaka a great straits trading hub again. After years of delays and controversies, the project was cancelled in November 2020.
These two projects should be a cautionary warning to the South Penang islands project. Three artificial islands are being planned at the south end of Penang island, and there are many questions about their environmental impact and financial sustainability.
[The proposed Penang South Islands.]
Land reclamation is basically the same thing except that it’s connected to the land. Marina Bay in Singapore provides the gold standard of land reclamation projects done right. This was a carefully planned project over decades, integrating a water management system with a new public park, while providing new space to build landmark architecture.
[Gardens By The Bay, Marina Bay – Singapore.]
Countries in Southeast Asia aspire to the modernity of Singapore, but none have come close to the long-game planning that is involved to get there.
The inland city of Phnom Penh has been reclaiming land by draining lakes for new urban developments. The city has opted for short-term property development gains without the long-term consideration of an increased risk of severe floods.
If you are an urban developer or government official and you are reading this (hello!), and if you are still hell-bent on building an island, then may I suggest a visit to Guangzhou in China to see Shamian Island. This was a concession island that was shared by France and the UK. It was originally a sandbank until a canal was dug to form an island.
[Map of Shamian Island (image via Wikimedia.]
The island was gridded out (those grids again) and today it features a variety of buildings along the tree-lined streets. I’ve visited twice, and each time I visit I wonder why don’t developers just copy this model instead of building new cities in the sea.
[Shamian Island in Guangzhou, China.]
Replica European buildings and old towns
There are no rules for what makes an urban development great, and some of these observations are my personal subjective taste. With that disclaimer out of the way, building a replica European city inside another city is not the way to go.
I’ve seen a Venice replica at a casino, and a fake French medieval village in a theme park in Central Vietnam. This is ok if it’s something you have to pay to see. I draw the line at building replica landmarks in the middle of a city. That is what Phnom Penh has done with its replica of Paris’ Arc de Triumph at the Élysée development on Diamond Island.
[Arc de Triumph replica under construction in 2017.]
Ha Long City in Vietnam is building a new urban development (partly on reclaimed land) that replicates an old European city. There are hundreds of shophouses here, which I have no idea how they intend to fill with shops. The streets have random statues of European composers who have no connection to the city.
These two cities could have built something more interesting on the blank slate they were given without borrowing from the past. Diamond Island was a swamp island that was drained and turned into this new urban development. The island could have been a new Shamian by gridding the island out and only allowing individual developments on single blocks. Instead of building replicas from their former colonial overlords, they could have had architecture competitions to look for the next Vann Molyvann.
The same goes for projects like the one in Ha Long. Vietnam is filled with talented award-winning architects who are designing great modern buildings. That would be more interesting to see than an old town replica that looks like an abandoned theme park.
Where is the next Luang Prabang, Penang, and Hoi An?
Some of Southeast Asia’s most popular small city destinations have the same things in common; they are walkable areas with low-rise heritage buildings. While we are never going to get the architectural likes of Luang Prabang, Penang, and Hoi An again, we can replicate the streets in new urban developments.
These places have become so popular because they are beautiful, and also because there are so few alternative places to visit. Instead of relying on these few interesting places that are groaning under the weight of overtourism (pre-pandemic at least), start building new interesting places for the future.
A good example of a small place that works is Battambang in Cambodia. The streets were laid out by French colonialists in a grid format by the side of a river.
The Battambang town centre only has a small grid, but it packs in a lot in this small area. There’s no need to build a headline-grabbing megacity when all you need is a few streets on a grid like this.
[Street map of Battambang.]
Whenever I visit a new urban development that has rows of boring identical villas and shophouses, I ask myself who would visit here as a tourist? Do the developers think about this as well, or is it purely a money grab?
There are always going to be developers that are in it for short-term profit without thinking about the future, so it will be up to city governments to step in to make sure that new cities are heading in the right direction. Da Nang will no longer allow businesses to intervene in its urban planning, so lets see what happens in the future for other cities.