Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Playing by the River

By David G. Young

Singapore, November 8, 2016 --  

Urban waterfronts are becoming playgrounds for the wealthy.

The playful otters that scamper along the banks of the Singapore river delight both locals and tourists alike. First sighted only two years ago1, the otters of Marina Bay are a welcome symbol of clean redevelopment along the once polluted and lifeless water.

Urban Playground
Photo © 2016 David G. Young

The people watching the otters enjoy the clean waterfront as well. Singapore's Marina Bay has been redeveloped into a pleasure center with the Singapore Flyer ferris wheel on one bank and a modernist botanical garden on the other.

Singapore is hardly the first port city to remake it's waterfront. Baltimore was an innovator in the 1980s when it began turning it's brownfield Inner Harbor of shuttered factories and abandoned docks into a tourist attraction of restaurants, malls. and public plazas. The water's edge urban renewal pioneered there has since spread to many cities. With Singapore it has reached the opposite side of the world.

But the legacy of Baltimore's renewal has not been without its critics. Once hosting thousands of middle class factory jobs, the Inner Harbor has become a place where rich yacht owners dock, young professionals drink, and foreign tourists stroll. The low-paying customer service jobs created by this development are a sad shadow of what once was. Baltimore's neighborhoods further inland are plagued by unemployment, poverty and crime.

In Singapore, the redevelopment offers a similar demographic skew. The Marina Sands development includes a luxury hotel, casino and a mall with aspirational brands like Gucci, Cartier and Ferrari. The prices in these stores would clearly out of reach for the longshoremen who once tended ships on the shores of the Singapore River as well as those who staff the counters in the mall, many of which commute from austere government housing towers on the far edges of the city.

Urban waterfronts are changing from polluted sites used to make money into picturesque destinations used to spend money made elsewhere. This is great news for the rich, the tourist, and the otter. For working class humans, however, the benefits are far less clear.


1. Inside Wild Otter Family "Bishan10" in Singapore, July 2, 2016